Fearful Symmetry

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Beautiful Bloodbath

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Filming the filmmakers in American Movie

(Originally published in Matrix, Sep 2000)

American Movie

Think of Sam Raimi begging money from dentists to make the Evil Dead. Think of Kevin Smith filming all night in the local convenience store where he worked during the day to make Clerks. Think of sending three actors out in the woods to film each other to make the Blair Witch Project. Then go several steps lower and you get to the subject of the award wining documentary American Movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year. This is about not so much low-budget as no-budget film making. And it is also very very funny as well as being very very sad — usually at the same time.

Mark Borchardt is a man with a vision, a dream, that keeps him going whilst he goes about his wage-slave jobs (delivering papers and keeping his local cemetery and funeral home — Valhalla — neat and tidy). This vision is Northwestern, a ninety minute dramatic feature depicting the gritty life and struggles of drunks and petty drug dealers from a small town north-west of Milwaukee. Filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price, who after encountering Borchardt when they shared editing facilities at the local university, are taken with his enthusiasm and follow him for the next two years whilst he struggles with his goal. Unfortunately Borchardt has somewhat of a financial crisis early on — one great scene shows him wading through a huge pile of bills, final demands and court orders to discover with obvious delight he has been offered yet another credit card. Realising he does not have enough money to even start filming Northwestern he goes back to a previous venture, the thirty-minute, black and white, horror short Coven that he has been making off and on over the last seven years. Finish it and sell three thousand copies and he will have enough money to fund his feature.

American Movie is absolutely hilarious — a real life Spinal Tap of movie making. In one scene, whilst lying in the snow to get the right camera angle Borchardt pleads with his enshrouded extras, one his mother, to “look more menacing” as they shamble towards him. However it is never cruel; this is not so much lets laugh at these low-life trash freaks, as lets laugh with them as they struggle through their adversity.

Having been filming on borrowed and broken down equipment since he was fourteen including producing the blurry slasher shorts The More The Scarier parts I, II and III, Borchardt seeks inspiration from his favourite films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Night of the Living Dead series. Smith and Price, having had as equally an heroic struggle in financing their movie as Borchardt, produce a film that has the same rough and grainy style, showing a barren small town America with its trailer parks and ranch houses that is usually passed over by the Hollywood mainstream. Borchardt himself presents an unlikely figure – a lanky skinny long-haired heavy metal fan with enormous jam-jar glasses. However his natural charisma shines through and his persuasive and motivated personality draws you in, no matter how bizarre some of his notions – he insists that the film will end with a ‘fucking beautiful bloodbath’, he insists on pronouncing Coven, CO-ven so it doesn’t sound like oven and his ‘I’m half-Satanist, half-Christian’ speech has to heard to be believed.

As well as showing Borchardt as he puts his film together, American Movie also expands out to show how this effects those around him as he ropes in his family and friends to support his endeavours. This is what turns the film from simple being great to complete brilliance. Though these characters would slot straight into a David Lynch movie we see a real poignancy in their depiction. Virtually a co-star is Bordchardt’s best friend and ‘Producer’ Mike Schank, a happy bumbling panda of a man who, although now clean and sober, has taken way to many drugs in his earlier life and as a result now seems permanently dazzled and amazed by everything that goes on around him. He is the rock that grounds Borchardt’s endeavours, always ready with a single, usually hilarious, comment at the right time, as well as providing the soundtrack for both Coven and American Movie. Another Producer is Uncle Bill. A decrepit mean old man he is forever nay-saying as Borchardt badgers and cajoles him for a cut of his wealth to keep filming. Bill is loaded but lives in a broken down old trailer and needs some convincing.

But Borchardt is the star of the show and this is a realistic, warts and all, depiction. He obviously uses booze as a lubricant against his frustrations and we see him drunk, and occasionally obnoxious, many times. He has a shattered marriage behind him, though his three young kids are charming — one does a great impression of Marlon Brando, the result of Borchardt taking them to see Apocalypse Now. But with all his faults, and he has plenty, you cannot help liking the man. This is mainly due to the fact that though at times an irascible and frustrated perfectionist Borchardt obviously loves all those around him, especially his Uncle Bill.

And through it all he struggles with levels of endurance beyond mortal man to get his film finished. Ed Wood spring to mind but the clips seen of Coven indicate that it is not as terrible as you might expect; it’s obvious that Borchardt has real potential.

In fact both Coven and American Movie transcend their genre. Unique and compelling as it subject, American Movie has a very strong narrative structure and we are driven along with it. Anyone who has been involved in any difficult creative endeavour will recognise something here. As well as humour and sadness it has serious things to say about working class artists; those that cannot afford or do not have the inclination to go the ‘normal’ route. It is also about escaping the mundanity of existence whether by drink or drugs or simply by following your dreams and the costs that have to be paid if you follow that course. However the film’s message is ultimately positive. Roll on Northwestern.


Written by Fearful Symmetry

June 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm

One Response

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  1. Great article, I loved the film too and enjoyed Coven. Hopefully Mark will finally get around to finishing ‘Scare Me!’ someday.


    July 12, 2010 at 6:52 pm

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