AMERICAN MOVIE(director/cinematographer/writer: Chris Smith; editor: Barry Poltermann; cast: Mark Borchardt (Filmmaker), Mike Schank (Friend/Musician), Monica Borchardt (Mark’s Mom), Cliff Borchardt (Mark’s Dad), Chris Borchardt (Mark’s Brother), Alex Borchardt (Mark’s Brother), Bill Borchardt (Mark’s Uncle/Executive Producer ), Ken Keen (Friend/Associate Producer), Joan Petrie (Mark’s Girlfriend/ Associate Producer); Runtime: 107; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999)
“The comedy comes at the expense of Mark, his less than scintillating friends, and his dysfunctional family.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is a skimpy budgeted film is about a high school drop-out with a dream to be a filmmaker, who scrapes together enough money to barely exist by doing janitorial work, delivering newspapers and other odd-jobs. He is the 30-year-old Mark Borchardt from Menomonee Falls, Wis., as shot by Chris Smith (“American Job“) with his unobtrusive camera for the period of roughly more than two years from 1994-1997. The comedy comes at the expense of Mark, his less than scintillating friends, and his dysfunctional family. The camera captures how someone so inept at film-making as Mark, who will never be mistaken for Stanley Kubrick, pursues his obsessive dream he has had since his teenage years to make films for a living. He has been working on a film about his life called Northwestern, but has to leave that project due to a lack of funds. He immediately goes to work on a 35-minute horror film in black-and-white, called the Coven, which he was working on before. The vibrant Mark, whose main asset seems to be his gift of gab, mentions the films that influenced him most are Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the living Dead. He met the director Chris Smith when he took a course of his in film-making at the University of Wisconsin and Smith found that Mark’s story might be a compelling one, showing how by sheer determination someone can make a film and get it distributed. At the Sundance Film Festival, an appreciative audience found this film hilarious and the festival responded by awarding it the Grand Jury Prize.
The film is more interesting when viewed from the angle of Mark’s personal life and where he’s currently at than from him making an Ed Wood Jr. type of film. His brother Alex does not have a high opinion of him, saying he should really be working at the factory. That is something Mark is adamant he will not be doing; that he must fulfill his American Dream to be a wealthy filmmaker. Meanwhile the reality of his sad situation is that he owes money for his unpaid bills, which he doesn’t have. He is also behind in child-support for his three kids and owes the IRS and his credit card company. That he is not always a likable person is also shown, as he uses people and is a bull-shit artist. He has soaked his father for $10,000 and his elderly Uncle Bill who does not believe in the project but, nevertheless, has banked the Coven film, while being credited as the executive producer. Mark’s hope is that he can sell 3,000 video copies at $15 a pop to pay back the investors.
To see Mark in action is to hear a volley of expletives; to watch Coven actually being filmed is to watch an actor hit his head against a kitchen cabinet while his Swedish-American mother does the cinematography, even though she doesn’t know how to operate a camera. It all amounts to a home movie more on the level a precocious teenager would make rather than the work of a professional. At a cast meeting, an actor (Robert Jorge) with a very proper British accent admonishes him that he has mispronounced “Coven.” Mark pronounces it with a long ‘o’ because he doesn’t want it to rhyme with oven.
Mark’s vacuous friend Mike Schank is a victim of acid drugs, having had his brain scrambled and is now completely off drugs and booze but the repercussions are that he talks like a zombie and is not able to complete a thought. But his good will shines through, as every sentence he tries to utter results in a pause and a frivolous giggle. He is Mark’s chief helper during the filming, doing whatever is asked of him.
Uncle Bill is a riot in his lifeless responses to anything Mark asks him, wryly amused at how serious Mark is over a film he could care less about. His father remains in the background and is upset only when he hears a curse word. His mother doesn’t think anything will come of his film career, she only states that he works hard and has a lot of dreams. Mark is indomitable in pursuit of his dream and Chris Smith has done a fine job of editing the film and nailing down his subject as accurately as he could, so that the dark side is balanced with the rosy picture Mark paints for himself. Maybe with his persistence something could develop for him in the future…but all this film did was make him a laughing stock instead of the audience discovering someone with a talent for comedy. I have no desire to see Coven, watching it being made was enough for me. Mark’s first words in the film are, “I was a failure.” He goes on to say, “He was a talented kid with a bright future” and he wound up at 30 as Mark, with a beer in his hand, thinking about the great American script and the great American movie.” What more can one say!
REVIEWED ON 6/15/2000 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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