Keva York on American Movie
Chris Smith first laid eyes on Mark Borchardt, the lanky maverick filmmaker who would become the subject of his instant vérité classic American Movie, in 1995, while he was cutting his first feature, American Job (1996), in the editing facility of the University of Wisconsin. Though Borchardt had dropped out of a course that Smith was teaching there, lacking the money to pay for it, he kept coming by. He was chipping away at a horror short called Coven—all the while rhapsodizing about making his own first feature, Northwestern, which he envisioned as nothing less than “the Great American Movie.” When American Job was passed over by the Toronto International Film Festival (it would find its berth at Sundance, like American Movie after it), Smith decided to go to the festival anyway, but in order to document Borchardt. The loquacious Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, native was gunning to raise money for Northwestern at Toronto, with his mom posing as a backer worth 40 grand.
The documentation of this gonzo fundraising jaunt didn’t make final cut of what became American Movie, but it marked the beginning of the project that would absorb Smith and his collaborator and then-girlfriend Sarah Price (a crew of two, she recorded sound, and he held the camera) for the next four years. Ultimately, their footage would be assembled into a tragicomic paean to perilously independent American cinema, made well outside the range of the nineties boom. Released in 1999, a year now fetishized as the last great flowering of the domestic cinema, American Movie encapsulates the shaggy, aspirational optimism of a bygone filmmaking era, worthy of romantic remembrance.
American Movie bears the subtitle The Making of Northwestern—but this is not exactly reflective of its contents. About 15 minutes into the 109-minute documentary, Mark—inundated with debt reminders, deflated by the caliber of auditionees, despairing in the corniness of his own dialogue—halts preproduction on his would-be magnum opus. A new scheme is abruptly hatched: Mark will instead channel his substantial creative energies into finally finishing Coven (NB: that’s pronounced with a Yooper-accented long ‘O’), the 40-minute short he started two years prior. Like Northwestern, the film stars Borchardt as the hard-drinking, hard knocks hero, here pitted against a demoniacal AA group. It’s through selling VHS tapes of Coven, a fervent, sweat-sheened Mark explains, that he will both repay his accreting debts and finance his feature. Perched on his bed, he grips a whiteboard of calculations, mathematically accurate but presuming a level of demand abutting delusion. The fullness of Mark’s plan is beyond the scope of American Movie, however. His struggle to commit Coven to celluloid, with all the cajoling and coaching of befuddled friends and reticent family members that entails, all the metaphysical oscillating between beer-bolstered determination and despair, is saga enough.
Things often tip into low-key Quixotean farce, thanks to the chasm between the movie fiend’s Romero-meets-Bergman vision and the absolutely meager resources he has tohand. Straddling 30, stone broke and negotiating an acrimonious split from the mother of his kids, he’s back living in his parents’ basement (though for writing, he prefers the ambience of the local airport parking lot). His “producer” is his miserly, peppermint schnapps-sozzled husk of an uncle, who issues cheques with babbled but cutting asides. Work on Coven has to fit around the dead-end jobs on which Mark attempts to subsist: delivering newspapers, cemetery maintenance—just the kind of minimum-wage, “unskilled” labor that Smith dramatized, in perfectly deadened detail, in American Job. That film was adapted from employee accounts compiled by Randy Russell (also American Job’s star) into a zine—but Russell and Smith couldn’t have contrived a scene with symbolism as flagrant as the one in which Mark packs down American flags at the cemetery: speaking to camera, folding one of the 1400-plus flags marshaled for a Memorial Day do, he tells of being dispatched to a toilet stall plastered with a visitor’s feces. “To be totally honest with you, it was a really, really profound moment,” he says. “I was thinkin’, ‘I’m 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds, I gotta start cleaning up somebody’s shit, man.’”
Onscreen, Mark exudes a sweet, hucksterish magnetism, waxing visionary in loping cadences (punctuated liberally, as above, by the word “man”), through which he’s able to recruit others, young and elderly, to his cause—including, in all likelihood, any given viewer of American Movie. Most indelible among his rag-tag acolytes is Mike Schank, his smiley, metal tee–sporting Sancho Panza, and a holdover from the filmmaker’s hard-partying teenage years, though Mike’s since traded acid and vodka for AA, soda pop, and scratch-offs. The mismatched friends—one skinny, the other squat; one voluble; the other sedate—play as a ready-made comedy duo. “Do you think this is a little bit cathartic for you?” Mark asks after recording Mike attack a car windshield with a bat. “Uh, very cathartic, Mark,” he replies, deadpan. “Do you know what cathartic means?” probes the taller man. “No,” comes the response. The way in which Mark smiles as he hashes out a definition, bemused but warmly so, absent of condescension, is akin to Smith and Price’s approach to the mulleted autodidact and his blue-collar milieu: the tacit laughter feels predicated on genuine affection, admiration even. (And if you think that Mark should settle instead for factory work, as his brother primly suggests, well, the joke’s on you.)
Smith’s delicate tonal balance, casting Mark’s (mis)adventures in moviemaking not as folly but bootstrap resourcefulness, was no doubt key to American Movie’s effusive reception at Sundance. (It’s also what distinguishes the film from Joel DeMott’s brilliant but castigatory Demon Lover Diary, from 1980, itself a chronicle of a troubled horror movie shoot helmed by proletarian Midwesterners. When DeMott, in the opening sequence, prompts her boyfriend to ask whether she’s ever been to the Midwest before, there is a telling bit of smugness to her reply: “No, I never have.”) At the festival’s 1999 edition, it picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Documentary, while Sony Picture Classics bagged distribution rights for somewhere between $750,000 and just under $1 million—in any case, a figure that dwarfs Borchardt’s wildest VHS sales aspirations. All this enthusiasm didn’t quite carry across, however, to the career of the film’s leading man: in an interview with IndieWire almost a year after American Movie’s premiere, Borchardt spoke positively about the whole experience, but clarified, “[N]othing’s picked up at all for me, really”—he hadn’t expected it to. He reported currently working in a factory making window shutters (“Hell yeah.”). Today, while the latest VHS run of Coven is sold out on Borchardt’s website (so too the limited-edition Coven-branded Cabernet Sauvignon), Northwestern remains unrealized.
In the absence of Northwestern, however, American Movie does, in a way, stand in for it—not for Borchardt, mind you, but for the rest of us. As a point of comparison, I find myself thinking of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), being a film that itself stands in for one fabulated by its charismatic star, the impoverished cinephile Hossain Sabzian. Kiarostami’s docufiction, readers undoubtedly recall, relates how Sabzian, posing as famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, insinuated himself into the home of the upper middle-class Ahankhah family by suggesting that he shoot his next film there—instigating rehearsals with them that he had no way of ever translating to the screen. On discovering his deception, the Ahankhahs conclude that his motivations were criminal, and bring against him charges of fraud. As the enigmatic defendant tells it in court, however, what he sought was something altogether more nebulous: playing Makhmalbaf afforded him a level of agency and respect that eluded him day-to-day as “just a poor man.” He saw The Cyclist director in particular as one “who portrays all my suffering in his films”; who gave expression to that which he did not have the means to express himself. On meeting Kiarostami, Sabzian bids him do the same: when the director asks if there’s anything he might do for him, the soft-spoken man replies, “You could make a film about my suffering.” Close-Up, then, is that film—but it is also a perverse realization of the project that Sabzian’s Makhmalbaf had been pretending to work on. How keen the twist of fate that he got his film after all, and the Ahankhahs theirs too.
Similarly, American Movie makes good—as is intimated by the sweepingly generic title—on Northwestern’s unfulfilled promise to set something of the national essence in a Miller Lite amber. Snippets of footage from an abandoned 1990 version featured in American Movie show Borchardt gulping beer in the shower, swigging liquor in a scrapyard—tableaux of alienation rendered in stark black-and-white. Though the documentary is light on Northwestern’s plot details, these images chime with Mark’s invocations of an America in which “there was still territory out there, you know, in the mind or around the block,” its inhabitants “still fightin’ the west with a bottle of vodka in their hand.” Northwestern is not a horror film like Coven or Borchardt’s earlier, Super 8 projects, but an existential “rust and decay” epic that arcs toward redemption; a “life-and-times” piece, modeled in its author’s rugged image.
American Movie might culminate in a joyous local premiere for Coven, but the “making-of” narrative is ultimately there to give structure to a portrait of Borchardt—perhaps, a portrait of his suffering. In him, Smith had found a star of the eccentric order consecrated in the work of Errol Morris and the Maysles. Here was a dreamer-iconoclast sprouted from inhospitable soil; like Sabzian, he’s an indomitable and, by certain metrics, highly unlikely devotee of the cinema—and so an especially potent icon of its power, albeit by bittersweet proxy.