American Movie

Directed by Chris Smith
Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug content.

Review by Matt Heffernan
December 1, 1999

With all the buzz about The Blair Witch Project from this year's Sundance Film Festival, it can be easy to forget that a real documentary was also successful. Chris Smith's American Movie won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary films, beating The Source and several other notable entries. The reason it won is quite simple: it is all about the "American Dream" as it relates to independent filmmaking.

At the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Smith met Mark Borchandt in a film class. Mark's life ambition is to be a filmmaker. Since he was a child, he has been making short films. He started with a color 8mm camera without a proper lens, and by the beginning of this documentary, he has graduated to black & white 16mm and synchronized sound. Despite apporaching 30 years of age, he has never held down any job except delivering papers. But his dream refuses to die, and now he wants to make a feature film.

He quickly realizes during pre-production that he doesn't have enough money. So, he decides to finish a horror short (his favorite genre) called Coven. He figures that if he can sell 3000 videos of it at $15 a copy, he will be able to afford to make his feature. He gets financial help from his aging uncle, Bill, who will get a back-end deal and producing credit for Coven. Constantly at Mark's side is Mike Schank, his best friend and (allegedly) former drug addict.

American Movie is not so much a behind-the-scenes documentary about Mark's films, but a portrait of his life. We see a man who is a dreamer, but he has many obstacles. The film slowly reveals his problems with alcohol, and a disrupted family life. On first impression he would appear to be just another eccentric on some quixotic mission. The truth is, he's a tragi-comic character that exists in the real world. He lives for his films; he suffers for them. He wants to be the next Orson Welles or George Romero, but we know that won't happen. He is, basically, a loser.

And then there's Mike. He openly admits to replacing his drug and alcohol problems with a gambling addiction -- scratch-off lottery tickets, to be precise. However, it appears he is under the influence of something whenever he is on camera. If this were a dramatic film, he would be the "stoner bud" of the flawed hero: Mark, who must resist temptation to realize his goal. This film contains many scenes between them which could be considered brilliant comic writing, if only they weren't actual conversations.

The poster for American Movie is a picture of Mark and Mike standing next to each other, against a white background. Their presentation is not unlike Will Smith and Kevin Kline on the Wild Wild West poster. Are these guys for real, or the latest comic duo? I believe that if you presented this film and The Blair Witch Project to a person unfamiliar with either, he or she would most likely think that the latter was the real documentary. Mark and Mike are almost too good to be true, and the same goes for this film.

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American Movie (1999)

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan