Saturday, March 14, 2009

American Movie (1999)

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The Jist
American Movie is a film about a film. Filmed in small-town Wisconsin in the mid 90s, it is a documentary that follows Mark Borchardt, an amateur film-maker, as he tries to make his film Coven with the help of his friends and family. The camera tracks the making of Coven from pre-production through filming and includes confessional style interviews with the main characters.

What's Good
While most widely-distributed documentaries tackle broad subjects involving politics or well-known events, American Movie tracks small-town nobodies trying to do big things. When the film was made in the mid and late 90s, America was a different place than it is now. The economy was booming, there was a sense of prosperity, and things in general seemed to be on the rise. American Movie captures the can-do American spirit in unemployed landscaper/writer/director Mark Borchardt, but also reminds that even during one of the richest times in the country's history, there was still a large group of people struggling to pay the bills and achieve the American dream. Director Chris Smith does a good job presenting both the struggle to live and create and the forces behind the struggle. All documentaries strive to compress multitudes of footage into a watchable film, and at 107 minutes American Movie is just long enough to tell Borchardt's story of humor, drama, information, and tragedy, but mostly humor. American Movie is thoroughly entertaining. To see strange, small-town people speak honestly to the camera about their bizarre friend/director, and then follow their comments with something equally ridiculous, illustrates the flaws and desires in the people we live with and walk past everyday.

What's Bad
Although the film is a documentary in every sense, American Movie is so outrageous, at times it seems unbelievable that the subjects weren't prompted to say or do the things that happen. Some of the situations seem just too good to be true, and aside from the first-person interviews, no one ever notices the camera following them. For people who seem so astonishingly simple-minded, it is hard to believe they didn't have trouble looking into the lens constantly following them, especially characters that appear only once or out of the blue.

What's Memorable
The subjects of American Movie are characters more than people, and show that at times life is more entertaining than art. Anyone who grew up in a small town knows someone like Mark Borchardt; the guy who has great intentions and big dreams but seemingly no concept of reality. Despite his flaws which include drinking too much, an inability to hold a job, and a tremendous lack of focus, Borchardt is essentially the definition of a struggling artist trying to bring his vision to life. All future film-makers should watch American Movie, as director Smith captures the frustrating process of creation and the continual journey toward the satisfaction of making something from nothing. If you think Borchardt is strange, his friends and family are another story. His ancient Uncle Bill, Borchardt's source of financing, somehow gets caught up in the action and a handful of memorable scenes involve the slow-moving old man doing something completely out of place for someone who can barely walk or see. Borchardt's best friend Mike Schank says some outrageously ridiculous things that could be quoted for days, and some of his stories and one-liners are funnier than anything a screenwriter could come up with. There is no shortage of memorable lines and situations, and American Movie is laugh out loud funny. What makes American Movie relevant is the eccentricity of the characters; they are real people doing real things. The film has just as much to say about filmmaking as it does about small-town America. Borchardt may be delusional, but he knows film, and to see him both in command and way over his head is incredibly entertaining but also informative. American Movie captures the creative spirit and shows a glimpse into America in the 1990s; a time when even the down-trodden believed the route to happiness was very tangible and just around the corner.

Good for: film-makers, documentary fans, anyone who lives or lived in a small-town

Bad for: someone with no sense of humor, snobs

The Gallery
The Writer * * * * *


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