American Movie Review
The fulfilment of a dream is one of life's richest rewards, and never has a movie contained a leading man that believes this so passionately as American Movie. The thing is, American Movie isn't a movie, but a documentary, even if you have to continually look at the back cover of the DVD to check that it isn't fiction! The documentary proved a massive success at the Sundance Film Festival.
Filmed over two years by patient director Chris Smith, American Movie is the story of one man's passion to make his own movie. This isn't the usual story of someone like Steven Spielberg struggling to get his Schindler's List pet project made, but rather a story of down-and-out dude-ish loser Mark Borchardt and his struggle to just get anything that closely resembles a movie made. During the course of the film, Mark fluctuates in and out of different projects, but doesn't care; he just wants to finish one film. The documentary doesn't focus on Mark solely; it also contains fabulous interviews and footage from his family and friends, which helps to provide a fantastic illustration of the quiet and cold world of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin in which they all live.
It's possible Mark's pipe dream of making a movie is a retreat from his life's responsibilities. Here is a man who has relatively little contact with the mother of his kids, and who rarely supplies them with anything to be adequately considered child support. Bills litter the floor and his desk, and Mark also has tremendous trouble in keeping a job, and yet his vision still remains untarnished. Mark's cohorts are no better. His best (seemingly only) friend Mike Schank has to be seen to be believed. Looking like a roadie for Def Leppard, Mike's brain has been so frazzled by drugs that he would make a convincing parody of his own characteristics if he wasn't actually real, and you wonder if there is actually a brain inside his head anymore. Mike is the atypical hanger-on friend, who is content to watch in the shadows as the more dominant Mark talks over everything. In one interview segment, when Mark is babbling about how he perceives one of his film's scenes to look, Mike has a smile that is fixed on his face, almost as if he has forgotten to stop smiling from a previous incident. When Mark finishes his artistic rant, he asks Mike if he understands, in which the answer is of course no. In another sequence, Mike has to smash through junkyard car windscreens in order to record a crashing sound effect. When completed, Mark asks him if this was a cathartic experience for him, and Mike says yes. Mark then asks him if he knows what cathartic means, and Mike says no. Mike is just one of many fantastic comedy creations that aren't creations at all. When Mark enlists the help of his mother for one scene, she complains that she has to do the shopping. When Mark persuades one of his pals to have his head rammed through a cupboard door, the pal is dismayed to find that no special effects will be used. The most poignant scenes however, involve Mark and his very frail great uncle Bill, whose life of poverty doesn't seem to reflect the man's immense wealth. Mark sees Bill's bank account as a means to finance his film, even if Bill is completely unimpressed by Mark's potential.
Perhaps the reason American Movie is so refreshing to watch is the fact that Mark Borchardt has zero chance of succeeding, coupled with his extreme delusion regarding his chances. Mark seriously believes that he will produce his film, and sell enough VHS copies to make a profit. Deep down, his friends and his family don't feel he can achieve this, but it's a testament to their love for him that they still help him attempt to acquire his dream nonetheless.
With regards to his actual film, Mark is attempting to make a horror short entitled Coven, after abandoning another project entitled Northwestern. Mark is even forced to put members of his family into the film, and the film's most hilarious sequence involves Mark forcing his poor uncle Bill to repeat the same line of dialogue thirty times, because either Bill's teeth are clacking together or he forgets the words.
American Movie if anything suggests that anyone can have a dream, and anyone is allowed to pursue it. Also, it suggests that everyone is good at something; the trick is finding out what that something is. Mark's skills are suited to a filmmaker, and his friend Mike can play guitar blindfolded (and even performed the film's soundtrack). Society might cast these people as no-hopers, but it still fails to write them off entirely. American Movie is hilarious, and yet deeply sad at the same time, as it makes you question the structure of a society that keeps a man from obtaining his simple dream.
Presented in the original unmatted fullscreen, American Movie has fine picture quality considering the variety of different types of footage and low budget of the film. Occasionally some elements are overtly grainy, but there are little traces of digital artefacts.
Obviously, as the film crew only used one sound recorder whilst filming, the sound track is going to be presented in mono. This isn't the problem considering the sound track is extremely audible and filled with clarity.
Menu: A static and silent menu merely consisting of a few still images of the documentary subjects.
Packaging: Presented in an amaray casing with a nice cover image and a one page chapter listing insert.
Audio Commentary With Chris Smith, Sarah Price, Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank: This is one of those commentaries that simply wet the appetite, as it contains the film's director and producer along with the two biggest 'stars' of the film - Mark and Mike. The commentary is often extremely funny - filled with anecdotes and observations, such as Mark joking that Mike no longer has a beard, and Mike saying about how he wished the movie had shown him winning a grand on a lottery scratch-card, as the only scenes that were shown were of him losing. As a companion piece, the commentary is excellent, as the four participants interact comfortably and talk greatly about much of the behind-the-scenes events that the audience doesn't see. The funniest moment involves Mark and Mike standing in front of a pile of burning rubble, and Chris Smith comments that this was supposed to be a location for Mark's film but it had burnt down the night before.
Coven - Short Film: This is the ultimate extra - the actual film that Mark produced, and the subject of American Movie - Coven. Presented in its full thirty six minute glory, and featured in its original stark black and white aesthetic. Coven is just like any other ultra-cheap debut effort - indulgent, gory, wooden, hilarious and full of great potential. This is a must-see, and persuasive reason to buy the DVD.
Deleted Scenes: Not content with supplying an excellent commentary along with the priceless original Coven short, the DVD producers have provided nearly forty minutes of deleted scenes, and these are just as watchable as the film itself. Twenty two scenes are included, and range from Mark 'boring his kids to death', and Mike wishing he was a member of AC/DC merely so that he wouldn't have to help out on the film!
Trailers: The film's original trailer is included, along with trailers for Crumb, The Opposite Of Sex, Welcome To The Dollhouse and SLC Punk.
An exceptional and heartfelt documentary that still manages to grace the audience with humour, American Movie is a film to inspire us all. So is the DVD, with acceptable picture and sound quality and some phenomenally good extras, making the package one that must be owned. Incidentally, you can check out how Mark and Mike are doing over at americanmovie.com.