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American Movie  

Starring: Mark Borchardt, family and friends Directed by: Chris Smith Produced by: Sarah Price

Rated R, for language and some drug content Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes Released by Sony Pictures Classics

"American Movie" manages to be outrageously funny, heartbreakingly sad, and subtly moving. Amazingly, those mixed emotions are brought to the humanistic fore often at the exact same moments. The film is a documentary about the efforts of aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt; a thirty year old Wisconsin man with big dreams, few good job prospects, and faced with the burden of an enormous debt.

The movie traces his quest toward the completion of his 40 minute B-slasher flick, "Coven." (Pronounced "KOH-ven" despite one of the actor's correct pronunciation of "KUH-ven." "'KUH-ven' sounds too much like oven," is Borchardt's reply.) After funding and assistance for his first feature film "Northwestern" fall through, his plan is to sell enough copies of "Coven" on videocassette to fund his feature film. For the funds to complete "Coven," Borchardt looks to his Uncle Bill - a lonely old man with thousands of dollars put away, yet who now spends his days resting on the porch of his trailer home, unsure of how to spend his time. (In a moment of pure heartbreak, he mutters all sorts of ramblings, each syllable resting in an echo of sadness, longing, and emptiness.)

During the course of the production, we learn a great deal about Mark from the things he discusses and his views on life, but it is the interview clips with his family and friends that turn out to be more revealing. We are told that in high school, Mark was quite smart and qualified for the Gifted and Talented Program. But we also learn about his negative traits - his inability to finish projects (numerous clips of his other short films are tagged "unfinished"), the lack of any necessary cohesive rigidity to his life (he is the father of three with no real steady income), and his unquenchable thirst for alcohol.

But if his bad habits were in heavy abundance, they were often overshadowed by his knack for talk, and his ability to convince others in joining him for his filmmaking efforts. He certainly put his actors through a great deal, yet they stuck with him the whole way. (One of the scenes in "Coven" requires Borchardt to slam the head of one of his actors through a cupboard door, subsequently set to break into pieces upon impact. After several unsuccessful takes, he examines the door, realizes that it needs to be "worked on" a little more before the next take. Scenes like that are indeed funny, but are also strangely moving - showing the patience those involved had, despite not being given a reason to stick with him.) His persuasive demeanor works on certain members of his family as well, as he convinces his mother to assist in shooting a particular scene. "I have my shopping to do," she pleads, but to no avail. The scene HAS to be done that very day.

There is a temptation to compare someone like Borchardt to, say Ed Wood. But while Wood seemed to be endearingly untalented, we sense a glimmer of brilliance streaking through the campy mindset of people like Borchardt. True brilliance often seems to nestle itself inside the embrace of destructive behavior. He often makes bad choices, yet is actually rather perceptive. (At one point, he views clips from one of his uncompleted projects while musing on the reason it's not yet finished: "There's a fear in finishing something. Having to live up to a standard. So, you take a day off, fantasize a little bit, and the next thing you know, you're forty, drinkin' a beer in your living room.") Perceptions like that are so true, it's unsettling.

Director Chris Smith has put together a fascinating look at an interesting group of people. People that are funny, that are sad, that make bad decisions, yet have the tenacity to reach out for their dreams despite their mistakes. "American Movie" is a terrific film - funny, moving, sad, and impossible not to relate to in some way.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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