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On the northwest side of Milwaukee, Mark Borchardt dreams the American dream: for him, it's making movies. Using relatives, local theater talent, slacker friends, his Mastercard, and $3,000 from his Uncle Bill, Mark strives over three years to finish "Covan," a short horror film. His own personal demons (alcohol, gambling, a dysfunctional family) plague him, but he desperately wants to overcome self-doubt and avoid failure. In moments of reflection, Mark sees his story as quintessentially American, and its the nature and nuance of his dream that this film explores. Written by
Praised by some, loathed by others, this Chris Smith documentary tells the real-life story of a twenty-something, amateur filmmaker named Mark Borchardt who sets out to complete his thirty minute film "Coven", as a first step toward what he hopes will be a lifelong career in feature film-making. Working menial jobs, Mark lives at home in his parent's basement. He's deep in debt. And he has no professional experience. What he does have is idealism, enthusiasm, supreme confidence, and enormous determination and zeal. The question in my mind was: does Mark have ... talent?
Reminiscent of Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" (1989), "American Movie" is both funny and depressing. We watch Mark: write a script, cast players, direct, edit, and especially crucial in Mark's case, find funding. With every one of these tasks Mark plods along frustrated, but determined. All of these activities involve other people, including his mom, his spaced-out friend Mike, and other locals. One of these locals is his real-life Uncle Bill who looks to be in his eighties.
At one point Uncle Bill, sitting in his cluttered trailer, demands to be fed before he will consent to being filmed. Later, Mark, being a perfectionist, requires more "takes" since Uncle Bill can't seem to get it right. Mark to Uncle Bill: "You have to believe in what you're saying", to which Uncle Bill responds: "Well, I don't; I don't believe in nothing you're doing". After "take" 31, Uncle Bill rebels: "Isn't that enough now? That's all for me".
Some reviewers of "American Movie" have criticized it as pointless voyeurism into the life of a no-talent loser. They refer to Mark and his cohorts as "trailer park white trash". Certainly, that is one interpretation, and along with it the conclusion that the film is a sad commentary on the impossibility of achieving Hollywood's idea of the American Dream, when you have no money to work with.
But other reviewers find the film to be inspiring, a cinematic pep talk for the underdog, and brutally honest about the realities of indie film-making. These viewers point out that despite the fact that Mark had no money to speak of, he still completed his film "Coven", and got it shown at the local theater.
My own conclusion is that "American Movie" is a well-crafted documentary useful for first time indie filmmakers. It's similar to a TV reality show, but without the competition. The cinematography and the editing are excellent. Although I found Mark to be irritating at times and overconfident of his skills, I admired his optimism and determination. "Coven", included as an extra on the DVD, may be a cinematic train wreck. But Mark's overall experience is no less valid as a guide to others. In essence, the message of "American Movie" is: don't let this happen to you.
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