American Movie

Feb 2, 2000 at 12:00 am

Mark Borchardt of Menomonee Falls, Wis., is nothing if not ambitious. An amateur filmmaker since the age of 14 – and now pushing 30 – he has, for years, been trying to make a serious feature, a dramatic slice of Middle American life called Northwestern. The project has been start-and-stop, and money, always elusive, has become increasingly scarce.

But Mark is not one to be deterred. If he can just complete his short horror film, Coven (which he insists on pronouncing with a long "o"), and sell a mere 3,000 units via mail order, he’ll have the bread to seriously launch the production of his feature. Of course, there’s still the problem of financing Coven

Chris Smith’s documentary, American Movie, follows Mark over a couple years as he cobbles together his Coven project. He emerges as a generally sympathetic character, a dauntingly driven young man who also happens to be his own worst enemy. Like a lot of people who never quite grasp the brass ring, Mark is more enamored of creativity than possessed of it. As one of his brothers puts it, his main gift is his mouth – he talks a good game, a very enthusiastic one with a lot of impressive details. He’s enthralled by process, though his imagination usually exceeds his technical grasp. He’s also one of those slow-motion alcoholics – he doesn’t go on three-week whiskey binges, but rather manages to suck up just enough beer to keep himself slightly out of focus, occasionally tipping over into drunkenness.

This would all be a little grim if it weren’t for Mark’s inspirational doggedness (at times one becomes nearly convinced that with the proper resources he could actually make a watchable film) and the comic ditziness of his benighted milieu. Mark’s best friend and general production assistant, Mike Schank, is an ex-stoner who walks through life like a hologram from another planet, a benign presence who speaks in non sequiturs and giggles like a holy fool. Meanwhile Uncle Bill, whom Mark cautiously pumps for money, assumes a mock senility to hold his pestering nephew at bay.

It’s all very rich and strange, comic on the surface but with a sad undertow. At first Mark Borchardt might seem like just another schmuck with a camera, but by the movie’s end you wish him well. He has his faults, but he’s an underdog and so you end up rooting for him in this very American movie.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].