As you would hope of a movie so drolly titled, Chris Smith’s American Movie is a hoot and a half. And that figurative half is something that we don’t often encounter in movies that probe the lives of real-life Americans for their comic potential: a portion of true insight, tempered with both sympathy and modest self-refection.
Easily my favorite non-fiction film of the past year, American Movie iconically centers on two 30-something Midwesterners, the lanky, garrulous Mark Borchardt, an aspiring auteur of low-budget horror movies, and the short, rotund and spacey Mike Schank, a rocker who’s Mark’s best friend and the would-be composer of his scores. Both Mark and Mike have a fashion sense that evidently stopped about the time of the third Led Zeppelin album: Decked out in the obligatory denim, and rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, both sport droopy mustaches and hair in that style that’s cut above the eyebrows in front and flows past shoulder length in back. The frizzy ‘do of Mike, who speaks in a stoner’s dreamy non sequiturs, helps create the image of a tubby poodle who lives on a diet of hash brownies.
You know these guys, in other words. They’re cultural leftovers of the familiar redneck-hippie variety. Roadside juke joints and various beer manufacturers could not exist without their type. Yet appearances (as the best movies always remind us) tend to be deceiving, and here they are in at least one crucial respect. Mark especially, but Mike too in his laid-back second-banana way, are also serious, experienced and extraordinarily determined moviemakers. Not unlike an earlier Wisconsin obsessive, Orson Welles. (Well, except for a minor matter called genius.)
Together, this unforgettable duo suggests Wayne’s World‘s Wayne and Garth cinematically fused with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Their ultimate high/biggest windmill is whatever movie Mark is desperately trying to make. In case the description so far hasn’t conveyed its essence, American Movie is sort of a real-life Spinal Tap about deep-in-the-sticks indie filmmaking. Or perhaps: the Citizen Kane of white-trash alky auteur documentaries.
It’s funny as hell without half trying. The film joins Mark in the midst of his down-at-heels life and hapless would-be career. While talking about his ultimate dream, a feature called Northwestern, he’s trying to finish a horror short to make money. It’s called Coven, and for much of the film Mark pronounces its title with a long “o”; he doesn’t realize it actually rhymes with “oven.” (Incidentally, Mark’s still trying to hawk video copies of Coven on American Movie‘s Web site. Check out www.americanmovie.com).
But this is no solo act. Besides the dependable, never less than hilarious Mike, Mark’s life is a veritable soap opera of colorful characters and wacky supporting players. In his activities as a shoestring horrormeister, he’s come across a strange assortment of aspiring actors and slasher-movie aficionados, some of whom even join him, early in American Movie, in staging a blood-curdling radio play (more shades of Mr. Welles!). Then there’s Mark’s 82-year-old Uncle Bill, whom the filmmaker cares for in his fast-waning sunset years as a way, in part, of assuring the old man’s participation as a principal investor. Uncle Bill is credited as Coven‘s executive producer. And you know what? At that film’s eventual premiere he looks damned proud.
Though motor-mouthed Mark’s an extraordinarily entertaining raconteur and self-promoter, his path through the world has hardly been impeccable. He’s got a bad drinking problem, has fathered three kids out of wedlock and, though he’s well into his 30s, is continually stuck in jobs like delivering papers and working at the local graveyard. All the same, he’s a dedicated filmmaker with a list of credits that’s impressive, at least, for its length.
He started making movies in Super-8 at age 14. His first backyard horror opus was a short entitled The More the Scarier. I’ll let his official bio continue the story: “After this, Mark went on to shoot five more shorts while erratically drinking and getting high: The Mad Doctor’s Monster, Rocketship 101, The More the Scarier II, I Blow Up and a more advanced effort, Let There Be Light. In May of 1984, rather than join a homogenized society and become a zombie, Mark enlisted into the army [sic], drinking away the next three years. Once back, Mark completed The More the Scarier III. Then he went on to write theater and film reviews in local free press papers. He also joined the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum, ascending to Chairman of the Board of the nationwide organization.”
The juxtaposition of that last achievement with what precedes it handily indicates the fascinating parodoxicality of Mark Borchardt. Yes, his early shorts resemble the gleefully crude genre imitations made by legions of kids in the Super-8 era (I know I participated in a few). And yes, Coven shows that he’s still stuck in the same vein. But the guy’s no mind-blown hayseed. He knows his Stanley Kubrick and other heavy-duty auteurs. He makes his own films with no small share of verve and technical skill. He even shows the rudimentary signs of having a vision.
To me, it’s revelatory and weirdly wonderful to discover that there’s such a guy out there. (Who knows–maybe there’s more than one.) For more than a decade now, “independent film” has connoted earnest young university grads maxing out Dad’s credit cards while trying to make the next Sex, Lies and Videotape or Pulp Fiction. American Movie reminds us that there’s a vast other America besides the one represented at the Sundance Film Festival, and that it has movie fixations and dreams of its own.
I’ll admit I had grave doubts about the film before seeing it. Chris Smith’s first movie, American Job, which I encountered at Sundance three years ago and which portrays people stuck in low-level loser jobs, seemed to radiate jejune condescension toward anyone uncool enough to work in a McDonald’s. I feared the same attitude might well spoil American Movie from the get-go.
Happily, the new film’s greatest virtue is that it avoids both condescension and its opposite, patronizing glorification. Smith’s view of Borchardt is subtle and sharp; it knows the guy has flaws and is no one’s idea of a model citizen. But at the same time the portrayal is fundamentally sympathetic, and you can easily surmise why that might be. If Smith (who’s also a Wisconsonite) perhaps met Borchardt and had the idea to make a film highlighting the absurdities of the guy’s life, you can bet that spending time with him inevitably showed the documentarian something else: that Mark’s travails are, in essence, those of every filmmaker.
American Movie, which is beautifully shot (in 16mm color) and edited, merrily and sometimes movingly limns the obsessiveness–for good and ill–that goes into all kinds of moviemaking. Strangely, the film has gotten flak from some critics and viewers who charge that it’s exploitative and denigrating toward its subject, which is precisely what it’s not. Methinks some folks aren’t comfortable being reminded that there is an America outside their own class realm; perhaps, too, they don’t like their own cinephilia implicitly paralleled with Mark Borchardt’s. If so, these are problems that belong to the audience members in question, not to American Movie, a terrific true-life movie-movie.
Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry is a very different film about Midwestern weirdness. Based on a brutal real-life crime of a few years back, it chronicles the unhappy fate of 20-something Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), born Teena Brandon, a sexual misfit who started dressing as a man and dating women, then moved to a small Nebraska town where his deception eventually stirred the suspicions and later the murderous prejudices of a couple of shiftless lowlifes (Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III).
What exactly do we have here? The story of a lesbian who adopted a visible ruse in order to act out her proclivities publicly? Or the story of a man in a woman’s body who wanted to appear outwardly as he felt inwardly? The latter, I think, is the only possible answer for anyone who’s seen the fascinating documentary The Brandon Teena Story (and it’s why I refer to its central figure as “he”). Boys Don’t Cry, however, smudges this distinction strategically, perhaps to align itself with current fashion in “gender studies.” The film’s other dubious aspect is the way it skirts the psychological and moral complexities of Brandon’s last girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) in order to present their relationship as akin to a touching (i.e., Hollywood-style) love story.
That said, Boys Don’t Cry is still a most powerful and accomplished indie film. Making her first feature, Peirce shows herself to be a brilliant etcher of mood, character and gritty Americana; she conjures up a world that’s as vividly detailed as a documentary yet as disturbing as any horror film. With transitional landscape scenes that show us the Midwestern night transformed by time-lapse photography, her film is at once immediate and otherworldly, tender and tragic, hyperrealist and hypnotic. It also boasts some terrific acting. Though I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hilary Swank’s cross-gender performance, it is certainly brave and compelling. Best of all is Chloe Sevigny, who has my vote as the most charismatic and promising young actress in American films.
Boys Don’t Cry was produced by Christine Vachon, whose edgy body of work (Happiness, Safe, Velvet Goldmine) has earned her a justified reputation as indiefilm’s leading producer-as-auteur. It was co-edited by Tracy Granger, whose stepfather, Richard Brooks, directed a dark ’60s drama that in some ways serves as a forerunner of Peirce’s; it’s called In Cold Blood.