Movie Review – American Movie (1999)

Director: Chris Smith

Stars: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Bill Borchardt, Cliff Borchardt, Matt Weisman, Ken Keen, Robert Richard Jorge

American Movie is a documentary that chronicles the efforts of a horror-obsessed film fan as he ropes in his family and friends to help him make a movie. It spans a few years and shows the problems he comes across as well as the thoughts of his co-workers, actors, friends, family about his dedication to this dream of making a feature film.

The dream of making a film is something to which most of us can empathise. I think a lot of people always have at least one moment where they think, ‘If ever got a chance to make a film…’ and this is especially true when you talk to creative people who go on these foolish endeavours. Mark is a man who actually turns the idea into a possibility and for that there’s something to admire, but this film is funny and tragic in equal parts. You have to admire the man’s determination but at the same time it becomes something of an obsession, and perhaps it’s a warning to us to step back a bit from whatever we are pouring our hearts and souls into and try to see how it is actually affecting our lives.

Mark is a charismatic, persuasive individual who manages to convince his friends and family to help him. Yet he’s also his own worst enemy. It’s revealed that he dropped out of high school because he didn’t think he was learning anything, and he has unrealistic expectations of the film. It’s as though he imagines that if he actually gets it made it will catch people’s attentions and be a success to pay off all his debts (in one scene he lists a lot of the debts he has and it’s eye-opening). So all the while you’re rooting for him to succeed there’s a part where you really sympathise with his family. I felt sorry for his mother the most, and it was telling that when his father and brother were interviewed they were fairly dismissive of his dreams. His brother was actually incredibly hostile, suggesting that Mark could easily have turned out to be a stalker or a serial killer. It’s also noteworthy that we never actually see Mark and his brother interact on camera.

The other people are all interesting but the two other main ‘stars’ are Mike and Bill. Mike is Mark’s best friend, and he’s clearly been addled with drugs over the years. He’s affable and likeable but you get a sense that he’s in a daze all the time. One of his quotes is –

The thing with the lottery is that you either win or lose, but it’s better than alcohol or drugs because with them, especially alcohol, you always lose.”

It’s almost profound in it’s simplicity. Bill is also a tragic figure as well. Mark gets him to finance the picture and Bill really doesn’t seem to have anything to live for, and he continually repeats this fact. Yet Mark comes bounding in and tries to get him excited for the film, even when production stalls for three years. Their relationship (uncle and nephew) is quite sweet and it leads to some funny interactions, like trying to record the opening line of the film 30 times.

 

The film has many funny moments like this but they’re interspersed with more poignant moments of introspection as Mark battles his own demons and faces his own doubts. This film, I think, perfectly captures how alluring and seductive a dream like this can be, and it doesn’t shy away from showing the negative consequences it can have on your own sanity and on the people around you. And while there are qualities that are admirable about Mark there are also deplorable things he does, like the way he treats his kids, so by the end you’re left with a lot to think about and it’s hard to gauge whether it’s inspiring or depressing. But what it does suggest is that a dream isn’t enough, you need the hard work and the dedication as well.

 

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