“I was a failure and I can’t be that anymore … with a beer in my hand thinking about the great American movie … this time it’s most important not to drink and dream, but rather to create and complete.” These are the words of Mark Borchardt, an independent filmmaker and the subject of 1999’s American Movie, which follows Borchardt and his rag-tag crew of volunteers on their quest to make what will be his masterpiece, a thriller film called Northwestern.
“I was a failure and I can’t be that anymore … with a beer in my hand thinking about the great American movie … this time it’s most important not to drink and dream, but rather to create and complete.”
These are the words of Mark Borchardt, an independent filmmaker and the subject of 1999’s American Movie, which follows Borchardt and his rag-tag crew of volunteers on their quest to make what will be his masterpiece, a thriller film called Northwestern.
There’s just one little problem-making movies is expensive, and Borchardt has no money.
Early in the documentary, Borchardt has to give up on Northwestern because of a shortage of funds, so he sets out to finish a short horror film, Coven, which he started 10 years earlier. In order to make enough money to finance his next film, Coven would have to sell at least 3,000 units. His artistic journey is touching, hilarious and makes for one of the best documentaries you will ever see. American Movie plays this weekend at Portland State’s own 5th Avenue Cinema.
During an interview in the film, the filmmaker’s older brother says the best thing Borchardt has going for him is his mouth. While there is more to the lanky Midwesterner than his quick-fire talking, there is something to this point. His powers of persuasion assemble a group featuring some of the most vibrant documentary subjects ever to be caught on film.
There is Mark’s best friend, Mike Schank, a metal-head acid burnout who spends his time playing guitar (his noodling supplies American Movie with its soundtrack), buying lottery tickets and trying to stay away from drugs and alcohol. (Author’s side note: On American Movie’s Web site, there is a number claiming to be Mike’s. I wanted to call and hopefully get an interview. I had never been so excited to speak with someone my entire life. But alas, the phone has been disconnected.) Then there is Mark’s Swedish immigrant mother, whom Mark still lives with along with his three kids from his estranged girlfriend.
And then there is Uncle Bill.
The film, at its heart, is not just about someone trying to make a great American film, but also someone trying to pursue the American dream–that nebulous, abstract concept–in the small town of Menomonee Falls, Wis., Borchardt has stars in his eyes, and large suburban homes in his mind, as he unabashedly sets out to procure financing from his older-than-old Uncle Bill.
If Borchardt embodies the search for the American dream, then Uncle Bill represents the exact opposite. He is estranged from society, and doesn’t have any plans for assimilation. He, like most of Borchardt’s relatives who are interviewed, has no faith in Mark’s ability to make the great American film, and he certainly doesn’t have any dreams for himself. But he agrees to finance part of Coven anyway, and takes a small acting part in the movie. The filming of this scene provides a moment in American Movie that calls for repeat viewing.
It might be easy to watch this movie and take it as a filmmaker trying to make fun of Borchardt and his friends. Granted, there are plenty of laughs, and better one-liners than in Zoolander. And there are also times when Borchardt doesn’t seem to be totally in on the joke. But really, the film is about the urge everyone has to succeed, or excel, at something. And like most people on a similar quest, this filmmaker isn’t all big dreams and naivety. He is filled with the self-doubt that is contained within any artist.
According to the American Movie‘s Web site, Coven has sold over 5,000 copies, exceeding the goal by 2,000. But where is Borchardt? Northwestern has yet to see the light of day. It’s obvious the dream for Mark isn’t over; it’s probably just grown larger.
Playing at 5th Avenue CinemaFriday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.Sunday at 3 p.m.