Saturday, May 12, 2012
Review: American Movie
Version I Watched: VHS edition.
Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, and Tom Schimmels.
History: Since this a documentary the film itself is it's history. The film was shot between September of 1995 and August of 1997. It was a huge hit at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival winning the grand jury prize. Since then it's gained quite the cult following, especially appreciated by one of my favorite internet personalities James Rolfe, whose videos features tons of references to it.
My Personal History: I got this on a whim my freshman year of college when a nearby Hollywood Video was purging their VHS tapes a next to nothing a piece. The first time I watched this I was a little disappointed by it mostly because I had heard so much hype about it from its cult following. I think I expected something better than I got so I didn't find it that great. I was for some reason attracted to it again and decided to give it another shot.
Review: I don't know how this film could be any more indie than indie is. Maybe Kevin Smith's Clerks would be about as indie as it gets or Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi... but this is pretty hardcore indie as well. It's indie because of the subject matter is indie. There was no major studio associated with this when it was produced and filmed. The film introduces this doc's "hero" Mark Borchardt with his love of storytelling and the "Great American Script" by talking about a radio show he did back in 1995 called The Creeps. He admits to how much of a loser he is at this point in his life. He's telling us how during the taping for The Creeps he was getting drunk and smoking dope, not paying attention to the actors or directing. It was his experience taping it that he realized he needed to take a different direction and to take his major project much more seriously. The film follows Mark as the independent filmmaker he is with a true, hardcore 90s indie kind of love for film. Everything he's made by the point of this film has been shorts on 8mm film and none of them have gone anywhere. The project he is working on during the filming of this documentary is initially his first feature length film Northwestern. He gets funding from his uncle, although he is very skeptical at first. He somehow talks him into loaning out the money for the project. He pulls everything together, gets his case, crew, etc ready to go. Things aren't quite going the way as he planned, though. Things aren't coming together and he just doesn't have enough money to fund the project. After these hiccups he decides to work on a horror themed short he started making a couple years earlier, Coven (which he pronounces with a long O sound). He believes if he can finish this short, sell enough copies of it, he can have enough money to fund Northwestern.
I don't know if it's the way he looks, the way he acts, the way he talks, or a combination of the three that kinda drives me crazy. Okay, I get it, he's a dedicated, hardworking independent filmmaker who is putting everything on the line to do what he loves. But, right off the bat he comes off as so pretentious. His main love of film is from horror but you still see coming out is a mindset not only an overall love for film but this apparent understanding of what film truly is, talking like he knows exactly what he's doing. I find that hard to believe. The moment that made me think about this was when he was setting up a concept shot before he decided to stop making Northwestern for the moment and to work on Coven. There's something slightly off if you ask me about a mid-western guy sporting a mullet, creeper stash, 80s glasses, and usually wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt using films like Manhattan and The Seventh Seal to make reference to the shots he's setting up. Between this and when he briefly talks about his ideals and religious beliefs it makes me feel like he thinks he's smarter than he really is. I don't say this entirely based on what he is saying I say this also based on what his friends and family are saying. He's a high school drop out and even those closest to him think he's better off just working in a factory because of his intelligence and determination level toward life. Going off to devote all his time to making movies on such a big risk isn't the best thing for him and where he is in life especially since he also has three kids. Kids he had out of wedlock and the woman he had them with refuses to marry him. Logically speaking he's not in the best position of his life. Even his own uncle who agreed to help fund the film does nothing about talk how he's not gonna get his money back. When Mark tells him how many copies of Coven he's gonna sell his uncle reacts with "That'll be the day." Absolutely no faith in his nephew. Honestly I cannot blame him. I still find it hard to believe he gave him any money in the first place.
What makes this film are the characters. These are very real people but they feel like they were written by the Coen Brothers while they were wasted one night back in the mid 90s. Mark lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being a WI native I was excited to see what kind of mid-west crap they pull. What they are more like isn't really the "Yah, you betcha" Scandihoovian type of mid-westerner. The people in this came off as the mid-west hicks. The type of personality, talk, actions closer to a stereotype that tends to come from the south. That's right, Alabama, we've got 'em, too. This wasn't an annoying aspect of the film. The people in this really are lovable losers. The only other lovable loser we get to know really well is Mark's buddy Mike who in the film's credit is simply known as "friend/musician." I like to look at him as Mark's sidekick who is along for the ride. I though Mark was pretty dumb but Mike brings it to a whole new level. Mark will be going on and on about a scene or concept, he'll turn to Mike and say "You know what I mean?" to which Mike responds with "No" while ignorantly laughing like an idiot. It's really hilarious to see his reactions like this. He's delightfully unaware of so many things. I like a particular moment when they're ready to shoot a scene and he's taking the extra time to make sure the soda he brought with him isn't in the snow so it isn't frozen when they're finished shooting.
As would be expected this documentary follows scene by scene shooting the short film. There are a couple scene shoots in particular that seem to stick in my mind with the few viewings I've had with this film. The first is a scene that's pretty action packed. It involves shoving a man's head through a cupboard door. Apparently this is a scene that was shot previously so this is a re-shoot to make it better. The lucky actor who gets his head pummeled is dreading the re-shoot. The scene is also really intense, and since Mark is playing the part he is especially passionate. So when the shoot finally happens he is slamming his head pretty hard and despite having a slit in the wood to help it break it just isn't budging. So what does Mark do? Slams again and again like a maniac. It looks incredibly painful! After modifying it even further it still takes a couple slams before getting through. Here's the problem, the impact busts open the actors head! Bang, bang, slam, and blood everywhere. All over his face. He is laying there in pain as they continue to film. I'm pretty sure they even use actual footage from the accident in the overall film. It at least looks like it when there are finished scenes from Coven at the end of the film. He's hardcore and does what he needs to do to get the job done. There are far better methods of course. It's entirely by happenstance that it turned out that way it did. He's lucky? In a way it reminds me of the methods William Friedkin used during the filming of The Exorcist, although the major difference there was that it was intentional. I don't think Mark ever intended to split his actor's head open... I hope so.
The other scene that comes to mind is an audio recording to dub over a scene early in the film. Mark and Mike take Mark's uncle out to his car and record his lines. Early in the film (Coven, not the doc) Mark's character is running down the road and a car drives by with an old man (his uncle) and says, "It's all right, it's okay. You have something to live for. Jesus told me so." A line filled with so much DEEP MEANING and PURPOSE that it makes me want to PUKE! But I digress. The scene is set where Mark's uncle is sitting in the passenger seat of his car while Mark holds the mic and Mike assists in the recording. The recording is pretty funny to laugh at. Keep in mind how old his uncle is. He can barely talk as is in most scenes. So what makes this scene so funny is that his uncle can never remember his line, or say it all at once without saying uh between words. It starts out funny... but then it goes on for a couple of minutes in the doc with the takes ranking as high as the 30s-40s. It gets to be pretty painful by the end of the scene.
If this film was far more serious and only talked about the movie he was trying to make it wouldn't necessarily be bad, it would have just been driven by the wayside, lost in time. What makes this stand out is the humor in the quotes. Here's some examples that made me laugh without giving away too much:
-Mark: "Your AT&T Universal Card has arrived"? Oh God, Kick-fucking-ass, I got a Master Card. I don't believe it, man. Life is kinda cool sometimes.
--Mark: Do you think this is a little bit cathartic for you?
Mike: Uh, very cathartic, Mark.
Mark: Do you know what cathartic means?
---Mark: I was called to the bathroom at the cemetery to take care of something. I walked in the bathroom, and in the middle toilet right there... somebody didn't shit in the toilet, somebody shat on the toilet. They shat on the wall, they shat on the floor. I had to clean it up, man, but before than, for about 10 to 15 seconds mn, I just stared at somebody's shit, man. To be totally honest with you, man, it was a really, really profound moment. Cuz I was thinkin', "I'm 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I gotta start cleaning up somebody's shit, man."
----Uncle Bill: Do they smoke and have cigarettes in heaven? I don't think so... I don't think so.
If you're gonna see this for anything make it the dialogue and the characters. Given the right mindset and the love for indie film it can make you laugh.