This review is part of the Around the World in May-ty Days challenge that Cinefessions is taking part in throughout the month of May. The challenge originated on Letterboxd thanks to a user named Berken. Find out more, including how to follow along, via this list on Letterboxd.
American Movie is a perfect title for this quirky and engaging documentary about one man’s fight to find that fabled “American Dream” that we’ve all heard so much about. The way American Movie presents this search is fascinating, thanks in most part to its subject: aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt. His struggle to complete a movie is comical, inspiring, and just damn fun to watch.
When we first meet Borchardt, he is writing the script for a radio play that a group of actors will soon perform. Borchardt reflects, after the evening’s activities of smoking weed and drinking beer, that the radio play was nothing but a waste of time, and in order to be happy and successful, he needs to make his feature-length film, Northwestern. We follow the eccentric Borchardt as he starts gathering his family, friends, and local talent to help create his vision for Northwestern. We sit in on a few meetings, some for creative purposes and others for financing purposes. A few days before filming is scheduled to begin, though, Borchardt faces the harsh reality that he simply does not have enough money to make a feature-length film, and Northwestern gets put on the back-burner.
Instead, Borchardt decides to go back and finish his 30-minute short film that he began working on two years prior entitled Coven (he pronounces it cove-in, not cuv-in because cuv-in “sounds too much like ‘oven'”). He convinces his uncle, who quickly becomes an unforgettable addition to American Movie, to put in $3,000 towards the film with promises that he will get his money back once he finishes it and sells it. So, shooting on Coven begins again, and we follow Borchardt through the journey of finishing the movie, from filming, to editing, all the way to its first premiere in front of family, friends, and strangers alike.
Mark constantly makes remarks throughout the movie that he will never work a 9-5 factory job, and that this is his American dream. His vigor to succeed is infectious, and he truly embodies the spirit that every creative person, director, actor, producer, whatever, must have in order to make it. Even though Mark is constantly struggling with money – he has child support payments to make, phone bills, and a new credit card to pay off, not to mention the debt to his impatient uncle – he refuses to take the easy route, and suffers through it all in order to finish a movie three years in the making. As someone struggling with this in my own way, I found Mark very relatable, which helps make American Movie that much more memorable.
It isn’t that Mark is the nicest, or most likable guy in the world (though his friend Mike is pretty close) that makes us want to continue to watch him: it is his perseverance. There is never a moment of doubt in my mind about whether or not he will finish his short film; there is no stopping him. The realistic, interesting, and entertaining people around him, along with Mark himself, keep the movie rolling forward. You simply want them all to succeed.
American Movie is both a great look at what it was to be an unknown, independent filmmaker in the ’90s (keep in mind, these people are shooting on actual film, not digitally, which means they must do physical cutting and pasting to create this movie, which is just as entertaining to watch), and what it means to be an artist no matter how silly or foolish it might seem to other people. To be a filmmaker requires, first and foremost, a passion, and Mark clearly has that. To be a famous filmmaker requires so much more, most notably, a lot of money and connections, both of which Mark lacks. It is his struggle to best that that makes American Movie one hell of a watch.