American Movie, 2000. Directed by Chris Smith.

I saw a review of Chicken Run a few weeks ago that described the process of claymation as "the most profoundly masochistic" means of making a film in existence. I submit that the process of making a documentary is EVEN more masochistic. So it must have been with this documentary about three years in the life of a low budget filmmaker. For a while, I thought this film was a mockumentary. The characters in the film are so odd and the stream of dialogue so manic that I was pretty sure that this was all made up. After a while, I came to realize that it wasn't.

The "star" of the film is Wisconsin filmmaker Michael Borchardt, who is intent on making his first feature film. Borchardt is film-crazy. He began making short horror movies when he was a teen-ager. He even has some native talent for composing the frame of his movies. He is also broke. He lives with his parents. He has creditors nipping at his heels. In one sequence, he is shown opening his mail, revealing collection letter after collection letter ("What do I have that they can put a lien of $81 on?" he asks as he opens a letter from the IRS) only to be delighted when he receives a new credit card in the mail. He's clearly a credit risk of the first order. He works at a local cemetery. At all other times, he is working on either one of two projects: "Northwestern" (a feature which is never really clearly defined) and "Coven" a short featurette designed to make enough money for the completion of "Northwestern". Like Orson Welles in his later years, Borchardt reassembles his cast and crew whenever he has money. Some of his cohorts are colorful in the extreme, particularly Borchardt's wastoid best friend, who relates a hilarious story about being hospitalized for taking some bad acid laced with PCP, and Borchardt's elderly uncle, who is financing the films. If Borchardt didn't have film in his life, we, the audience, are pretty sure he would be leading a meaningless life of drugs and alcohol. This aspect of the movie reminds me of Crumb, in which it is demonstrated that Robert Crumb's life as a cartoonist literally saved his life. Much of the detailing of Borchardt's home life is palpably depressing, made palatable only by his continuous nervous patter.

Borchardt is eternally optimistic. Everytime something gets in his way, he perseveres (the scene of him re-recording dialogue with his cantankerous uncle is hilarious). Borchardt is cast in the mold of Ed Wood. He is a filmmaker who doesn't let limitations of talent or money get in his way. He is hellbent for leather to put a film up on a movie screen, and by the end of the movie, he does exactly that. "Coven" actually looks decent, from what few glimpses we get of it. It is entirely possible that Borchart might find an audience for the film.  Which is some kind of victory for the human spirit, I guess. A small one, to be sure.


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