Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Movie Review: "American Movie" by David Pretty

Since truth is considerably stranger then fiction, I'm an unabashed and voracious documentary junkie.  The "plots" are consistently surprising, the "dialogue" always sounds natural (with the possible exception of Trekkies) and the "characters" are often wildly original.  Of this genre American Movie is, without a doubt, my favorite documentary of all time.

Here's the trailer:

If you're looking for interesting characters then look no further then Mark Borchardt.  Mark's always wanted to make movies for a living but he has a couple of strikes working against him.  He lives in a small town in Wisconsin, has no formal training, no mentor to speak of, struggles with a handful of personal problems and is drowning in a whirlpool of debt.  Despite the fact that he has no guidance, discipline or help, he's completely and totally obsessed with the concept of makin' movies.

Actually, he does have some nominal help in the form of hetero life-mate Mike Schank, who does what he can to encourage Mark's low-budget endeavors.  Regrettably, a history of drug abuse has taken it's toll on poor Mike, who often comes across as a genial but oblivious combination of Ron Jeremy and David Crosby.  Viewers will be amazed when Mike displays his savant-level guitar skills (his masterful acoustic tribute to the late Randy Rhodes is worth it's own documentary) and his easy-going nature obviously keeps Mark from going completely off the deep end.

And then there's Uncle Bill.  Once a brilliant man with all the potential in the world, Bill has all but given up on life.  He sits alone in a ramshackle trailer and feigns ignorance when Mark grills him about the "American Dream".  Although Bill is a black hole of negativity he does have a tremendous stockpile of savings, which results in some darkly comedic scenes in which Mark attempts to lure his Uncle into the role of "film producer".

But Mark doesn't visit Bill merely to weasel cash out of him, he tries desperately to rouse the old man out of his funk.  Indeed, the old man seems to be the physical embodiment of Mark's greatest fears.  He does everything he can to involve Bill in his life because he probably knows that he might very well end up like Bill in a few years.

Sadly, very few people in Mark's dysfunctional circle seem to understand what he's trying to accomplish.  One of his brothers even goes so far as to call his sanity into question and declares that Mark is "probably best suited to working in a factory".  Between a disastrous stint in the army and plugging away at a series of dead end jobs (literally), Mark understands that he's staring down a life of solitary confinement in a cold, empty trailer if he doesn't keep pursuing his dreams.

And Mark certainly stumbles.  A lot.  Though technically competent and blessed with a great eye for shot composition and camera movement, Mark's writing talents are questionable at best.  He's terrified to complete a project, probably because it'll open him up to criticism.  He drinks too much.  Indeed, the deck is stacked against our hero.  If Mark eventually throws in the towel and fails in his bid to become a film-maker, it certainly won't be from any lack of passion.

Which brings me to Mark's good qualities; those personality traits which give him a fighting chance.  First off he's patient to the point of sainthood.  On more then one occasion you expect him to break down and/or flip out (and admittedly Mark does seem like the kinda guy who was voted "MOST LIKELY TO GO POSTAL" in his High School yearbook).  But when things fall apart, he just sighs, drops a couple of f-bombs and then gets right back at it again.  And, as Uncle Bill knew full-well, Mark's also a born salesman, which is really half the battle of movie-making.

I imagine that documentarian Chris Smith had to be pretty patient himself, since it took Mark three years before he finally completed his forty-minute debut film Coven (pronounced COVE-In by it's director to ensure that it doesn't rhyme with a certain kitchen appliance).  Smith probably had miles of footage to contend with, so kudos to him for recognizing a fascinating subject matter and sticking with it to its natural conclusion.

Although American Movie is sometimes pathetic to the point of wince-inducing, it's also incredibly inspirational.  If you fear a lifetime of of cleaning up someone else's shit (which Mike is actually reduced to at one point), I heartily recommend that you give this doc a watch.

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