Monday, March 5, 2012

Day 96: American Movie

"Bill, you've got to believe what you're saying."
"Well I don't. I don't believe nothin' in what you're doin'."

I realized the other night that I've made several references to my favorite documentary of all time without having formally reviewed it here. There's something special that happens every once in a while when you watch a film. The minute it's over, you decide to make it your duty to ensure that as many people as possible see the film. This has happened to me a few times, but I can't think of a film I've done this more with than American Movie. This is a film that transcends genres. It's a documentary, but it's also a comedy. It's a comedy, but it's also a heartfelt drama. It's a heartfelt drama, but it's also rife with suspense. It's one of the the very few perfect films that has ever been made. There's not a wasted moment on screen, and everything adds up to the perfect encapsulation of its subjects.

Mark Borchardt is a dreamer. He's a guy that lives in a small town outside of Milwaukee called Menomonee Falls, and his dream is to make a feature film. He's been working on a script entitled "Northwestern" for the better part of his adult life, and as American Movie opens, Mark is precipitously close to starting principal photography. He holds a series of production meetings that dwindle in attendance over time until a fifth production meeting is down to Mark and one other guy, that sees Mark deliver a diatribe about no one ever having paid to see an excuse. Mark puts his goal of making "Northwestern" on the back burner, determining that it's not quite ready to go into production as it featured dialogue that "would make the Pope weep," and he returns to an abandoned short film he had started several years ago called "Coven" (pronounced with a Wisconsin long o).

If up until this point I've portrayed Mark as the kind of guy who gets easily sidetracked, I would say that's the least of his problems. He's in debt up to his eyeballs, he's living at home and battling for custody of his three children, he's having trouble maintaining the relationship he's currently in, and he's working two jobs in addition to trying to get his film off the ground. All of that said, the fact that the guy doesn't have an ounce of quit in him will endear him to you a million times over. He's going to get his film made come hell or high water, and thank god Chris Smith and Sarah Price were there to capture it all on film.

Fans of the film are probably wondering why I haven't mentioned the cast of characters that surround Mark, as it's a rogues' gallery of the highest order. Mark's best friend is Mike Schank, who is a musician that spent a good portion of his life doing drugs which have left him pretty burned out. I hate making this analogy, but it's the truth of the situation, Mike is as loyal as a dog, and will follow Mark anywhere, and do anything he asks of him. It's a true friendship that most of us would kill for, and laugh at them all you want, they have the real deal. Mike spouts out some of the most unintentionally profound statements in the entire film such as when he talks about his addiction to the lottery being better than an addiction to drugs because with the lottery, sometimes you win and sometimes you lost, but with drugs and alcohol, you always lose.

Mark's parents are an odd match. His dad is one of those old-school, authoritarian dads that obviously supports his son, but also has an air of discontent surrounding what he sees as his son's bad decisions throughout his entire life. His mom is a sweet little lady who has an unconditional love and support for her son, but is constantly taken advantage of by Mark.

It's Mark's Uncle Bill who is the star of the show here. Uncle Bill is a salty old coot who puts up with Mark's shenanigans for some unexplained reason, and has become Mark's biggest source of funding for his endeavors. Bill is an amateur poet, reading some of his poetry in a particularly great scene on Thanksgiving Day that includes the line "I'll visit your grave everyday. Well, not everyday, but I'll visit it sometime if I ever find it."Bill is the perfect foil for Mark as Mark is a master bullshit artist. He's got what they call a gift of the gab, and Bill is the one person to keep pace with him, and give it to Mark as good as he gives it out. It's a poignant relationship, and there is a genuine love and care there beyond their financial arrangement.

There's a ton of periphery characters that are great as well, such as Mark & Mike's high school buddy Ken Keen who is seemingly always in trouble with the law. One great example of how well edited the film is features Keen railing against his bad reputation, stating that he thinks peer pressure is a bunch of bullshit, and the very next scene features Mark and Mike heading to the local precinct to bail Ken out of jail. The various actors that populate Mark's films are great characters too, such as Robert Richard Jorge, who is the "thespian" with a capital T of the group. When taking publicity photos, Mark marvels at the fact that Jorge cocks an eyebrow, to which Jorge replies, "well, shouldn't I have?"

I mentioned a few moments ago how good the editing is, and I want to restate it again here. The film is a master class in editing. The way that one scene leads to another is fantastic. The choice of scenes is top notch, and some of the scenes that they chose to montage together with bits of dialogue carrying over from the previous scene are fantastic. It's one of the absolute best edited films ever made, and I say that without a hint of irony. It's absolutely amazing.

The film is endlessly quotable, as you can tell from my quoting it throughout my review. I would wager to say that it's one of my most quoted films along with Kingpin, Blazing Saddles & The Royal Tenenbaums. I don't go a day without quoting something from this film from "Yeah, now you're thinkin'" to "it made sense to him" to "Coven sounds like oven" to "they're makin' a mockery of my work, Mike, it's a total theatrical mockery, you understand that Mike?" followed immediately by "no." These lines will make much more sense in context, but don't be surprised if you find yourself quoting it before long.

The test of a truly great film is how well it holds up on multiple viewings, and American Movie passes that test with flying colors. I would wager to say it gets better upon multiple viewings. The subtleties and nuances really come to life the more you watch it. It's clear that Mark and Mike in particular were in on the joke. I've heard people criticize the film for being mean-spirited, but it's nothing of the sort. The subjects are well aware of how ridiculous the things going on around them are, and there are lots of little moments where we see them sharing a laugh with the camera.

American Movie gets my highest recommendation, and if I live near you, I would be happy to come watch it with you. It's a movie that's best shared with friends, and after a couple of viewings, Mark, Mike Uncle Bill and the rest of the gang will be just like friends too.

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  1. Brilliant.

    That is all.

    Although, I will say that Borchardt also has moments of pretty delusional, almost insane, pomposity. I think of the "Northwestern" audition sequence, and his utterly laughable performance of his own script. There are times when I find Borchardt almost too much to bear.

    It's forgivable, however, because Mike Schank is just...amazing. Clearly, massive damage has been done, but it's left something utterly sweet and without guile.

    It's a true classic, in either sense. Utterly brilliant.

  2. Also...Clearly, re-reading. I use "utterly" and "brilliant" too much.

  3. I do agree that Mark's a bit insufferable at times, but he's ego driven. And he always ends up making himself look like a fool when he tries to posture like that (great example, when he tries to put the guy's head through the sink cabinet and then it cuts to him punching the shit out of the door and his knuckles are bloody before he realizes that the guy's head never would have gone through the door).
    I think that this ego is what allows him to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds. He never gives up, no matter what, and while he's misguided, he's certainly not an idiot. He can use a reel to reel to edit film, and anyone that can do that is not an idiot.