Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: English, Spanish, single side-dual layer, 28 chapters, rated R, 104 min., $27.95, street date 5/23/2000.
Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Mark Borchardt, family, and friends.
The hit of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, American Movie is the hilarious and intense story of one man's obsession to make movies. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, is a long way from Hollywood, but Mark Borchardt has a dream. Armed with a driving ambition and nothing to lose, the fast talking Borchardt enlists friends, local thespians and unwilling family members to help him finish his no-budget horror film, Coven. The camera doesn't flinch as it captures every emotional crisis and financial pitfall in his two-year odyssey. What emerges is a bizarre, yet surprisingly heartfelt, documentary portrait of a true American character. Welcome to the real Real World.
With the success of the insanely low-budget Blair Witch Project, amateur filmmakers all over the place started to believe that they could create the next $100 million blockbuster over a few weekends. Part of the beauty of BWP comes from the effortless quality of the movie, but it clearly ain't that easy, as aspiring auteur Mark Borchardt learned.
Borchardt is the subject of American Movie, an engaging and often hilarious documentary that follows his desperate attempts to make his own hit movie. A high school dropout, unmarried father of three kids who, through the course of the film, goes from being a paperboy to working as a janitor in a cemetery, Borchardt still keeps hope alive that eventually he will make it big as a movie director. AM follows part of this quest, as Borchardt attempts to bring his no-budget, obviously-autobiographical opus Northwestern to the screen.
Of course, plenty goes wrong along the way, which is what makes AM so entertaining, and it helps that Borchardt and many of his friends and family are very interesting characters. In fact, at times I could scarcely believe that AM wasn't fiction; Mark and some of the others seem so unusual in so many ways that it was hard to believe people like that actually existed.
Not that I question the veracity of the events, because I'm sure everything's real; it's just that Mark and the others often seem so much like someone's comic idea of these kinds of working class people. This impression seemed more prevalent during the first section of the movie, when the goofiness of Mark's personality nearly overwhelms the events; supporting characters like his buddy, recovering stoner Mike, and Mark's insanely-curmudgeonly Uncle Bill add to the comedic sense of unreality. However, as the film continues, a greater sense of depth appears through the characters, and though they definitely still remain funny and unusual, they also come across as more full-blooded and real.
Before I saw AM, I'd read some comments about it and got the impression that its subjects might be treated shabbily at times, as if the filmmakers strongly enhanced the buffoonish nature of these folks. While I can see how that easily could have happened, I don't think it occurs here. Yes, a lot of very funny stuff happens throughout the movie, and almost none of it was intentional, but I didn't feel like I was laughing at the participants for the most part; I rarely thought, "Man, what a loser!" or any similar sentiment.
That's because I feel that AM imbues its characters with enough reality and heart that I empathized with them. My life differs substantially from Mark's; other than the facts I too made Super 8 movies as a kid and I've experienced a less-than-successful romantic life, I don't have a whole lot in common with him. Nonetheless, I could get into his ambition and his dream, and I could understand his take on life.
To watch Mark's quest can be exciting and inspiring but it also seems rather frustrating. I empathize with his desire to be more than "just" a factory worker and his attempt to make an impression creatively, but I also occasionally wanted to slap him around and bring him back to reality. Dreams and aspirations are great, but when they make you neglect your responsibilities, they become hindrances, and Mark definitely treads the line precariously, especially as it regards his three kids. Mark seems to truly love his children, but we also learn he's behind on child support, and it's questionable how well he can care for them when he's deeply in debt due to his obsession.
At times, Mark does seem like a loser. He drinks too much, he seems not terribly bright (he can mangle the English language worse than Norm Carter), and he appears ridiculously unappreciative of all the help friends and family extend to him. (He makes up for this to a degree during the audio commentary.) Still, I couldn't help but root for the guy, even though it seems incredibly likely that his dreams will always remain just that, and American Movie tells his story in a wonderfully entertaining and compelling way.
American Movie appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I find it extremely difficult to fairly rate low-budget productions such as this, since they inevitably don't look or sound especially great, even when the transfer itself is terrific. As such, my grades for the picture and audio of American Movie are something of a compromise between consideration of the DVD's actual appearance and of its potential.
Actually, that disclaimer seems less necessary that I'd anticipated because AM actually looks a lot better than I expected. Sharpness usually appears fairly crisp and clear, with only some vague softness evident at times. I discerned only rare examples of moiré effects or jagged edges. The print itself showed consistent grain - which was probably the most negative aspect of the image - but only displayed other flaws infrequently; I saw some speckling, but that was about it.
Colors are generally accurate and acceptably true, though they seem vaguely bland. Black levels appear nicely deep, and shadow detail is adequate. For its inexpensive sources, AM really looks quite good, and my "B-" strikes a compromise between the actual decent but flat image and the limitations of the source.
In the same regard, the film's monaural soundtrack seems equally passable but unexceptional. Actually, it sounds very good but loses points just because it's a 1999 film that's only monaural; that aspect works just fine for the material, but I just don't feel comfortable awarding a recent movie that uses only monaural audio any grade higher than this one's "B-", and even that occurs only out of deference to the low budget.
Nonetheless, quality seems fine. Dialogue always appears warm and natural; a few lines betray some slight distortion, but for the most part speech sounded very good. Effects are all naturally recorded - it is a documentary, after all - and seem clear and realistic. Music is a minor aspect of the mix; until the ending credits, which feature Sammy Davis's version of "Mr. Bojangles", all we hear are occasional tunes plinked out by Mike Schank on his acoustic guitar. These stay largely in the background and seem clean and smooth enough. Again, this is an unambitious track, but it works just fine for the material and it sounds pretty good.
AM is billed as a special edition, and it does pack in a few nice supplements. First up is the most tantalizing of the bunch: Coven, the 36 and a half minute film that Borchardt completes during the course of AM. It'd be an extreme overstatement to say that Coven's a good movie - it'd be an extreme overstatement to say it's anything other than terrible - but I still was happy to see it, especially since it receives so much focus during AM itself. And look at it this way: VHS customers would have to drop $15 to order a copy of Coven, whereas we get it tossed in on this $27 DVD. Hooray for us!
(By the way, in case my opening statement gives the impression that Coven or any of Borchardt's work was intended to milk those Blair Witch Project megabucks, that's not the case; Northwestern and Coven were in production well before we ever heard of 1999's surprise hit.)
We also get an audio commentary from director/producer Chris Smith, producer Sarah Price, plus Borchardt and Schank; all four were together when it was recorded. I can't call this a great track but it's generally interesting. We get to hear a bit about what happened after the completion of the documentary, and some extra information about the events depicted appears as well. Overall, the commentary presented enough details and entertainment to merit a listen.
The DVD contains 22 deleted scenes as well. These range in length from four minutes, 20 seconds down to 25 seconds; in total, we find about 36 minutes and 20 seconds of clips. Overall, they're fairly interesting and fun, and they make for a nice complement to the film itself, though it's often obvious why they were cut. For example, "ADR In the Bathroom" is good on its own but would have seemed redundant in the finished product because it seems too much like the (funnier) scene in which Uncle Bill performs endless takes of his dialogue. Also note that at least two of the deleted scenes here are actually extended versions of segments that appear in the final film.
Finally, the DVD caps off with a slew of trailers. We find previews for American Movie, Crumb, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Opposite of Sex, and SLC Punk. Surprisingly, the standard booklet that usually appears with Columbia-Tristar DVDs fails to show here.
Not that it's missed terribly - I like those booklets but there's enough good stuff packed in with American Movie to satisfy me. The movie itself seemed quite entertaining and provocative, and it should stand up well to repeated viewings. Picture and sound are only fair, but they are more than adequate for such a low budget film, and the supplements included strongly add to the value. American Movie definitely merits a rental, and if you decide to purchase it, you likely won't regret it; it's a fine movie that offers a lot for the money.
Current as of 5/26/2000
Official Site--A basic site that provides sypnosis, bios, Mark's journal, photo album, unseen footage, and more.
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