American Movie (1999)
Directed by Chris Smith
We close out our first volume of American documentaries with a film about making a movie in America. Today, making a decent-looking movie is not hard if you have the passion. With numerous video distribution platforms, you can likely get your film up somewhere streaming for free if you simply want people’s eyes on it. In 1999, the process was more challenging. Equipment & film were always the most expensive part of shooting a movie before the digital age took off. To get that kind of money, you would have to be a smooth talker & a hustler. Nothing better describes Mark Borchardt, an absolutely fascinating example of pure white American mediocrity. Borchardt drifts from thing to thing, often in a circular pattern, returning to unfinished fragments and adding a little more to them over time.
American Movie is as much about Borchardt’s unfinished film as it is about the life he leads & his personality. You can see this man’s charm from beneath his stoner Gen X personality. Yet, he is also a reprehensible person at times. Borchardt drinks to excess, not all the time, but when he gets his hands on alcohol, he goes overboard. The filmmakers capture a tense moment while he and his family watch the Super Bowl. Borchardt still lives with his parents, who seem broken in their own ways. Borchardt gets more belligerent and begins using profanity. His mother is upset but doesn’t say anything. His father pokes his head around the corner to remind his then thirty-two-year-old son that they don’t use those words in this house. This is merely one eye-opening peek into this man’s chaotic life.
Borchardt lives under a mountain of debt accrued to fund many projects. There is a genuine passion here; he seems to love writing. However, we’re dealing with a habitual procrastinator whose primary source of income is his paper delivery route that Borchardt has been working on since he was a preteen. His passion project is Northwestern, a feature-length film he claims is the real deal, citing Scorsese as a major influence.
To finance Northwestern, Borchardt plans to finish Coven, a schlocky horror flick that he has been working on a bit at a time over the years. To get money for Coven, Mark has his 82-year-old Uncle Bill, who has been quite thrifty. His bank account sits just over a quarter of a million while the old man lives in a trailer. Borchardt promises his uncle they need to sell three thousand VHS copies of Coven to pay back the loan and have enough to fund Northwestern. While it is hard to find solid numbers on VHS sales, three thousand copies of this movie in 1999 was a real longshot.
The picture’s theme is people caught in destructive cycles and trying to get out. That’s seen no better than in Borchardt’s best pal, Mike Schank. If you asked me to create a sketch of a stereotypical burn-out stoner, what I would make would approximate Schank. He seems like a guy that’s a real dice roll to hang out with. Schank recognized his limits at some point and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Drinking has been replaced by gambling, though, with Schank compulsively buying scratch-off lottery tickets at gas stations.
Schank feels a bit more self-aware than Borchardt, but it is subtle. One story had my jaw hanging open as Schank described an incident where he ended up in the emergency room. Knowing that he was in a safe place, Schank went on to drop the two tabs of acid in his pocket on top of the acid he was already on. As someone who has dipped their toes in the LSD waters over the last year, that’s quite an intense thing to do. You’ll also quickly notice that Schank has reduced affect, a condition where a person does not respond with the level of emotion you might expect when being engaged on charged topics. Schank speaks in a near monotone, often smiling but not really in a way that feels 100% authentic. If I had to hang out with one of these guys, I would probably pick Schank over Borchardt, but it would be a crap shoot.
There’s some profoundly informative information shared about these men’s friendship, mainly that it began over a shared love of vodka. Schank talks about how he just loved drinking with Borchardt. From his description, it doesn’t sound like much deep conversation happened, just that as teenagers they would hang out and drink until they blacked out while listening to music. I have never had a friendship like this, but it just reeks of being unhealthy, a friendship that allowed these dudes to enable each other’s alcohol addiction.
American Movie does feel like a relic of another time & place. It’s the twilight of the Clinton era, not a great period for people working in industries throughout the country, especially in the type of place where Borchardt lives. The W. Bush era & 9/11/The War on Terror are just on the horizon. The documentary captures a hint of the breakdown happening in the American Midwest and the lack of awareness of how someone like Borchardt could coast through life on his own terms. That comes with problems. His ex-girlfriend & the mother of his children is talking about moving out of state, which means Borchardt’s time with his kids would be severely reduced. He’s undoubtedly not Father of the Year, but he loves those kids.
In the two decades that have followed, much has changed but also not. Schank passed away in October 2022. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June, which spread to his lungs and liver. He shared online that it was Stage 4, but radiation & chemo would be attempted. One of Schank’s fellow AlAnon members said one of the last things he remembers Mike saying was, “Hey Jackie, I feel really bad for children who have cancer. They should never have to.” Schank passed away at age 53. Apparently, he stayed an active member of AlAnon and did much to help others in the program.
Borchardt & Schank smartly rode their brief fame for the years that followed. Borchardt has parlayed this into numerous small ventures and even landed short parts in low-budget horror movies. My favorite unexpected cameo from him was in the Joe Pera Talks With You episode “Joe Pera Talks to You About the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada (1950–Present Day)” in a one-scene role that you cannot miss. His eldest daughter, Dawn, is the Performing Arts Coordinator for Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development and seems to share her dad’s love of movies. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to American Movie if it highlighted the now-grown children and gave us their honest take on their dad. He didn’t seem like the worst father, but I’m sure they would have appreciated more consistency.
Our first volume of The Great American Documentaries is complete. I have really appreciated rewatching some of these and experiencing the new ones. For filmmakers, I believe the best way to document American life at any point is to step away and let the subjects talk. That doesn’t mean I find a director like Michael Moore of no value; he’s just making a specific type of documentary as a form of activism. I applaud that. I don’t think you necessarily get the honest portrait of humans in Moore’s films that you find in the work of the Maysles Brothers or Harlan County, USA.
If I had to pick a favorite from this series, it’s split between Grey Gardens and Streetwise. They are both amazing for very different reasons. The former is a stunning blend of humor & horror but all starkly real with a touch of melancholy. Streetwise is an excellent documentary because it is unflinching in presenting its horrors. Both films unpack often-uncontemplated concepts of womanhood in interesting ways that stay with the viewer for a long time. This was my second time watching Grey Gardens, and I certainly got as much out of this viewing as I did the first time. With Streetwise, I was going in relatively blind, and the documentary strongly affected me. It likely won’t be this year, but don’t be surprised if one day you see another round of documentaries here on the site.