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'American' Dream
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 1999

   


    'American Movie' Mark Borchardt, right, and friend Mark Schank, who wrote and performed the film's music. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Don't you just love movies about movie-making?

How about "Living in Oblivion," Tom DiCillo's farcical ode to the art form? Or Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man," Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" and Federico Fellini's "8"?

Isn't it time for a movie about not making a movie?

That would be "American Movie," director Chris Smith's funny, poignant and – believe it or not – uplifting documentary about a 32-year-old Midwestern schlemiel named Mark Borchardt. The all-too-real Borchardt has been dreaming about making – without ever actually completing – a legitimate feature film since he was a teenager in Milwaukee shooting cheesy shorts like "The More the Scarier III" on Super 8 with a cast of his weedhead friends (the most loyal of whom, musician Mike Schank, also composed and performed the music for "American Movie").

Smith's film, subtitled "The Making of 'Northwestern,'‚" chronicles a recent two years in the life of Borchardt, specifically the chapter that begins with the wannabe wunderkind's eleventh-hour realization that, on the eve of finally finishing his on-again, off-again masterpiece, a story of petty criminals on the Northwestern side of Milwaukee where Borchardt grew up, the auteur doesn't have his act – or his bank account – together enough to pull it off.

Not 15 minutes into "American Movie," the long-haired pot-smoker, borderline alcoholic and self-described "failure" abandons (yet again) "Northwestern,", shelving the feature to go back to "Coven," a half-finished, 35mm, black-and-white drama of the supernatural – 3,000 videotape copies of which Borchardt hopes to direct-market himself, at $14.95 a pop, in order to finance his chef d'oeuvre.

This, then, is the story of a quixotic quest: to overcome all obstacles (most of which, let's be honest, are self-imposed) and finish the one doggone thing that will enable Borchardt to finish the other doggone thing that means everything to him. Isn't this, after all, the American dream . . . or at least the dream of every born procrastinator?

Surprisingly, under Smith's affectionate and uncondescending direction, Borchardt does not come across as the hopeless slacker you might think. The drive and talent of this Orson Welles manque» actually shine through the clouds of his own making, leaving Smith's heartfelt "Movie" as quintessential a story of American ambition as Welles' own "Citizen Kane."

AMERICAN MOVIE (R, 100 minutes) – Contains obscenity and reminiscence of drug use.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


 

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