All Mark Borchardt ever wanted to do was make a movie. As a teenager, he filmed a series of horror shorts, and as an adult he made a number of short films building up to the project of his dreams: Northwestern, a semi-autobiographical film about suburban decay in the Midwest. In the making of Northwestern, Mark searched high and low for talent and funding, despite the discouragement of family and friends who saw Mark as a loser who never finished what he started. So impressed was one of Mark's fellow low-budget directors with Mark's determination that he embarked on a filmmaking project of his own: to document the making of Northwestern.
Unfortunately, before Northwestern begins shooting in earnest, Mark decides he must finish Coven (rhymes with "cloven," not "oven"), a 30-minute horror film which is nearly complete, to make some money towards the production of Northwestern. American Movie shifts gears with Mark and follows his efforts to finish Coven through disintegrating relationships, grueling film sessions, and continually diminishing funds.
This is one of the most honest documentaries I've ever seen, and not coincidentally one of the funniest. Mark and his formerly drug-addicted but impossibly sincere friend Mike sally forth to complete Coven. Along the way they offer comments about themselves and their predicament that made me wonder how one loses one's self-consciousness so completely. Mark has a quick tongue and a veneer of b.s. that makes him the ideal person to swindle money and favors from friends and family ("His greatest asset is his mouth," says Mark's brother), but his honest frustration at his problems with Coven makes American Movie one of the most compelling documentaries ever made about film production. Along the way the film almost becomes a biography of Mark's fast-fading yet crotchety Uncle Bill, but it rights itself just in time and reminds us that it's all about getting the film in the can.
While American Movie isn't the prettiest movie ever made, it is shot in a competent documentary style and the transfer to DVD is quite professional. The menus are put together nicely, with a film reel theme that works well with the imagery of the movie itself.
The sound purports to be Dolby Surround 5.1, but I can't recall hearing much in the way of directional sound effects. Seizing upon Mike's musical abilities, director Chris Smith has given the film a very appropriate score of acoustic guitar tunes that compliment the dilapidated buildings, trailer parks, and stark winter forests that these people inhabit.
Included is a commentary featuring Smith, his producer/microphone operator Sarah Price, Mark, and Mike. The commentary is as informative as the film itself about the happenings in the film and afterwards, as well as the thoughts of the creators and subjects about audience reactions to the film. Personally, I would have liked to have heard a commentary without Mark or Mike -- Mark tends to dominate any conversation he's in with remarks about alcohol or the Midwest (two mutually inclusive subjects, apparently) and his frequent use of the word "man." Mark's absence would have freed (or possibly forced) Smith and Price to talk more about the making of the film and less about the reactions of Mark and Mike. Too much time is wasted on "Hey! There's Kenny!" when we'd really like to know what Smith and Price were thinking during some of the more awkward scenes.
More enjoyable than the commentary is the cornucopia of deleted scenes, all of which expose more about the personalities involved. The real treasure, however, is the inclusion of Borchardt's Coven. It would be improper to review Coven here in a few sentences, and it's especially difficult to review the short horror flick once having seen the documentary of its production. Those who find themselves fascinated with Borchardt & Co., however, won't be disappointed by the full 30-minute film.
Chris Holland, 1/24/01