`Movie' is the story of a movie

Review: In `American Movie,' Chris Smith tracks filmmaker Mark Borchardt's search for meaning in his life even as it taps into a wellspring of human goodness.

February 04, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Midway through "American Movie," a filmmaker named Mark Borchardt and his girlfriend are watching the 1997 Oscars telecast. While Billy Crystal gives asinine lip-service to the "year of the independents," when "unusual films, risky plots, great direction" were the order of the day, Borchardt looks at the television uncomprehendingly, as if Crystal were speaking Urdu.

It's difficult to imagine someone more independent and less a part of Crystal's universe than Mark Borchardt, the star and tenacious moral center of Chris Smith's giddily inspiring documentary. A visionary whose dreams run toward the splatter and squish of slasher movies, Borchardt is an artist in the best sense of the word. He creates not for Billy Crystal's approval or even to hang with fellow swells at Sundance, but out of a deep, soulful need to express his most profound dreams and desires.

If those dreams and desires involve choreographing a man's head going through a kitchen cupboard, so be it.

On its surface, "American Movie" is about Borchardt and his attempts to finish a horror movie called "Coven," which he intends to sell as a video, using the proceeds to finance the movie he really wants to make: a dramatic epic called "Northwestern." All he needs to do is sell 3,000 copies of "Coven" at $14.95 each -- after he persuades his elderly, addled Uncle Bill to pony up a few thousand bucks to help finish it. As Borchardt announces at the beginning of "American Movie," the time has come "not just to drink and dream, but to create and complete."

Just exactly what Borchardt is creating remains deliciously obscure throughout "American Movie," which traces Borchardt's frustrating, tireless and often very funny attempts to realize his life's vision. (Much of the comedy in "American Movie" is provided by his best friend Mike Schank, whose deadpan equanimity is the perfect foil for Borchardt's more, um, excessive passion.)

As "American Movie" unfolds, a complex web of care and intimacy is revealed beneath the wacky surface of Borchardt's quest. For one thing, it emerges that he is the father of three kids, and he supports them -- barely -- by working as a night janitor in a cemetery. For another, it turns out that he provides the only supportive and intimate moments in the life of Uncle Bill, a man who spends most of his days forgotten in a trailer home and whom we're first led to believe is just a source of money to the single-minded director.

Filmed with tremendous compassion and discretion by Smith, "American Movie" is about one man's search for meaning, but more profoundly it's about the ways friends and family come together to help in that search.

Smith records the foibles and idiosyncrasies of these truly original characters not to gawk but to explore that ineffable, even spiritual, vein of goodness that runs beneath our collective life. In doing so he has created a revealing, intimate, quirky and generous portrait of nothing less than the American Dream.

`American Movie'

Directed by Chris Smith

Rated R (language and some drug content)

Running time 107 minutes

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Sun score: ****

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