Right from the beginning of the extraordinary documentary American Movie, Mark Borchardt — the do-it-himself Orson Welles of Menomonee Falls, Wis. — is talking a mile a minute and telling us his life story. His first words, in fact, are I was a failure. He was a talented kid with a bright future, he tells us, and he wound up at 30 as Mark with a beer in his hand, thinking about the great American script and the great American movie. A knock-kneed scarecrow of a man, with long, stringy hair, scraggly wisps of beard and a moustache and Coke-bottle glasses, Mark certainly looks the part of a loser. When he finally gets around to some unopened mail, he finds that the IRS has put a lien on his property — for $81. The next envelope, however, has better news: He’s just gotten his first-ever credit card. Kick fuckin’ ass! he proudly announces. I got a Mastercard!
A bit later in the film, Mark returns to the subject, telling us, I don’t want to be a nobody. By this time he has taken a job in a cemetery, where he shovels snow, vacuums carpets and cleans toilets. Viewed in a harsh light, almost nobody could be more of a nobody than Mark. He wants to be a successful filmmaker, but he has no formal education and no film-industry connections, and he lives with his parents in a nowheresville Midwestern suburb. His only source of funding is a senile uncle who lives in a trailer and has absolutely no faith in Mark’s work (or anything else). Mark himself isn’t always a likable figure — he’s an incorrigible bullshit artist who drinks too much, who is virtually buried in debt (including unpaid child support for his three kids) and who has a wide streak of self-loathing. After a spectacular binge, he berates himself: Is that what you want to do with your life — suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at 2 in the morning?
Directed by Chris Smith With Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Bill Borchardt, Monica Borchardt and Cliff Borchardt
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Mark is indomitable in the face of his depression, bad luck and propensity for self-destruction (otherwise there wouldn’t really be a movie here). But he’s more than a lovable buffoon. Considering the quality of his work and the impossible odds he faces, Mark is evidently more committed to his craft than lots of far more successful filmmakers are. As Chris Smith and his collaborator, Sarah Price, follow Mark’s not-quite career from crisis to crisis, from one dreary, working-class Wisconsin location to the next, we come to see that he’s pursuing his dream with his full heart and all the capabilities he can muster. I shouldn’t ruin the end of the movie for you, but let’s just say that the unveiling of Coven, Mark’s 35-minute black-and-white horror film, is worth waiting for (even if he doesn’t know how the word is pronounced). Perversely enough, Mark is now likely to find fame as the subject of this film rather than as the director of his own — although viewers who are sufficiently intrigued can buy tapes of Coven through the American Movie web site.