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American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (1999)

Directed by Chris Smith

When I was in college, I asked my film teacher to recommend some good film schools for me to transfer to. He said, "You're one of my finest students, but I must discourage you from going to film school. It's very difficult to succeed at." And I listened. That's the difference between the people who make it and those who don't. So much for "Tuesdays with Morrie".

American Movie

Mark Borchardt, a partying Wisconsinite and subject of the hilarious documentary "American Movie", would've said, "Fuck you. I'll send you a postcard." "American Movie", directed by Chris Smith and Sarah Price, is an inspiring film about an inspiring guy making an uninspiring, unoriginal, cheesy splatter short called "Coven", that is no more creative or clever than something any of us could do in our own backyards. The next Tarantino he's certainly not. So why the buzz? Why does Mark get an appearance on "Letterman"?

Because the story is not about Mark's film. It's about his indomitable spirit and outrageous personality. Living in the frigid cold amidst a bleak Wisconsin landscape, Mark's life is a mess. He's got credit card debt and child support payments he can't make. He delivers newspapers by car; later he gets a new job vacuuming rugs at a mausoleum.

American Movie

Yet, Mark perseveres in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, doing whatever it takes to fulfill his dream of making a film. He asks his decaying uncle for money, uses his white trash stoner friends for actors and crew, and talks his mother out of going grocery shopping, so he can cloak her in black satanic garb for use as an extra in a much needed shot in the snow-covered woods.

It's easy to feel that Mark was inspired to make his film because he knew someone was making a documentary of his life. And at times, I watched the film envious of Mark's celebrity, putting myself above him and his working class environment, wondering how this particular guy ended up there on the screen.

Mark was in the right place at the right time when Chris Smith noticed him because Mark was making his film. He wasn't sitting around in therapy, procrastinating and complaining about his life. The reason Chris Smith chose to spend two years with Mark was because of what Mark stands for: commitment, passion, determination, balls. Mark wasn't given any money by the filmmakers. After experiencing the film, we believe that Mark would've finished "Coven" even if nobody were recording his life. It's what a dream does to you.

"American Movie" is a well-crafted film showing the hardships, frustrations, and joy of seeing a vision completed. Interviews with Mark's family and friends show that most people thought Mark belonged working at the local factory, or would end up as a stalker. Now, he's the subject of an award-winning documentary. Mark may be a celebrity of sorts but chances are that Hollywood is not opening its doors for him. It's his story that's inspiring, not his work. Mark could probably care less. And if that story inspires others to pursue their dream, then that's something I'm sure he'd be proud of.

American Movie

In life, you either do something, or you don't. It's that simple. And maybe by doing something, serendipity will take over, and the planets will align for you, even if only for a brief moment. But sometimes that's all it takes.

Just ask Mark. -- Rating: $9.50

Peter DeMarco -- copyright 1999

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