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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

American Movie: Coven on a micro-budget


American Movie: The Making of Northwestern, color, 107 minutes, Northwest Films. Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Mark Borchadt, Mike Schank and Bill Borchadt. Rating: Nine stars out of 10.

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern is the most original slice of Americana captured on film since Michael Moore chronicled the corporate-caused decay of Flint, Mich. in Roger and Me more than a decade ago. Judged top documentary film at Sundance a few years ago, it’s the best of its genre since Waco: The Rules of Engagement managed to snag an Oscar nomination several years ago.

It’s the story of Mark Borchardt a wannabe film-maker, who redefines the word persistence. He lives in Wisconsin. Mark is, by most definitions, a loser. He failed to finish high school. He’s unmarried but has three children. He’s under-employed. He’s a border-line alcoholic. He owes several thousand dollars in child support and thousands more in other debts. He lives at home with his mom, sleeping on a thin mattress. His best friend is a dazed ex-stoner musician named Mike who’s addicted to scratch lottery. His family scorns his goals, suggesting that he’s fit at best to be a factory worker.

Mark has no prospects, but he has a goal. To be a feature film-maker. His almost-obsessive pursuit of that dream and his infectious optimism is captured by director Chris Smith. You want to see reality on film? Ignore the “Big Brother’ and “Survivor” garbage heaped onto television screens recently. American Movie is a primer on micro-budget film making and the fragile dreams of its creators.

Mark’s been making short films with his friends since he was a teen. Horror is his preferred genre. He counts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a major influence in his life. Mark wants to make a feature film called Northwestern. The first part of the film focuses on Mark and his team’s fruitless effort to get the production off the ground. Kitchen-table production meetings provide only pessimism and finally the project is shelved for lack of funds.

Not deterred, the rest of the film concerns Mark’s efforts to finish and release Coven, a 40-minute psychological horror drama that he started years earlier. Despite setback after setback, the film gets finished, thanks largely to Mark’s dying, lonely Uncle Bill, who lives in a trailer park and has $280,000 in the bank. The scenes between Mark and his curmudgeon uncle are touching. Mark exploits him to be sure, but he’s not fooling Bill, who knows Mark has pipe dreams but is nourished from the attention Mark pays to him.

There are priceless scenes in American Movie. They include a desperate Mark pleading with his mom to put on a costume and play an extra in Coven. “But I need to go shopping today,” she protests. There’s the 30-plus take scene of Uncle Bill delivering a few lines in Coven. Another is Mark’s glee at unexpectedly receiving a credit card offer in the mail. There’s Mark’s “office,” the front seat of his car parked at the airport. Another is the poverty-inspired panic which results in post production when a few seconds of film are discovered missing. Also, there’s a hilarious scene from the filming of Coven where several takes are required to smash a hard-headed actor’s skull through a kitchen cabinet.

A serious side to this film adds to its strength. Film-maker Smith provides viewers a peek in Mark’s personal life. It’s dysfunctional. While watching the Super Bowl with his family, a drunken Mark allows some of the bitterness he usually hides to come out in the surface. It’s tough to watch, but important as it rounds out his character and offers a peek into inner demons that have kept him from success.

Besides Uncle Bill, Mike Schank, Mark’s best friend, is an asset to American Movie. His blank stare, accompanied by monotone voice, might lead viewers to think he’s suffering from an acid flashback. However, Mike grows on you, and before the end of the film he’s shown to be a talented musician.

Despite no formal training, Mark is a talented self-taught film-maker, and you can’t help cheering for him once he finally finishes Coven and stands outside the theater, amidst a long line of people waiting to see his film. He may not have a home of his own, but he’s a director with a film under his belt, a colleague of Steven Spielburg. He has triumphed. Note: The DVD version of American Movie contains Mark’s film Coven. I have seen it and it's not too bad. Very low budget but with a cold, dark nihilism feel. Watch "Coven" below.

Doug Gibson



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