IT'S A CURSE, this desire to make movies, fueled by the entertainment media's breathless fascination with rags-to-riches stories about wannabe auteurs. Blame Quentin Tarantino. Blame Kevin Smith. Blame Robert Rodriguez or a few other driven, talented filmmakers who've inspired a generation of insufferable imitators. They max out their credit cards to reach Sundance; we suffer the consequences.
directed by Chris Smith runs November 19-25 at Varsity
Or blame Chris Smith, a sometime cameraman for Michael Moore and the director of this intermittently funny, poignant, and condescending documentary. He takes his film to Sundance, and look what happens.
The influence of 1989's Roger & Me is apparent in every frame of American Movie—in its best and worst aspects.
At its best, AM tells the story of 30-year-old Wisconsin high school dropout and newspaper delivery boy Mark Borchardt, who has a boundless desire to make movies. "Kick-fucking-ass!" exclaims this self-aware protagonist of another director's better-funded film (which he must surely resent). "I just got a Mastercard!" With that card and funds cajoled from his family, he rallies his cadre of loser friends to complete Coven, a short horror film shot in black and white, naturally, to reflect influences that include Sam Raimi and Ingmar Bergman.
AT ITS WORST, AM patronizes the determined Mark's cinematic aspirations and juxtaposes his squalid surroundings with the triumphant Packers on TV. It's a cheap shot, like Roger & Me picking on the poor rabbit lady. Poor Mark is already down. He speaks frankly of his depression and borderline alcoholism, frets over the custody of his three kids, and endures the disapproval of half his family—which is the documentary's real subject. His separated parents are somewhat supportive, and his Uncle Billy reluctantly helps underwrite Coven in AM's most painful to watch scenes. Mark's family also loosely includes his best friend Mike, a dumb, sweet acid-casualty we're initially invited to mock; then we realize the documentary's soundtrack is actually made up of his Black Sabbath-influenced music.
Ultimately, our admiration for Mark grows with our resentment of the film crew that dogged him for two years. Sure, he agreed to it, undoubtedly thinking it would help his career. (A postscript reports that he's sold only 200 cassettes of the 3,000 he hoped would bankroll his first feature.) But let the man have his dignity. The film asks us to laugh when one of Mark's actors mocks his mispronunciation of "coven." But he responds sharply, "'Coven' sounds just like 'oven,' man, and that just doesn't work!" And you know what? He's right.