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  • Brett Willis

American Movie (1999)

American Movie (1999)

This blog has taken too long to write. My guess as to why—why I’ve been reading books instead of writing it, playing online chess instead of writing it, doing the dishes instead of writing it—is that it necessitated some deep, and uncomfortable, introspection by yours truly.

Why do I love American Movie? Why does it speak so viscerally to me, and my experience as a person who tries to write? Why does a documentary about a lanky young man making movies in Wisconsin shake the very firmament of my soul?

Well, here we go.

A documentary, created by Chris Smith and Sarah Price, released in 1999, American Movie follows amateur auteur Mark Borchardt as he attempts to make his first feature-length film, titled “Northwestern.” Mark is a “raw dog” in the words of Ken Keene, one of Mark’s friends. Ever since, at the age of fourteen, he got a Super-8 camera with a “busted focus”, he made horror films. In 1999, when American Movie was filmed, Mark is writing horror scripts for local radio productions. He has already been in the army for three years, and left. He has dropped out of college. He has four children and an ex-wife. He delivers newspapers and works at a cemetery, lives with his parents just outside of Milwaukee, has credit card debt galore, and he likes to drink. He is 26. To put it mildly, Mark has impediments in the way of him cultivating a successful career in film.

Nonetheless, Mark soldiers on. Doggedly so. He's described by a guffawing friend/ volunteer crewmember as “one determined motherfucker, man.” Speaking of which, Mark is not necessarily hiring equally eager professionals for his films. He uses friends and acquaintances as extras, camera people, location scouts. His mom helps him record audio and, one time, film. His best friend, Mike, who we will speak more of later, is his producer. He uses, basically, everything and everyone at his disposal, through sheer force of will, to create the films of his dreams.

I’m going to spoil it for you here and say that American Movie is not… uplifting. On the cover of the DVD that I own, Roger Ebert calls it “Inspiring!”, making me wonder what sort of hallucinogen he had dropped before his viewing. But, to addled Roger’s credit, neither is the film bereft of hope. For me, it encases in quartz the essence of what it’s like to be compelled to create. To be, for lack of a better word, an artist.

Mark exists in a liminal space. I can say this, because I recognize it in myself. Liminal, by definition, is between two shades, upon the knife’s edge where darkness and light meet. To be more concrete, I mean that Mark’s mind is constantly dually occupied: it is thinking about what is going on in front of him, and it is thinking about making movies. As a writer, I’m often thinking about writing—about how certain situations would make for an interesting scene. Or I’m impressed with myself that a certain description, like “the sun’s buttery rays,” has popped into my head. These thoughts are not confined to “artsy time.” They pop up when I’m going for a walk, when I’m washing the dishes, when I’m at work, when I’m watching a movie, etc. To put it simply, they pop up when I’m supposed to be living my life.

For Mark, and I’d suspect almost all artists, this liminal headspace can be both a blessing and a bane. It can be good because it tends to imbue tough situations with a sort of implicit meaning. Or, if not meaning, a use. I know that I can use the details of my car breaking down, and the AAA guy farting when he came to help me, as fodder for writing. This is in the same way that Mark can use his divorce, his money trouble, and his regrets about drinking as fodder for future scripts. But the catch is that this frame of mind cannot simply be peeled back at will. In those moments when I should be more present, should be more joyful and unrestrained, I am instead often analyzing the moment, rather than feeling it. Living this way creates situations in which you don’t as much experience joy as you notice the experience of joy.

This, folks, has its drawbacks.

The artistic endeavor is both the problem and the solution. The artist creates an impediment, or a challenge, out of thin air—I must create this film—and then they are forced to reckon with that challenge. The first difficulty is that, often, few people care: beyond the artist and maybe their direct family members. Nobody else can see the grandeur of the edifice that the artist has constructed in their mind. But the artist sees it vividly. Cannot escape it, in fact. They are harried by it, followed by it, chided by it any time they are not working to make it real. Why aren’t you working on me? Why aren’t you bringing me to life? And, when the artist does find the courage to face the task and to try to achieve it—to write the novel or make the movie or paint the triptych—they are always reminded of how puny their creative powers are versus the perfection of their imagination.

The writer David Foster Wallace called this the experience of “the terrible baby.” It, the baby (your art), follows you around and won’t stop crying, won’t stop demanding your attention, until you attend to it. At which point, when you address it and do the work, the baby quiets down and you get some mental peace. Of course, that peace doesn’t last long.

Sometimes, we get to see the result of that artistic dream. The benefit for all of the torture. In American Movie, we only go halfway. We get to see the local showing of Coven—pronounced “coe-venn,” man—the stepping-stone to Mark’s feature film, “Northwestern.” And in this glimpse of an artist denied their goal, I think we see something more true than any view of success.

It’s the work, the purity of the endeavor, that is the focus of American Movie. The struggles of the artist to reckon with the world and with themselves. Marcus Aurelius said that, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Mark has been trying to wrangle “Northwestern”—his white whale—for basically the entirety of his adult life. It is at once a fundamental impediment to achieving his dreams and his life’s purpose.

Because for all of Mark’s perceived failure and do-overs and re-shoots and ADR, we can see the fire of hope constantly burning in him. The drive to do what he hasn’t yet. And as long as he tries, the dream can’t be extinguished. And perhaps, some day, he might achieve it. But it doesn’t matter for this film. It is the struggle that is the film’s subject. The effort and the passion.

Mark, to me, is far more impressive a creator than the successful filmmaker who half-asses their way through movie after movie. Mark is the essence of the artist—stuck in his Sisyphean loop. Film the shot, review the shot, decide it’s not perfect enough, film the shot again. He needs more footage, better footage, different footage. He’s re-writing, working, casting, location scouting. Drinking to try to address the magnitude of the expectations he has for himself. He is the true self that I find hard to face—the self that so many of us striving artists instantly recognize as our own.

So what is there to live for in a life like this? A life of constant yearning? Well, there’s Mike Schank, for one.

Mark’s striving would be almost too punishing to watch were it not for Mike Schank—the steadfast Sancho Panza to Mark’s Don Quixote. Mike uplifts every single scene he’s in. He has a massive head of hair and wispy mustache. He’s soft-spoken, diffident, and full of treasure. He helps Mark stay up during an editing session with a story about trying to drop acid in the hospital (acid being the reason he was in the hospital in the first place). He records a “hell scream” for Mark’s film Coven that is wicked, man. And his classical guitar playing ,and intermittent grunting, actually forms the soundtrack of the film. Of note: Mike is now sober and clean—his only vice is scratch-off tickets.

Their relationship is symbiotic. Mike uplifts Mark and helps him make his movies, while Mark gives Mike’s life a constant purpose: the making of film. Their enriching relationship, for me, boils down to a single scene: Mark and Mike sitting in Mark’s living room in the winter of 1996. Mark’s five-ish-year-old son is asleep under his arm. They talk in hushed voices to the camera. Mark’s words are the perfect representation of storge, familial love, and I cannot do them more justice than simply transcribing them here.

“I’ve really been unhappy for probably a week and it just got worse… [Mike] came over and he put a smile on my face. I didn’t even want to wake up tomorrow morning, man. I had nothing to look forward to. I’m thankful that Mike came over and he put a smile on my face, talkin’ his shit.”

If all that Mark has to live for is his friendship with Mike, his new “slick” girlfriend Joan, the love and support of his parents, and trying to make movies, then is that a good life? I think that question is kind of beside the point. I don’t think Mark could live any other way. And I’d hazard to say that even if he did have a choice, I doubt he’d decide to go a different path.

While there are so many other people in this film I could blab on about (Uncle Bill!, Robert the Actor, Jailbird Ken Keene!), their stories all revolve around the locus of the film’s gravity: Mark’s passion. Really, this film wouldn’t really be a film at all were it not for Mark’s desire and drive to make cinema. Sure, without that you could have a Jarmusch-esque bit of cinema verité, but you wouldn’t have this piece of media that has stuck with me year after year.

So, if you’re interested in making art, view here the essence of your craft. Here is the work, the hope, the failure, the small victories, and the passion on unvarnished display. Here is the artistic life at its most raw. Like Mark, talking to Uncle Bill, this movie will almost undoubtedly force you to finish the thought “I am here because… I am here because…”

IN SHORT: If you have ever tried seriously to make art, this film will punch you in the gut.

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