Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: American Movie

In the end, it was the scumbags and space cadets who helped Mark Borchardt out the most.

As for me, I pretty much got reamed a new ass hole for not editing my own voice out of my documentary. This was my big film. My senior thesis. The project that was the culmination of everything I was supposed to have learned in four years of film school. The movie: A video documentary called VARIATIONS ON A TRASH QUEEN.

Alright, the title didn’t have anything to do with the film’s subject matter. I borrowed it from an epic poem that I never finished. The title was catchy, the film supposedly didn’t make any sense, so why not slap it with a nonsensical title. Ah ha! That’s where I fooled everybody. It all made perfect sense! Just hardly anybody cared to look deep enough. Ask me to show it to you sometime. I still think it kicks ass.

I didn’t have the best, or the most comfortable, time in film school. I couldn’t make a straight-forward film if I tried. My problem was that I was always making projects that questioned the entire notion of filmmaking. I also became increasingly distressed about the technical aspects of the process, particularly my own inability to master cinematography. If I ever made a movie that was in focus and properly exposed, it was completely by accident.

So, I combined these two “interests” and decided to make a post-modern documentary as my senior film. Rather than make a movie that showcased everything I learned, I made one that rejected everything that was taught to me. Obviously, this wasn’t going to please my professors.

The original “plot” to VARIATIONS was that I was going to videotape a friend of mine’s trip from Rochester, NY, (where I was going to school) to Greensboro, NC, where my friend was going to locate and “pitch woo” to a Playboy Playmate who was a real estate there.

This was totally for real and my friend was perfectly serious in his quest. Except he chickened out during our road trip in my beat-up Nissan Sentra. When we got to Greensboro he made a futile stab of locating the woman of his dreams, we never found her and I was severely lacking a full movie by the time I got home.

In an act of brilliance or idiocy, I figured out how I could salvage the project. Instead of being a film about just my one friend’s search for love and discovery of self-rejection, I decided I was going to analyze the nature of hope and desire in modern American youth. Just keep in mind, this was almost ten years ago. GENERATION X the book had just been published, the movie SLACKER hadn’t been released yet and it was to be a full year before THE REAL WORLD debuted on MTV.

In addition to my friend looking for a Playmate, I videotaped two other friends of mine talking about their art, relationships, friendship with each other and themselves. The final film intercuts these three people’s stories in a bizarre patchwork fashion. Also, the fourth “character” in the film is myself. Even though you never see me on camera, when I worked the camera I didn’t “interview” my subjects as much as I did have conversations with them. Again, ten years ago this was almost unheard of in documentary filmmaking. The guys behind the camera were never supposed to be heard or seen influencing their subjects’ behavior. Yet I did this all the way through VARIATIONS.

The other thing I did which was a big film school no-no was that I filmed the whole thing as though it were the worst amateurish home movie ever made. For the road trip sequence, I interviewed my friend during the trip literally by the side of the road. Most of the time it’s difficult to hear what he is saying the sound of the traffic whooshing by completely drowning him out. Then when I interviewed my other friends, I sat them down in their house in front of a big window with the sun pouring in so that their faces were washed out or shadowed by the backlight. Also, when my friends are talking, I continually cut away to seemingly irrelevant shots of their environment, so most of the time you barely even see anybody actually talking.

One day while I was editing VARIATIONS in my film school’s editing suite, one of my professors stopped by and checked out what I was working on, then called me to a special meeting in his office a few days later. “mikE,” he said to me, “I used to think you were one of the more promising students at RIT. Could you please explain to me what it is you are making now?” The man looked physically hurt by my movie. I felt a little bad because he was one of the ones I actually respected. But I was convinced in my film theories and stuck to my guns making an outwardly atrocious movie but with a solid intelligence behind it.

After VARIATIONS was projected at the year-end film school screenings, I had to get up in front of an entire auditorium of my peers and faculty and answer questions about the movie. The first question was, “Focus?” Then the professor who had the talk with me earlier asked if I could explain why I chose the style I did to shoot the film. VARIATIONS is about a 15-minute film. I fielded questions for about a half-hour. I was repeatedly attacked, ridiculed and insulted. And I loved every second I stood at the podium and had a legitimate, well-thought out answer for everything I was asked. I don’t know if I’ve ever had so much fun in my life.

So, I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in this personal story for this review. Like a washed-up middle-aged ex-high school jock who can never stop talking about The Big Game from his teenage sporting career, VARIATIONS is my Big Game and I’ll always be proud of it.

AMERICAN MOVIE is a documentary about a guy, Mark Borchardt, who lives in Minnesota and wants to be a famous filmmaker. He’s thirty years old, has three kids by an ex-girlfriend, drinks and smokes pot too much and is friends with various ne’er-do-wells in his hometown. But Mark’s got determination. Though the movie only documents one year in his life, he spends ten years trying to make a 14-minute horror movie called “Coven”.

Most people think he’s nuts, and you might come to that conclusion once you hear him talk for five minutes. I could relate to a lot about the movie, when a person has a dream and strong convictions, but it seems as though the entire world thinks you’re absolutely insane. In some ways, that’s a fun type of person to be, but in other ways it completely sucks.

If you want to learn more about AMERICAN MOVIE, check out the wildly entertaining corresponding website.