(Part 33 of an ongoing series)
There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: “Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.” I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.
I can’t stress enough how thrilling it was to be a freshman film student in the fall of 1999. In the spring of that year, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Matrix: terrified by the idea that we might be unwittingly imprisoned in an artificial reality controlled by hostile machines, and delighted by the idea that we could shatter the boundaries of cinema just like the Wachowskis (at least if we were lucky enough to get our paws on some big-studio blockbuster money). Then in the summer of ’99, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Blair Witch Project: terrified by the idea that America’s Middle-Of-Nowhere was truly haunted by devious demonic forces, and delighted by the idea that hey, maybe we could make our own boffo blockbusters with little more than chump change and a few brilliant ideas, just like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.
Then there was Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, which delighted and terrified us aspiring movie-makers in a different way: delighted us with the addled antics of aspiring movie-maker Mark Borchardt, and terrified us with the implication that for most of us, our cinematic endeavors would actually go a little something like this.
Granted, movie-making has become considerably easier since the late ’90s, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the internet, but the message still rings true: you’ve gotta be a fool to try and make it in this business- or any artistic field, for that matter.
One of the most insightful things about American Movie is its subtitle, “The Making Of Northwestern.” Northwestern is a feature film that Borchardt sets out to make, a personal, dramatic film based on the experiences of his young adulthood. Yet very early on, the documentary’s focus shifts away from that passion project and toward the making of Coven, a short horror film that Borchardt decides he must finish in order to do Northwestern. After all, aren’t most of us with artsy-fartsy dreams perpetually making a Coven in order to make a Northwestern? Or, as Borchardt’s girlfriend Joan puts it: “He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not?”
Yes, American Movie milks a lot of laughter from Borchardt’s foibles and failures, but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or condescending. The film not only has deep affection for Borchardt, it seems to have great admiration for him too. So what if after 15-plus years, Northwestern is still “in production” (according to Wikipedia)? By the end of American Movie, the dude finished Coven and eventually outsold his goal of 3,000 copies at $14.95, even if he had to literally clean up other people’s shit to do it. In a way, that’s more inspiring than The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project combined.