American Movie

Wicked (Wisconsin) Wednesday Pt. 11: American Movie

american movie

“I don’t want to end up being a nothing.”

The American Dream. A proper noun meaning anything you could possibly want. For many it is leaving their home countries to find a better life – one they can succeed in. For some it is obtaining something – usually monetary. Cars, homes, dogs (always dogs). But no American Dream story is quite complete without the struggle to get there. Nothing is more American than the idea of achieving something with “hard work.”

Enter Mark Borchardt: a man that has a dream. Get the house and be rich by completing the Great American Movie.  Chris Smith (along with Sarah Price) was with Mark for two years documenting the highs and lows of the struggle for an independent film maker. American Movie is the s

Both Mark and Chris attended the film school at UW-Milwaukee where they met as students. Mark had been working on Northwestern, a project dedicated to the area of Milwaukee he hails from. He and his deadpan side-kick Mike Schank collaborate together to produce something great. But years of work didn’t exactly reap a lot of produce. Here American Movie delivers all the successes and failures of someone trying to reach that dream.

Early in the documentary, there is a production meeting for Northwestern. Mark says something during the small gathering that epitomises the efforts he puts himself through: “There’s no excuses. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse.”

Eventually, Mark puts the Northwestern project on hold due to lack of funding. The only way he sees that he can get his production company back up and running again is by completing a short film titled Coven that he had left behind a few years earlier. To complete the movie he needs the funds from his Uncle Bill’s savings. Most of his family doesn’t believe he will ever amount to anything great, but many still support him through his efforts.

This film is really about two men and the passion they have for their craft. Unlike contemporary copies like Town of the Dead, viewers are allowed to see the passion of a man without any hint of irony. The success of American Movie is because it reaches beyond just the simple process of film-making. The levels of humanity pulled out by Chris is spectacular, especially scenes with the super-star Uncle Bill. It is apparent that the two men have sacrificed a lot to produce something they love, even at the expense of social lives and relationships.

The documentary was released in 1999, and thus it displays a now almost prehistoric film process is a marvel to watch. The cutting and pasting and the agony of lost footage is as compelling as any written script. When the documentary closes with the premier of Coven in Milwaukee, it is almost difficult to not to share the pride and joy of the finished project. Afterwards Mark’s adorable Swedish mother says what is probably on everyone’s mind: “He works hard. He has a lot of dreams, and I hope they come true.”

I read this article and review by Duane Dudek about the documentary on its 10th anniversary in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. He mentions that there is still a strong affection for it all these years later, especially among the locals. On a personal note, I have to agree. I see the parts of the city I lived in for four-years and feel a strong sense of nostalgia and longing (especially all the scenes filmed in my old haunting group of Peck School of the Arts). Many think that Smith produced a bad light on his subjects, but I have to disagree. It shows everything as a is, even if it is a bit difficult to watch – a little but like Milwaukee itself.

Perhaps it would have been better to watch American Movie first. Watching this documentary makes Coven feel all the more special knowing exactly what had gone into it. Mark has not made another movie since completing Coven and he appears to have become a “what it” story. But if there is anything American Dream stories have taught us, its that things don’t always go according to plan. Mark Borchardt has not drifted off into obscurity, which is for some the best they could ever hope for.

Wicked (Wisconsin) Wednesday Pt. 10: Coven


Coven, a now infamous short film about the perils of drinking, drugs and AA meetings. It’s an unusual little film from the mind of Mark Borchardt. This film clocks in at under 40 minutes. It’s a brief bit of work that took a lot to produce. But what is this Wisconsin cult film like?

Mike is a struggling writer, who also struggles with his alcohol. The stress of work drives him to overdose on pills and alcohol, which he is then hospitalised for. As he’s leaving in the elevator, the doors open to a strange old man, which seemingly appears to drive a young girl on  crazy.

Mike’s friend Steve convinces him to join a support group for his increasing problems. The people present at the meeting each have dramatic problems with drugs and alcohol – an intense fictionalised version of AA meetings. The depressing stories seem a bit much for Mike as he leaves to have a drink himself:

“God helps those who help themselves, man.”

Things probably should have been suspicious as soon as Mike saw the high amount of attendees wearing black lipstick. He’s in the woods drinking and writing one day when a group of hooded figures appear to him. They chase the writer through the woods, but he gets away. His following meeting, one of the organisers announces that he is an unconvicted murderer.

And then things begin to go an even bit more strange for Mike. The drink they have given him seems to have made him hallucinate – making him question his own reality. Is his AA meeting group really a coven? Or is this all Mike’s way of fighting against the group? The unusual climax is almost too brief, but it’s the short on the brutal.

Yes, it’s clearly low budget and made by amateurs, but it is still arguably quite beautiful. The music by Patrick Nettesheun is positively haunting. The long still shots really build a sense of intensity. The home-movie feel is pretty great, considering. And yes, the acting isn’t fantastic, but when you’re working on your uncle’s savings you can’t be picky. Coven, while by no means perfect, is still a great bit of atmosphere.


Coven was the subject of Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, but more on that next week.