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. 9: Wisconsin Death Trip


If you’re already familiar with Wisconsin Death Trip, you’ll know that this is a different film from the past eight weeks. That’s because this isn’t a movie, but a documentary based on the 1973 book of photographs collected by Michael Lesy. It might seem a strange choice for a day usually dedicated to horror. Yes, while this is a documentary and not a slasher film, there are still aspects to make your skin crawl: murder, madness and insanity.

The 1999 documentary studies the area of Black River Falls in the western area of Wisconsin between 1890 and 1900. A time of mass immigration to the young state. Many were looking for a successful life after leaving their home countries – but most would not find it in the untamed wilderness.

British filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire, The Theory of Everything) makes his debut here in a beautiful way. In Wisconsin Death Trip, Marsh paints a picture of thetime using dramatizations of many of the original photos by Charles Van Schaik and the words of local English newspaper editor Frank Cooper. The documentary shows off some of the most stunning stretches of scenery in the state (though I doubt that it was filmed in Black River Falls). All of the beauty stands as a harsh contrast to the story about to unfold.

Despite its lovely setting, don’t mistake this for a lovely walk through the past. This is a documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip, after all. Many tragedies struck the area of that time – all of it catapulting from a time where the mines began to shut down and men were out of work. The brutal snow and cold of Wisconsin proving to be too much for many European immigrants.

After the collapse of the local bank, many men go crazy, a few commit suicide. The horrors of Black River Falls is a relentless spiral of misery, slowly revealing the disturbing history of the town. The black and white scenes bring the photographs from the past to life and bring their stories with them. Marsh then aims to connect this past to the town’s present in colour. It’s a place of still full of religion, arson and whispers of terrors like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein. The present day hardly seems compelling enough, and it almost seems like a jump in logic in many respects.

But Marsh keeps piling on the horrors. At times this only builds the feeling of shock, but other times it feels like a real job to keep caring about what exactly is going on. At least authenticity is never called into question – the large amount of information provided makes sure of that. The documentary was all filmed at historical locations in Wisconsin and all the actors involved were cast from the state as well. But much of this is what you’d expect from a factual film.

It goes without saying that this is the first film I have covered so far that has been nominated for a (prestigious) award. Wisconsin Death Trip is effective. The melancholy feeling is sad and haunting. The use of both black and white with colour scenes is works to convey the story being told: a sort of community resting in two periods of time.

Unfortunately the documentary, while beautiful, can be a bit of a struggle to get through at only 76 minutes. I first watched this film a year ago and napped for most of it. The second watching was a little bit more easy to cope with, but the pacing sometimes creates a distant feeling. In many ways this works to emulate the feeling of isolation and desperation, but other times it can be a bit difficult to connect to the subject.

Wisconsin Death Trip is worth a watch, but it is Lesy’s novel that is truly worth perusing. Both are a stark picture of dreams gone very, very wrong.