Tuesday, July 21, 2020

American Movie, Twenty-One Years On

American Movie (1999) is one of the great American movies. It's a documentary, but its characters are classic. Perhaps it's not much of an exaggeration to claim that no narrative film scripter could come up with such an absorbing storyline, forge equal pathos, and, again, render a stellar variety of characters in one go.

The picture also acts as a social document, time and place not important. The film's title is part geographic guide. As much as Mark Borchardt, the man who must make a film, alcohol money be damned, speaks of the American dream and its fulfillment, he realizes if not fully accepts its artificiality and irrepressible elusiveness. There's really nothing all-American about American Movie. To achieve artistic recognition is simply a common romantic notion without borders and not one tied specifically to American dreamers. It's a story about people....of Everytown of Anyplace. Borchardt's drive and ultimate prize, that of getting his film finished and exhibited, are a mark of his character, not of geography. After all, beer is available all over.

The labour-intensiveness of making motion pictures is such that those without a modicum of confidence and drive could more easily sit in the easy chair to watch someone else's filmmaking.

Borchardt finishes his film and presents it to a seemingly enthusiastic audience. He did it.

Much credit to American Movie's success must go to filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price for being there for the man with a plan; the story was told whether someone was there to capture it on film or not. How many Borchardts, Mike Schanks, and Uncle Bills were lucky, or unlucky, enough to have been recorded for the big and small screen, not to mention the public record? Smith and Price had to assemble their footage, seventy hours worth according to them, but the selection of scenes and the reveals within show storytelling prowess. Perhaps the storyline here was inevitable. The documentary filmmakers just had to chip away at the marble. It really was a case of showing up.

American Movie is a precious document.

A question to wrap: With the ubiquitous digital filmmaking tools of today, are there even more Mark Borchardts? (Perseverance and dedication are digital-free.)


First posted as "American Movie, Twenty Years On" on March 7, 2019.

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