Weekend Film Recommendation: American Movie

Chris Smith was an unknown would-be director attending film school in Milwaukee when he met a fellow would-be filmmaker named Mark Borchardt, whose career could not have looked very promising. Smith wisely made the decision to make Borchardt the subject of a documentary, and the result is a movie that succeeded artistically and financially more than either of them could have imagined: 1999’s American Movie (sometimes listed as “American Movie: The Making of Northwestern”).

The documentary follows Borchardt’s painfully unsuccessful effort to make “Northwestern”, which he envisions as a cinematic masterpiece. As the shoestring production collapses around him, Borchardt decides instead to resurrect his half-finished horror film “Coven”, the proceeds of which he hopes will finance his dream project. With money from his dotty Uncle and volunteer acting and production by his family and aspiring local actors, Coven fitfully begins to turn into something Borchardt hopes he can be proud of. Meanwhile, the rest of his life is a mess. He is unemployed, lives at home with his parents, drinks too much, and is estranged from his children. The emotional anchor of his life is less so his family than his best friend Mike Schank, a recovering alcoholic with a taste for gambling and a peaceful stoner/Buddhist-esque demeanor.

Never mocking or exploitative, the movie takes its subjects seriously just as they take themselves and their art seriously. As with Hoop Dreams, the families involved gave a remarkable level of access to the documentary makers. The affecting result is a true slice of American life, as lived by white lower middle class people in Milwaukee.

And remember, “Coven” does *not* rhyme with oven. Should’ve kept the umlaut….

p.s. Interested in a different sort of Movie? Check out this list of prior RBC film recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

2 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: American Movie”

  1. I suppose I’ll agree that it was made quite respectfully. But these dudes are seriously hilarious. And I’m not sure how I mean that!

  2. Good golly – ‘American Movie’ came out in 1999?!? It doesn’t seem that long ago when I saw it!

    Ah, the passage of time.

    Back to ‘American Movie’. Like Keith said, “affecting” is the best way to describe it – and also like Eli said, Mark and Mike and co. were hilarious.

    I laughed a lot at them – but at the same time, I laughed a lot with them. Despite some foolishness and self-delusion that made them easy targets for mockery, I also admired aspects like Borchardt’s drive and passion to make a film no matter what, and Schank’s very mellow demeanor.

    ‘American Movie’ is charming and funny.

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