Case in point: Mark Borchardt of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Chris Smith's touching, frequently hilarious documentary American Movie, the beleaguered Borchardt spends every ounce of his energy and every dime he can scrape up trying to make a movie (two movies, actually) that only his scruffy friends and bewildered suburban family would likely be willing to sit through. As far as we can tell, Coven and Northwestern, Borchardt's works-in-progress, are no-budget backyard slasher flicks sprinkled with autobiographical references to booze and drugs. Their deluded auteur, a gawky blabbermouth with a scraggly beard and pop-bottle glasses, tells us with a straight face that his influences include both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Seventh Seal, but there's scant evidence that he has learned anything from either one.
Little matter. Smith is less interested in Borchardt's cinematic vision than in the sweet blindness and stubborn persistence of his quest. Still living in his parents' basement, this Midwestern Ed Wood works part-time vacuuming rugs and shoveling snow at a cemetery, but his head is stuffed with big ideas. Like the cheesy Hollywood producer-director Steve Martin plays in the comedy Bowfinger, Borchardt is half hustler, half daydreamer, and it simply never occurs to him that moviemaking might be the wrong line of work. "I guess everything makes sense to me alone," he tells us.
Some kind of sense, anyway. Mark's dad tells the camera his son would probably make a good truck driver, police officer or electrician, and his brother thinks he's suitable for the factory floor. Even the hobbyist moviemaker's ancient and decrepit Uncle Bill, who winds up as Borchardt's "executive producer" because he's thrown a few reluctant bucks the kid's way, senses that his nephew is a failed dreamer. Pressed into service as an actor, Uncle Bill suffers through 31 excruciating takes of one brief scene before finally losing his patience. "This is for the birds," he says. "That's all for me."
But Borchardt presses on, driven as much by fear of being ordinary as by creative energy. "We're in America today and ready to roll," he bravely tells his cast and crew, which includes a burned-out acidhead who swears he doesn't "party anymore," a few bemused friends, and, when the need for a camera operator suddenly arises, the filmmaker's embattled mother. Smith doesn't belabor the point that Borchardt owes 10 grand to Dad, $3,600 in child support (Surprise: Our visionary has three kids), and $1,500 to the IRS. For Art, you make sacrifices.
"He's a determined motherfucker," one acquaintance says. Indeed, Borchardt spends more than three years getting the 40-minute Coven to the screen, although he doesn't even know how to pronounce the title. The night of the "première," at a neighborhood theater, is one of Smith's most hilarious scenes. By this point, you may not want to watch much more of the movie-within-a-movie than the few snippets shown, but you will want to get a glimpse of the audience and their reactions, which Smith fails to give us.
Coven "is about rust and decay, but also about warmth and stuff like that," Borchardt explains.
Meanwhile, American Movie is about the power of illusion, single-minded stubbornness in the face of long odds, and the spirit of independence. In the end, it is also about a couple of whopping ironies. First, Mark Borchardt may never know it, but documentarian Smith has made of his subject's quixotic striving a film far better than anything Borchardt is likely to conceive. Second, Smith may have finally provided Borchardt with an audience. The last screen credit in American Movie is for a Web site through which viewers can buy their own tape of Coven for $14.95.
Said another way, hooray for Milwaukee! Where every garage mechanic can be a panic.