The Friday Afternoon Movie: American Movie

Today the FAM is proud to present perhaps my favorite documentary: 1999’s American Movie, directed by Chris Smith. American Movie tells the story of Mark Borchardt, an aspiring filmmaker living in Milwaukee. With the help of his best friend, the endlessly entertaining burnout Mike Schank, and various other friends, family members, and amateur actors, Borchardt attempts to finish his latest feature, the short horror film Coven.

All is not well, of course, and Borchardt’s life. A high-school drop out, he is mired in debt. His relationship with his ex-girlfriend and mother of his three children is strained and he has developed a bit of a drinking problem. And while he works hard at film-making and appears fairly knowledgeable, his ability to plan and manage his project is suspect. Even his own family have their doubts that Mark will be able to finish the film, his only support coming from his wealthy Uncle Bill who, in his old age, seems confused by his surroundings more often than not.

And yet they make for a cast of likable characters. Mark most certainly has his own personal demons to work through but Smith has no trouble letting him win over the audience with his can-do attitude. Uncle Bill, for all his rancor, does genuinely care for Mark and some of the most touching scenes are between these two. And of course there is Mike, a man whose mind is so ravaged by drugs and alcohol that is almost incoherent, yet whose loyalty and devotion to his friend is almost absolute.

It all amounts to the quintessential American story, the myth that has for so long symbolized this nation; a tale of hard work and passion bordering on obsession, of perseverance over adversity. In this way even the most lowly individual can make of themselves a success. In the same way, it is also a story of class. In stark contrast to Chris Smith’s middle-class background and film school degree Mark’s dream project Northwestern is told distinctly from his point of view from a working class family in the Midwest. His film is set against a backdrop of dilapidated building and rusty cars. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says “rust and decay.”

Despite these seemingly gloomy outlook, Mark remains unswayed in his decision to make movies. It is this almost delusional tenacity that lies at the center of American Movie and it is here where it truly resonates, showing us a modicum of hope where most would expect to find none.

6 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: American Movie”

  1. 8:35 Says:

    I saw this in the theater when it came out and loved it. I had no idea it was real until I went into the lobby and they were selling DVDs of the Coven at a little table!

  2. Cat Rocketship Says:

    American Movie is bizarre and difficult to explain, but a fantastic docu – one of my favorites. Sad and funny and eye-opening, and endlessly rewatchable. Very much like watching a slow motion accident.

  3. Emily Bleak Says:

    “Crackpot visionary” is a great descriptor – I love this movie and Mark’s dedication to making art no matter what.

    What’s beautiful about this docu is that it drew attention to Mark, suddenly casting directors are approaching him to play bit (and not-so-bit) parts in their movies. He’s appeared in like 20+ horror movies and I’ve been hearing great things about The Hagstone Demon, a B-horror by John Springer where Borchardt plays the lead.

    I’ll always cheer a little when I see him onscreen. :)

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  5. Meredith Yayanos Says:


  6. Yseult Says:

    Italy had (fictional) Guido Anselmi in 8½

    We in America have (the real) Mark Borchardt in American Movie