American Movie on DVD
American Movie is a documentary that follows ambitious independent filmmaker Mark Bourchardt as he attempts to produce his first feature film, Northwestern. When it becomes obvious that he lacks sufficient resources, Bourchardt scales back his goal to the completion of a two-year-old short horror film, Coven, which he will market direct to video in order to raise the funds for Northwestern.
When I first saw American Movie, I was convinced that it was a This Is Spinal Tap–type mockumentary neatly puncturing all the pretensions that have sprung up surrounding the success of independent film. It seemed to me that Bourchardt's films were horrible—pastiches of Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre that didn't skewer popular culture so much as ooze directly from it.
But watching the film while listening to the commentary track proved my initial perception all wrong—American Movie is a real documentary, and Mark Bourchardt is just an ordinary Midwestern guy totally consumed by filmmaking. And while the films he's made haven't been high art, they do have a high-strung atmospheric conviction that isn't faux-anything. It's the real thing.
Art, they say, is what artists do, and American Movie is a look at how Bourchardt goes about doing what he must. He has a manic salesman's ability to talk people into assimilating his version of reality, and has groomed a small ensemble of players who dedicate a lot of time to his projects. He also has the tenacity of the true artist. We see him literally filming one reel at a time, buying film as he can afford it; we also see him convincing family members to finance the film and act in it, even as they assure the documentary filmmakers that they know nothing will ever come of it.
Through the film we also come to know Mike Schank, Mark's oldest friend, a former stoner guitarist who supplies the music for American Movie. One of the film's more enigmatic images is of Mike playing Bach on the guitar with a blue rag around his eyes. On the commentary track he explains, "That was to show I've memorized two-thirds of it." We also come to know Mark's uncle Bill, a rather dubious supporter of and participant in the project.
Technically, American Movie isn't much better than Mark's own projects, although it is in color. It sports lots of handheld shots and changes in lighting—Uncle Bill, concerned about the cost of electricity, made the filmmakers use natural light for all interiors shot at his house. And the sound is pretty much 2-channel stereo that at times collapses to just the dialogue channel. Then again, American Movie shows vividly that if all movies were held to Hollywood standards, we'd miss a lot of quirky and developing talents. I wasn't bothered by the film's handmade quality.
In fact, as I watched it for the fourth time, I realized I was strangely uplifted by American Movie. Perhaps it doesn't matter in the long run that a fast-talking movie buff managed to complete a horror film, but I'd like to think that Mark Bourchardt has struck a blow for dreamers everywhere.