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In suburban Milwaukee, Mark Borchardt is chasing his American dream. Like aspiring filmmakers across the world, he wants to make a feature film. In Mark’s case, it’s a movie tentatively called Northwestern; a slice-of-life film about "drinking". But like many filmmakers, aspiring and otherwise, he has no money to complete the project. He decides to finish a 35 minute horror film - Coven - that he’s been working on and sell at least 3,000 copies to fund Northwestern. With a motley collection of friends, family and hired actors, he embarks on a low-budget quest to complete the movie.

"While The Blair Witch project was a low budget frightener with a cast and a plot outline to make it valid cinema, American Movie is a disastrously boring attempt at a cheap documentary with pretentions to filmmaking by adventure. It is hard to shake off the feeling that Chris Smith is having a lend of us - and he certainly had a lend of the Sundance jury, who responded to the film's inanity by assuming it was brilliant inanity because there must be something valuable in a subject matter that carries a filmmaker through four years of unpaid hell to film it. The point of the film about a young amateur filmmaker's obsessive drive to get his film made no matter what and no matter who (and no matter how bad) is clear enough: it is indeed the American Dream to reach your maximum potential. Anyone who really wants to, can be President, sort of thing. But aiming for Presidential office is a far cry from aiming a camera at idiotic friends and ageing family members in a drawn out attempt to make a bad movie about … about what? Since we are totally uninvolved with the characters on the screen (except for rare moments of insight into the dysfunctional Borchardt family) and since we are pretty unclear as to the movie Mark is trying to make, we are left to root for absolutely nothing. If any further proof of a spoof were needed, take a peek at the film's publicity material. It invites you to "look at all the cool things" on its website, including a promise of Mark's hairy friend Mike Schank live! "Will you be one of the chosen few to see Mike live practicing his weekly music lesson?" Or read Mark's daily log, "the joys of reading the daily rants and inner thoughts of a filmmaking genius continue." And there's more, but you get the idea. The drive seems to have been 'how bad can we make a movie and pass it off as brilliant' - and the answer seems to be; 'as bad as you can make it'. It strikes no genuine chords with me."
Andrew L. Urban

"Have the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness been assimilated into the dream of making movies in the collective American consciousness? This is the fundamental question raised in American Movie; Chris Smith’s documentary about the struggles of Mark Borchardt. Mark aspires to make a film in the obscurity of Milwaukee, far from the dazzling lights of Hollywood. Quite apart from Mark’s almost manic passion for his project, he and his friends seem obsessed by the vision of Hollywood presented in glamour magazines. When Mike, one of Mark’s friends is asked why he’s involved in the project, his answer is "So I can be a famous movie producer." Implicit in the statement is the notion that there are no non-famous producers (come to Australia and see, buddy). Mark and his cohorts, family and assorted acquaintances all seem so grotesque they could easily be the product of a scriptwriter’s imagination. Indeed, I wasn’t entirely convinced some scenes in the film weren’t staged for the benefit of the cameras. Still, it’s billed as a documentary, not cinema vérité, so I’m happy to accept the film represents reality even if the hand of the director is on parts of it. At times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, American Movie is a fascinating examination of a man struggling against all the odds to realise his aspirations. While you may not exactly like Mark and his friends, anyone who’s had to strive for anything will relate to the journey they take. It’s like Mark says in the film "Life is kinda cool sometimes."
David Edwards

"Chris Smith's winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury prize, American Movie, is a most absorbing piece of work. Perhaps more heartwrenching that it is funny, and it can be very funny, Smith's choice of following Mark Borchardt through two years of determination and self sabotage in getting Coven made was inspired. Borchardt's world is populated by oddities and it's here that the difficulty with the humour comes. If it were a work of fiction, then laughs would abound. But there are times when watching American Movie that we can't help but just feel plain sorry for the people in it. None more so than his best buddy, Mike Schank. This guy is a walking advertisement for never going near drugs. There seems to be few brain cells left. Yet we love him. We do laugh when he talks about overdosing and being saved in the hospital only to reach down into his pockets to find his mum has taken the acid he thought he'd take once he knew he was OK. And we smile when we learn that his AA sponsor drives him to Gambler's Anonymous meeting to help with his addiction to scratchies. Borchardt himself is not so loveable with his drinking and his do anything to get the film made approach which includes not paying child support and (but this is hysterically funny) repeatedly banging the head of one of his actors into a cupboard which simply won't break. In the end though we do empathise with Smith's protagonist as we realise his life would be even more of a dead end without his impossible dream. But is it patronising?"
Lee Gough

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SUBJECTS OF THE FILM: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Uncle Bill, Monica and Cliff Borchardt, Chris & Alex Borchardt, Ken Keene, Joan Petrie

DIRECTOR: Chris Smith

PRODUCER: Jim McKay, Sarah Price, Michael Stipe


EDITOR: Jun Diaz, Barry Polterman, Chris Smith

MUSIC: Mike Schank

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes



WINNER: Grand Jury Prize Sundance Film Festival 1999

VIDEO RELEASE: October 11, 2000

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Col TriStar Home Entertainment

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