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[whitespace] Mike Schank and Mark Borchardt
Co-Chairs: Mike Schank and Mark Borchardt bring new meaning to grass-roots filmmaking in 'American Movie.'

Auteur Biography

'American Movie' focuses on an eccentric small-town filmmaker

By Don Hines

WISCONSIN NATIVE MARK BORCHARDT has true moviemaking fever. Whether persuading his mom to postpone grocery shopping and fill in as cinematographer or enlisting his 8-year-old as sound editor, Borchardt is pursuing his dream. He's the unlikely subject of a surprisingly affectionate documentary on filmmaking. Compared to other directors filmed making a movie--Francis Coppola in Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog in Burden of Dreams--he differs from them not in type or degree or budget: They all spend it all on films. Mark subsists delivering The Wall Street Journal and shoveling snow at the Valhalla Cemetery. Like a dairy-state Wagner, he's egotistical, nationalistic and financially irresponsible. When, in addition to a bill from the Wisconsin tax board, he gets his first credit card, he says, "Kick fuckin' ass. Life is kinda cool sometimes."

Mark is a rainmaker, a booster in the American grain dating back to tent revivals. He relentlessly persuades his small cast and crew that they can complete the film, all appearances to the contrary. The short horror film Coven, pronounced with a long Midwestern O ("so that it doesn't sound like oven," says Mark), will produce video sales to finance Mark's dream project--Northwestern, the story of an artistic young man growing up in northwestern Milwaukee. He convinces his skeptical and frail Uncle Bill to invest in Coven. He shows Bill cheesecake photos of bikini-clad gals, saying, "They want to be in your movie, Bill." Bill is soon executive producer, sitting on a backyard set in Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses.

Mark's crew are the same guys with whom he shot Super-8 slasher films such as More the Scarier I in junior high. "Back then, when you had a beer in one hand and a camera in the other," says Mark, "that was the American Dream." They're essentially the same 30-year-old boys making the same crude movies. Mark's best friend, Mike Schank, who composed American Movie's semi-heavy-metal score, is the metal-head Sancho Panza to Mark's Don Quixote. These guys look like they wandered out of a Beavis and Butthead episode--but they care for each other.

Director Chris Smith was cinematographer for another chronicle of the heartland: Michael Moore's The Big One. Smith lacks Moore's condescension, thankfully. His empathy for these American dreamers in a trailer-park world brings much humor and warmth to a film that could easily have been one long put-down. Instead he captures Mark's indestructible optimism. Mark's can-do spirit drives some hilarious scenes, particularly the repeated attempts to push an actor's head through a cabinet door. Mark's family life is a mess, but Smith sees the love in moments when Mark is filming with one hand, reaching a finger back to touch his daughter's outstretched finger like Michelangelo's The Creation set in Wayne's World. Despite the ostensibly grim setting, American Movie is one of the funniest and most inspiring movies this year. The poet William Carlos Williams said, "The pure products of America go crazy," but they don't stop striving.

American Movie (R; 107 min.), directed and photographed by Chris Smith and starring Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the November 24-December 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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