"American Movie"

Chris Smith's film about a horror auteur with a dream would have made a great mockumentary, if only it weren't all true.

By Jeff Stark
Published April 19, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"American Movie"
Directed by Chris Smith
Starring Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank
Columbia/Tristar; full screen
Extras: Commentary by director Chris Smith, commentary by cast members, production notes, Mark Borchardt's "Coven," 22 deleted scenes

This quirky documentary by filmmaker Chris Smith spins a profile of wannabe horror auteur Mark Borchardt so absurdly funny that it could be one of the great mockumentary comedies, like "This Is Spinal Tap" or "Waiting for Guffman." But Borchardt's story -- and all the weird and wonderful bit players in his life -- is true and tinted with a realism that makes it all the more ridiculous.

Borchardt's a bit of a loser, tied down to go-nowhere jobs and a routine schedule of drinkin' and partyin' in the nowheresville of Menomonee Falls, Wis. But he's also a filmmaker with a dream, and he's not going to let his menial job or his lack of funds get in the way of finishing his short film "Coven" (mispronounced "CO-ven") and, eventually, his feature masterpiece "Northwestern." Along for the ride is guitar-playing stoner Mike Schank -- who is trying to beat his drinking with a new addiction to scratch lottery tickets -- and Uncle Bill, a senile old codger whom Borchardt is trying to talk out of a savings account.

At the same time, Borchardt is a contemporary hero, a guy willing to sacrifice even his dignity -- he works for a local mortuary to make ends meet -- for a chance to make art. No one else seems to understand what he wants to do, or why he wants to do it, but they can all appreciate his enthusiasm: They know he has to do it.

The DVD is exceptional. At least half of the 22 deleted scenes wouldn't have hurt the film had they been included; Smith made tough decisions in the editing room. The commentaries are amusing as well, but the best thing about the DVD is that it comes with the entire 30-minute "Coven." Because "American Movie" rightly spends more time on the partying alcoholics who make "Coven" than on the short film itself, it never even gets to one of the biggest jokes of all: "Coven" is about an Alcoholics Anonymous group gone evil. It's also not nearly as bad as you'd think.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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