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USA 1999
Directed by
Chris Smith
107 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

American Movie

Synopsis: Mark Borchardt is a no-budget film-maker living in Milwaukee who is trying to make his first feature film. Realising that it is not going to happen he decides to complete a 16mm direct-to-market horror/slasher flick,"Coven" , begun 6 years earlier.
Imagine turning a camera on yourself, family and friends for a couple of years and turning the footage into a feature film. You are not far off imagining American Movie. Only the most optimistic or narcissistic would be deluded into thinking that it would make a good movie. In this case, however, many people have come to that conclusion. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and has received no end of critical plaudits. It seems inverted snobbery prevents anyone from recognising that the beggar has no clothes.

Milwaukee, home of Mark Borchardt, is an icon of American urban industrial drabness, trailers parks and dead-end lives, so choosing it as the backdrop to this ironic essay on the American Dream is less than subtle and in case we didn't get the message, Mark is continually ready to remind us that what he is doing in obsessively trying to get his dodgy movies together is a manifestation of the ideology of achievement and self-realisation. Somewhat surprisingly, given his complete lack of financial resources, and we are encouraged to believe, comparable lack of talent, he does get his movie together. At that point we take our leave.

American Movie is a documentary about making movies and hence about fortitude, perserverance, elation, desperation and so on. In this respect it could have been a very rewarding film, particularly given that its makers had first-hand access to such a wealth of material. Unfortunately they have chosen to accentuate the buffoonery of the principals (Mike Schank, one of Mark's best friends who looks like a character from Wayne's World, drew much laughter from the audience), to such an extent that I went through most of the film thinking that this was some kind of excruciatingly boring faux-documentary, crafted to appear that way according some perverse aesthetic. It was only after scrutinising the credits that I concluded that these were real people and the film was about real events.

This is less because truth is stranger than fiction than because the subjects do not come across as real people but as characters (the film is edited to eliminate accidentals) and the events are stitched together without any sense of actual causation. The film-makers have turned a camera on ordinary people and their improbable dreams but not given us any reason for doing so except to have some easy laughs.




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