Countdown to Halloween: The American Un-Dream

(Source: TheDocumentaryBlog / YouTube)

I promised at the end of the last post that we’d again veer away from “horror” and instead talk about a documentary, the subject being that of a forgotten horror film director. We will, though the reason for his absence in the annals of horror history has more to do with the fact that he’s never made a major motion picture than that time forgot him.

He literally was and still is a struggling filmmaker, despite making appearances on “Family Guy,” having a part in the sequel to “Cabin Fever” and appearing as a guest on “The Late Show with David Letterman” a total of five times. Yet, despite years and years of trying, he is still very much just a guy in Wisconsin with a dream.

I’d like to talk a bit about filmmaker Mark Borchardt and the movie that chronicles him as he attempts to make a film. I’d like to talk about “American Movie”…

A movie that, upon first viewing several years ago, I found to be one of the funniest documentaries I’d ever seen up to that point–and possibly, now that I think about it, ever. But, upon reflection, I think missed the point.

The promotional poster for “American Movie.” (Source: Posteritati.com)

“American Movie” is about a group of struggling filmmakers in Wisconsin in the late ’90s, but mostly about writer/director Mark Borchardt and his friend and musician Mike Schank and their families as Mark attempts to make a feature film that is still undone, and his short film “Coven,” which is a horror film about witches. 

It’s worth noting that he pronounces the word “coven” incorrectly throughout the movie because the actual pronunciation, “sounds too much like oven.”

Though, despite that, it is an immensely heavier tale than what I first took from it. It’s a deep, dark, sad tale about the down luck side of America and the sad loneliness of the dreamers that inhabit it.

Don’t get me wrong, it is brilliantly funny. But that is because Mark can talk at great lengths and often does, sometimes in surprisingly nonsensical and amazing ways. Such as this little doozy:

 “Last night, man, I was so drunk, I was calling Morocco, man. Calling, trying to get to the Hotel Hilton at Tangiers in Casablanca, man. That’s, I mean, that’s, that’s pathetic, man! Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? That’s senseless! But that’s what happens, man.” 

Every time I hear that come out of his mouth I burst into laughter, as one is wont to do. I mean, it’s brilliant, it’s hilarious, it’s Mark Borchardt, mad genius that he is. 

Mark Borchardt (left) and Mike Schank. (YouTube)

Mark’s machine-gun mouth is much at odds with his friend, Mark Shank, who resides on the opposite side of the talkative spectrum. Words seem to spill from his mouth as if he had to build them bit by bit before uttering them.

That is unless he’s screaming. (Do yourself a favor and Youtube “Mike Schank scream,” you’ll be very pleased.)

On the surface these two genuinely funny, genuinely goofy individuals and their brilliantly mid-western families supply a great deal of hilarity, of which I could talk about for hours and hours, listing several points in the film that engulf me in laughter.

It’s these things that I took from the film upon first viewing. But as I said earlier, I had missed the point. Severely.

The point wasn’t to look at how ridiculous these people were, and for them to exist simply as enjoyment and for me to look and point at them and laugh at all of the ridiculous things they do. No, no, no. The movie has more depth than that.

Upon first viewing, I realized that he was mostly a lost cause, as were many of his friends. I mean, the guy, although knowledgeable, was still WAY out of his depth. 

Mark Borchardt is what some might call a “white-trash Midwestern,” who was most likely destined like so many other rust-belters, to work the rest of his life in some endlessly mundane factory job.

Borchardt, filmed sporting a mullet during the last gasps of the nineties. (YouTube)

 Which is something, in this, that he often rebukes, including a drunken explosion during the Packers-Patriots 1997 Super Bowl, revealing in a drunken state, the anger and slight egotism that has lead him down his path; a path that includes a lot of drinking, a lot of depression and a lot of bitterness.

Upon later viewing though, it was much harder to watch. Myself now being many years older, and admittedly, spending most of my twenties making films, most of which I’m not all that proud of, and realizing just how close I was to this guy. 

But not just me. Any creative type, or dreamer who throws said dreams to the rocky shores of life, hoping, praying, inexhaustibly that your plans will work out. Though finding that most of the time, in time, we just end up embarrassed and disillusioned by our attempts.

The movie begins with Mark narrating a drive through what I assume to be Milwaukee at night, in a dilapidated car. The purple-black sky of twilight in the background, as Mark muses:

“I was a failure. I was a failure and I get very sad and depressed about it. And I can’t be that no more. Cause I really feel like I betrayed myself, big time. Cause I think, I know, when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world.

“Now I’m back to being Mark, who has a beer in his hand, and is thinking about the ‘great American script’ and the ‘great American movie’. And this time I can not fail, I won’t fail, it’s not in me. You don’t get second chances and mess em up, you’d be a fool to. Not just finishing films or in the long run getting some money.

“But it’s right now. I feel like, like I said, it’s five, ten, fifteen years ago now. I’ve got the same options again and this time I’m not gonna fail. This time it’s most important, not to fail, just to drink and dream but rather to create and complete.”

The opening scene of”American Movie.” (YouTube)

It’s an immensely beautiful opening for the film, and something that I missed upon first viewing, myself at the time, a young man, filled with hope and joy, ignorant of the hardships of adult life, the heartbreak of failure, the weight of years worth of watching the people you know and love grow up, and face this unforgiving task. Life.

As the film ends, there is a scene where Mark goes to visit his elderly grandfather, the ever pessimistic Uncle Bill. There seems to be a stark contrast between Mark and his grandfather, and that scene always hits me like a bullet now, being older.

Mark asks Uncle Bill if he’s ready to make another film and his grandfather’s response underwhelms him. And Mark, ever the miscalculating optimist strikes back asking his grandfather about his dreams, forcing the old man, sitting on the front porch of his trailer, content and reserved with the life he’s been dealt to respond with:

“Dreams. I don’t have any dreams anymore.” Uncle Bill’s voice is quiet and woebegone.

Then, after Mark delivers a rumination on ‘The American Dream’ to his grandfather, Uncle Bill responds with a series of sentences and sentence fragments that kind of seem random, but in a way end up summing up the film, beautifully.

Mark still makes movies, for the most part. Though, his dream never was fulfilled, I think, he’d admit to being at least considerably happier about things. I don’t know, maybe not.

The film ends with images of Mark and Mike’s younger days displayed for us in 16mm black and white, as Mike Shank covers “Mr. Bojangles.” They look young and happy, filming everyday things, living their lives.

The film’s somber ending. (YouTube)

It’s a sad, but also brilliantly beautiful ending, but one that fits the story that I missed all those years ago when I was younger, so very unaware of how hard time can be.

Although “American Movie” isn’t exactly a “horror movie,” I think that it more than qualifies, considering that Mark is now seen as a bit of a horror icon for those in the know. I also feel like the film expresses something that the horror genre has long been the mouthpiece for: the state of the times.

From the alien invasion films of the ‘50s to the occult films of the ‘70s, birthed in the wake of the Manson Family, to the kaiju films of Japan, in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horror films have always been society’s way of taking the cultural temperature.

Mark’s story is that of an America in decay. The Rust Belt of America, a section of cities that stretch from the Northeast to the Midwest was once referred to as The Steel Belt, named so because they were the cities that made up America’s manufacturing sector.

Mark’s Wisconsin and the big dreams that reside in his head serve as an accurate depiction of that decay, expressed in a bio-doc about a section of America that has, for some time, been falling by the wayside.

It’s a big story about a time in American culture and a personal story about failure. It is, one of the saddest horror movies I have ever seen.

Next week we’ll jump back to horror, kinda, as we also lean back into the “vampire genre” and take a look at two films that express the fear of being different. Also, as a hint, the original film gets its name from a Morrissey song. Til then, have fun.

Richard Foltz
Managing Editor

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