American Movie: The Making of Northwestern movie review
American Movie tells the story of Mark Borchardt, an independent film maker in the midst of making his first feature, Northwestern, which has to almost immediately be shut down due to a lack of funds. Faced with the prospect of his dream slipping away, Borchardt decides to shift his focus to an unfinished short, Coven, with the hopes that the proceeds from that will finance Northwestern. Everything about that previous sentence has a scale that is too grand, but I guess Borchardt has worn off on me, because that’s how he talks.
I wouldn’t say I’m a big documentary watcher – some are just pieces of propaganda, which doesn’t mean they’re fictional, but it’s difficult to just roll the camera and have a story appear – documentaries must be the film editor’s playground. Maybe, if you wait long enough, a story shows up. That’s what happens here.
The film starts in 1995 as Borchardt attempts to begin production on Northwestern, but when that fails, he starts working on Coven, which he began in 1994. It’s clear that Borchardt knows a lot about film making and has an interesting visual style, but he’s not much of a manager and his crew, made up of friends and family, are not up to the challenge. Borchardt’s personal problems don’t make things any easier. Coven finally premiered in 1997.
American Movie is difficult to watch… at first. It’s hard to bear witness to someone who is simultaneously working to exhaustion to achieve their dream and kicking it in the face at the same time. Borchardt’s passion is borderline… I don’t know, psychopathic, I guess. At the same time, he’s also one of those ‘kooky artists’ I’ve had the displeasure of working with from time to time – the kind of guy that talks like you’re making a $100 million dollar movie instead of a $100 movie and gives directions to the actors like, “Again, but this time, with feeling.” Borchardt does have genuine talent, that can’t be denied, but his focus as a human being is questionable. At least it was back in the late 90s.
“It’s all right, it’s OK…”
You won’t know when it happened, but at some point, you’ll realize you’ve started to root for him. Borchardt makes mistakes, but he’s a good man with a good heart, even if he lacks the personal responsibility you’d look for in a 30 year old. Your image of him changes as he continues to scratch and claw away at this project and inevitably completes it. The dude is tenacious if nothing else.
As someone who dabbles in amateur video, I can’t help but cringe at the conditions that were reality back in the 90s and before. Working with actual film, syncing audio, linear editing… just horrendous. These days, anyone with a computer has an editing bay in their house, but back then, editing a 30 minute movie was an undertaking that I can’t even begin to fathom. Maybe it was this process that made Borchardt a little crazy.
I highly recommend American Movie to anyone who’s interested in or has ever worked on any sort of video or theater project. You’ll see archetypes you know well.