American Movie ★★★★½

Watched as part of the July 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Dex B's master list
#2: An unseen film from Louie Theroux's Twelve Terrific Documentaries

2017 movie viewings, #99. For almost twenty years now, I've put off seeing Chris Smith's genre-changing 1999 documentary American Movie, because I had heard all kinds of nasty things about how openly manipulative it was; in fact, that's what made it genre-changing in the first place, because it ignited a debate that still isn't over about just how much documentary filmmakers change the entire tone and feel of the subject they're covering, simply through editing choices alone. For those who don't know, it's a portrait of Milwaukee-area indie director Mark Borchardt, who Smith randomly met while a film student in the same city; a sort of "Tommy Wiseau Lite," if you will, Borchardt has all the enthusiasm and energy for being an indie filmmaker, but sadly none of the talent or fundraising skills, and the documentary covers a two-year period of him first trying to make the feature-length blue-collar character drama Northwestern, then scaling back and trying to finish an earlier horror short called Coven, where unfortunately everything he touches turns to shit, albeit in an endearingly comical way.

After gaining some mainstream success (it became the surprise Grand Jury winner at its year's Sundance), Smith suddenly found himself facing a significant backlash, as he was accused of "selectively editing" the hundreds of hours of raw footage he had so to make Borchardt's situation look much more pathetic than it actually was, and to paint Borchardt himself as an incompetent drunk with no self-awareness of his situation; and while I don't know enough about the real situation to offer an opinion on whether or not he's guilty, certainly just the accusation itself had been the main reason I had never watched this before, a reputation for "Gawk At The Losers" filmmaking that has become yet another legacy of the indie documentary genre in which it belongs. (See also, for example, 2007's The King of Kong, which while well-done is undeniably a movie whose main message is, "Ha, look at these fucking nerds have these giant fights about this ridiculously stupid subject! HA HA, WHAT A BUNCH OF LOSERS!" For extra credit, also see Todd Solondz's 2001 fictional movie Storytelling, made only two years after American Movie's theatrical release, which deliberately includes a vicious parody of a Smith-style manipulative documentarian [played by no less than Paul Giamatti]; or the 2008 Simpsons episode "Any Given Sundance," in which Lisa makes a documentary about her family which plays at Sundance and is exactly accused of the same manipulation Smith's was.)

So needless to say, it was a huge surprise to finally actually watch the film and realize that it doesn't nearly suffer from the "Let's Gawk At The Losers" syndrome it's been so bitterly accused of over the years; as a matter of fact, it's mostly an earnest and sympathetic look at Borchardt and his struggles to escape the white-trash life he was born into, the "loser" aspects of this portrait mostly being an organic outgrowth of Borchardt's actual personality. And make no mistake, there are plenty of "loser" moments in this film, lots of scenes that make you put your hands over your eyes, shake your head and mutter, "Oh my God, what the fuck are you doing?"; but what makes this so compelling is precisely that this isn't a film about Borchardt himself as some kind of unique case, but rather is a film about all the millions of people currently on the planet who are pursuing creative careers when they obviously shouldn't be, and who won't listen to a single word of constructive criticism no matter how valid it is. I mean, we're all here at Letterboxd, so doubtless you know at least a couple of people like this in your own life (and certainly as a book publisher, I've known plenty of people over the years on the literary side of this equation) -- so excited about being a filmmaker, yet completely incapable of turning out any other kind of movie than ones that are complete crap, but still manage to accept all the abuse and insults with a sheepish smile and and insistence that, "Oh well, the next one will be better!"

What makes a person continue to flagellate themselves on an endeavor that they clearly have no talent for? For years and years, over the course of literally dozens of projects? That ultimately is what Smith's American Movie is about, the unrelenting compulsion for creativity that some people have, and that makes them better human beings for it even if they're never able to make a decent creative project even once in their entire life. Perhaps it's because I've personally known so many people like this over the years, but I found Borchardt to be highly sympathetic in this documentary, someone I was strongly rooting for but in this "Oh, you sweet lovable stupid piece of shit" way; and I found the film to be a pretty straightforward and intellectually honest look at both the highs and lows Borchardt went through, although with the acknowledgement that certain small bits of it definitely smack of the editing-room manipulation people have accused Smith of. (The chief culprit is his over-emphasis of one of Borchardt's many friends, Mike Schank, who is quite literally like a Ralph Bakshi cartoon character come to life, and who gets way, way more screen time than all the rest of Borchardt's friends combined [including appearing right on the poster itself], despite not playing a big enough role in Borchardt's filmmaking life to warrant such an emphasis.)

Don't let this stop you, though, from watching this movie soon, a virtual blueprint for 21st-century indie documentary filmmaking that was much more emotionally moving that I had thought it would be. One of those films that's had a much more outsized influence on the general popular culture than its box-office receipts might make it seem, if for nothing else you should watch this so you can say afterwards, "Oh, so that's where this other movie and that other movie got its look and feel."

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