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Stickin' with the American Dream 

click to enlarge Buddies Mike and Mark in Mark's front yard
  • Buddies Mike and Mark in Mark's front yard

American Movie (Not rated)
Sony Pictures Classics

Checking the movie listings this week, I found our local 20-plex is currently showing 11 films. Four screens, no less, are dedicated to M:I2 and multiple screens are assigned to Dinosaur, Road Trip and Big Momma's House, all of which are showing in at least three other theaters in town.

Summer schlockbuster season is upon us, and for me, that means a trip to the video store to scan new releases.

Imagine my delight when I happened upon American Movie, the funky little documentary that garnered the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics for almost $1 million dollars. Buzz about American Movie abounded, but it still didn't make it to middle market screens like Colorado Springs.

Wait no more, movie fans. Not only is American Movie available to rent on videotape, it is actually perfect for viewing in that medium -- no grand scenery edited for viewing on the average home television screen, no compromised musical or sound effects, just good storytelling, a charismatic central character and footage so funny and fresh, I walked away from it with my faith in the power of movies firmly restored.

American Movie tells the story of Wisconsonite Mark Borchardt, a slightly weasely looking, middle American guy who wants nothing more than to be a filmmaker. Borchardt pays his bills by moonlighting in the local cemetery, is a single parent of three adored kids, drinks too much and scrounges for money to finance his films anywhere he can get it. His chief financier is his 82-year-old Uncle Bill, a wizened flatliner of a guy who Borchardt loves as openly and optimistically as he loves his avocation of moviemaking.

Borchardt's obsession is explained by his brothers, commented upon by his parents, who are central to the film, and documented generously by director/ cinematographer Chris Smith, a fellow Midwesterner who saw in Borchardt and his unwavering ambition, a compelling example of the dogged pursuit of the American dream.

"We're in America today, and we're ready to roll!" exclaims Borchardt as he preps his ragtag group of actors, prior to beginning shooting of his film, Coven. "Check it out, man!"

The film documents the making of that film over a period of more than a year, interspersing live footage with flashbacks to the films Borchardt made as a teenager, including the 1982 horror flick, I Blow Up. Borchardt's early work and Coven all reflect his most important influences -- Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

American Movie is hilarious in a Clerks kind of way -- Borchardt and his buddies appear at first to be topnotch losers -- but succeeds ultimately by sticking with them so persistently and revealing the dedication to his dream that makes Mark not only unique but admirable. The guy is so driven, so generous, so single-minded in his pursuit, that by the end of the film you are rooting for his triumph. And when it comes, it is undeniably moving.

Many critics have taken Smith to task for exploiting Borchardt, but that criticism is misdirected. Had Smith made light of the making of Coven or Mark's dreams, I would agree. But what the film finally becomes is a tribute to his vision, skewed as it may be, and a celebration of his tenacity. For succeeding at that, Smith is to be lauded.

American Movie is highly entertaining and, ultimately, uplifting and endearing, surprising the viewer at every turn. "The American dream stays with me, each and every day," says Borchardt, and watching his days go by, we remember what that means.



Remedies for summer schlockbuster blahs

Here are a few other recently released video titles that will carry you through the season:

Besieged, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring David Thewlis and Thandie Newton, a lovely meditation on pent-up desire, friendship and loyalty.

Breakfast of Champions, directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Bruce Willis. The Kurt Vonnegut classic is intelligently translated to film, maintaining its exuberant subversiveness.

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries with Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey and Leelee Sobieski. A tender memoir set in Europe, telling the story of a brilliant, loving but unusual family.

A Walk on the Moon with Diane Lane and Live Schreiber. A sexy, good-natured look at a Queens family, all mixed up in a changing world during the Summer of Love.

Twin Falls, Idaho. A bizarre and fascinating indie hit about Siamese twins who long to break out of the cocoon of their limited existence, but cannot separate their outer lives from their physical and psychic connection. Beautifully filmed.

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