Greg Brown said, "We Americans: we are so easy to please. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and fifty-thousand dollars." That earthy, simple sensibility, the idea that happiness comes with a full belly and no financial worries in the near future--isn't that the basis of The American Dream?
Like all dreams, The American one has its convolutions and contradictions. Part of the dream is that hard work can make anyone rich. But the other part is that riches can allow anyone the freedom never to work again. In pursuing the wealth that allows for leisure, minor victories often necessitate celebrations which frequently undo the hard-work, returning the dreamer back to square one. Without self-discipline, capital up front, or a helping hand, the American Nightmare never ends, and the dreamer never wakes to a sunny day. The American dreamer is highly susceptible to resting on his or her laurels and back-sliding like a bald-tired Toyota on a snowy mountain.
Filmmaker Mark Borchardt is just such a creative backslider. For years a devoted gore-fest movie maker, he has found himself grown up having failed, so far, to land Steven King's or Steven Speilberg's fame and fortune. This is also when documentary maker Chris Smith finds him and begins to tell his story. He tells it directly, without any judgement or denial of truth. Smith has a lot of integrity.
As a single father, minimum-wage worker, Mark doesn't have much resource for movie-making. In fact, his resources are three: he has an obsession with filmmaking, his local friends and family are willing to be in his movies, and he has a way of convincing people to help him. Early in the film, he's able to convince his very elderly Uncle Bill to lend him $3000 to finish a 35-minute movie called Coven (pronounced with a long o).
Coven is a side-track from Mark's real passion, another film called Northwest, a feature shot on 16mm black and white film. To finance this movie, Mark must finish Coven and sell 3000 copies. Three thousand seems to be a magic number for Mark.
The camera catches all of this: the humble actors, the ex-con friends of Mark, the suburban mundane-ness of it all; plus Mark's extraordinary passion sticking out like a wild flower in snow. He convinces a pencil-pusher/actor to let Mark put his actor's head through a kitchen cabinet. He convinces his mom to work the camera for a few scenes. He gets a tea-totaling friend to buy him a 12 pack of beer. For all his backsliding, Mark has tenacity.
That's the fascinating thing about this documentary. So many things that Mark and his friends do make you think what incredible losers they are. But as you continue to watch, you realize the purity of Mark's dream and his all-encompassing devotion to it. It wraps up his circle of friends and gives them something to believe in as well. And if it's true that nobody really thinks he's going to make it, it's also true that they aren't willing to abandon him.
And anyway, look what happened with The Blair Witch Project. Perhaps it was not much more than luck that ascended that film over one of Mark's.
"Life is hard," says a losing Lotto player in this film. And that about sums it up. One has hope. One tries as best as one can. One fails, but keeps on living, hoping suddenly to be pulled up to immortality. Filmmaking is Mark's lotto. As we learn from his friend Mike, gambling is better than drugs because at least there's a chance to win.
This is an entertaining and challenging movie. Both funny and disturbing,
and certainly worth watching. I hope Smith puts out a follow-up, something
like Michael Moore's Pets or Meat, just so I can find
out what has happened since to Mark Borchardt. I want to know.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.