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American Movie Classic

photo by Sophie Olmsted

A third of the way through Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden says, "We were raised by television to believe that someday we’ll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars — but we won’t. And we’re learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off." That’s the theme of every great movie this season — American Beauty, Being John Malkovich — but no less so than the recent American Movie, currently in a limited run at the Nuart, which somehow seems to have nailed the Zeitgeist dead on.

In this new, lived-in documentary, director Chris Smith takes the already dicey proposition of making an independent film about an independent filmmaker and, through liberal doses of humor and warts-and-all fearlessness, finesses a delicate Errol Morris–style study of would-be horror maven Mark Borchardt. What Smith comes up with is a moving portrait of the artist as credit risk, distracted dad and no friend of the IRS, a portrait that is likely to polarize audiences between those who find it authentic and those who think it’s exploitation. With Michael Stipe and Jim McKay contributing production funds through their C-100 banner, it would be easy to see this as Being Ed Wood minus the angora sweaters, a wacky send-up of what Paul Thomas Anderson once called "indie fever!" It’s very much a tribute to Smith and his producer Sarah Price that their film accords such humanity to its subject.

"I think that anybody who knows anything about independent filmmaking knows that on some level, you are a salesman — either in getting people interested in helping on your film or in giving you money for your film," says the unassuming, Milwaukee-based Smith, no stranger to forced-march austerity, having spent $14,000 on his first feature (American Job) and time in the trenches on the Fuel tour. "I think the people who feel like this is exploitative are the same people who would never give Mark the time of day, and certainly wouldn’t give him a chance at being recognized as a filmmaker."

At 6 feet 3 inches, with long hair, Coke-bottle glasses and a sinister mustache, Borchardt carries some of the angular edginess of the Dark Star–era John Carpenter. But as the endless footage of him working as a groundskeeper at a Milwaukee cemetery — or delivering a paper route from 2 to 7 every morning so he can eat breakfast with his kids — proves, he is no latecomer to the indie bandwagon. In fact, if the sumptuous landscapes from his unrealized non-horror epic Northwestern are any indication, Borchardt may be one of the few chosen ones out there who’ve legitimately found their calling. He seems much more a regional filmmaker in the vein of John O’Brien in Vermont, Eagle Pennell or Ken Harrison in Texas, or Julia Reichert in Ohio — bootstrap populists who approach their work as a paean to and extension of their local community, one they can find no semblance of in popular film.

"I just wanted to expose a culture I was born into, which has never really been on film," says Borchardt. "Any realism that’s ever attempted, it’s all about a bunch of assholes. I see film after film where there’s reality involved, and the people are jerks." He also seems clear-eyed about the opportunities this newfound cut-rate celebrity might afford him. "I understand it takes money, obviously," he says with a certain distaste. "I spent a long time trying to make Coven [his 20-minute horror opus]. But investors used to take me out, and I noticed they’d start talking louder and louder about the film business, and looking around to see who was watching, and it made my blood run cold. I stopped going out with them. To me, it’s just embarrassing, man."

Borchardt and his composer and born sidekick, guitarist Mike Schank, are currently on display at Sony Classics’ www.americanmovie. com, where you can monitor sales of Coven (currently at 328 units, it is also playing midnights at the Nuart). In his own sweetly guileless way, Schank may be the Michael J. Pollard of his generation, destined for a career of character bits and affectionate cameos. But together, he and Borchardt resemble no one so much as Picasso’s pen-and-ink drawing of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote — waiting in resigned dignity for the battles with windmills ahead. Of course, they might be giants. You never know.