The Middle Of Somewhere

With American Movie, director Chris Smith finds the heart of cinema in the unlikely environs of Milwaukee

Milwaukee director Chris Smith's reputation as a Very Nice Guy From the Midwest didn't change much a year ago when his hugely entertaining documentary American Movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Case in point: In the blush of victory last February, Smith's FedEx package to this Milwaukee-bound interviewer included a hand-drawn map on an index card marking "Lake Michigan" (complete with squiggly "waves"), "I-94" from Minneapolis, and a twisty "river" near his office space in the city's Third Ward--evincing the indie director's intimate knowledge of this Midwestern burg where he has chosen to remain even after hitting the jackpot in Park City.

American Movie (which opens in Minneapolis this week) sold to Sony Classics for a million bucks, and yet Smith picks me up at the Milwaukee train station in the same car he has had for years: a run-down '85 Prelude with a busted door on the passenger side and a chaotic interior whose contents tell the story of his great success and hectic lifestyle. Among other things, there's a 16mm roll of film containing snippets of his 1996 debut, American Job; the film can in which he personally carried the Movie print to Sundance in January; and the current edition of Milwaukee's weekly newspaper, whose cover is graced by the lanky, red-haired Smith and his cherubic producing partner Sarah Price. Noting the Prelude's broken window sealed with Plexiglas (evidence of a recent sound-mixing trip to the Big Apple), I jokingly suggest that just as American Movie documents the struggles of an indie auteur, so might some other enterprising young director make a movie about Smith's travails. "Uh, no thanks," he says with a laugh, not wishing to extend any further his film's already ample hall of mirrors.

A movie about an independent filmmaker made by an independent filmmaker, American Movie testifies doubly to the sneakily persistent spirit of the low-budget artist. Of course, as Smith's career has been variously supported by the likes of Split Screen host John Pierson and Girls Town director Jim McKay (the latter of whom invested in Movie through his C-Hundred Film Corp., co-run by Michael Stipe), the filmmaker within the film faces tougher odds, to say the least. "Kick fuckin' ass--I got a Mastercard!" exclaims Milwaukee director Mark Borchardt at the start of Smith's hilarious and harrowing Movie, which follows its poor subject through the countless travails--overdue child support, back taxes, and credit-card debts--endured in his efforts to get his feature-length dream project in the can. Using his mom as camera operator and black-hooded extra as the situation requires, working a literal graveyard shift in an attempt to fend off a steady stream of bills, and borrowing money from his ancient, trailer park-residing uncle Bill in trade for bathtub washing sessions and shots of peppermint schnapps, Borchardt is abundantly dedicated to his craft. And it's precisely this passion that makes Smith's movie sweetly funny rather than caustically so--in addition to complicating its serious query of what constitutes success.

Portraying the artist as a master in his own mind, an unpaid comedian, and a repository of infinite pain, American Movie is strikingly of a piece with the likes of The Cruise and Driver 23, to name two other recent, low-budget studies of unconventional artmakers. It's also, on the surface, a film that lends comedy and drama to the clichéd reality of indie filmmaking as a noble, often lonely, but exceedingly righteous struggle, with a phenomenal payoff that most creative masochists will never see. Yet part of what distinguishes Movie is its vivid, lovingly rendered milieu, one rarely if ever projected on the art-house screen: the working-class Midwest of suburban ramblers, freeway strip malls, family cookouts, lotto tickets, wide-open spaces, and, principally, dreams. And at the center of it all is a dreamer, Mark Borchardt, American Movie's wonderfully hammy star and uncredited screenwriter--an almost mythic embodiment of dogged Midwestern self-actualization and a damn canny packager of his life as a Sisyphean drama peppered with laughs and pathos.

"When we first started the project, I felt I had never met anyone like Mark," says Smith, slumped on a couch in his cluttered office during a break from making a few final trims to American Movie. "But gradually, over the course of two years, we started to see his many layers as he went through the highs and lows. My opinion of Mark kept going up through the entire process of filming, seeing what he went through. I never really saw him lose his temper. He was always calm, even when things were falling apart around him." Some of what falls apart for Borchardt, at least temporarily, is his faith in his debut feature, until he hits on the idea to finish his earlier short, "Coven," and sell it on video in order to earn financing for his debut feature Northwestern. "Otherwise," Borchardt claims in the film, "I'm not gonna be shit." The interminable schlep toward the completion of "Coven" (rhymes with "Rovin'," which is to say it's pronounced with the longest conceivable o) finds Borchardt sleeping on the cement floor with his three kids in the editing room of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's film department--which is where Smith had surreptitiously spent time in '95 while struggling to cut American Job.

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