The Middle Of Somewhere

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

These days, the work space Smith shares with Price is considerably cushier, although evidence of their modest approach to filmmaking remains--most charmingly in their jury-rigged computer-editing system that includes a vertically stored Macintosh with its top off, cooled by a nearby electric fan (lest some squiggly lines appear on the monitor). Smith, age 28, and Price, 29, met about eight years ago in a 16mm class at the University of Iowa, discovering they had a similar vision of documentary filmmaking as well as a total lack of interest in Hollywood. Price had been sufficiently turned off by a catering stint on Ghostbusters II, and since hooking up with Smith has coedited American Job, produced American Movie (and recorded its sound), and nearly completed Caesar's Park, a documentary named after an eccentric senior citizens' section of her Milwaukee neighborhood. (In 1997 Price also road-managed the indie-film FUEL Tour, which included American Job and a handful of other undistributed features.)

As for Smith, the Michigan-born filmmaker financed his first movie by winning $10,000 in a Hostess Twinkies contest in 1994, coming up with the best short about those lard-filled treats. His animated effort starred two Twinkies who heroically flee their bakery-plant captivity to start a new life. Evidently the American Everyman's longed-for escape from his hourly drudgery has been a Smith preoccupation from the start.

 

If Smith's trademark is his droll yet sympathetic portrayal of peculiar laborers, he patented it with the $14,000 American Job, a brilliantly fabricated study of an hourly wage worker's progression through a series of dead-end positions. Affecting the style of cinema verité, the film follows the stone-faced, laconic Randy (actor/co-writer Randy Russell) through his brief, almost subversive stints as janitor, clerk, and fry cook.

In American Movie, Borchardt's own resistance to clock-punching conformity can be found in his insistence on following his muse in his own way, free of either patronage or compromise (a strategy not to be confused with failure). In order to pursue his dream, however, Borchardt has to put in time as a cemetery custodian, at one point regaling Smith's camera with the near-philosophic description of how it felt having to clean a hellishly fecal toilet stall. ("I'm 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I gotta start cleaning up somebody's shit, man.")

"I think the two films are definitely influenced by my growing up in the Midwest, working crummy jobs and having similar thoughts as Randy and Mark," says Smith, whose own ambition can be measured by the slight squint in his eyes on occasion, as if he's intent on registering your comments as advice. "I believe strongly in a lot of what both of them say in those films, their general attitude toward working. Like that scene in American Movie where Mark is driving into the cemetery, talking about how the boss had said to him that he was looking forward to a long relationship--and how that 'scared the hell' out of him, cause he can't see how people could want to work for someone else day after day after day. In a lot of ways, that's very much in line with the thinking we had when we were making American Job."

Nevertheless, Smith's latest film has been criticized by a few reviewers as a work of class exploitation--a charge that the director has met head-on ever since Sundance. "The people who think [American Movie] is exploitative are the people who would never dream of coming up to Mark and talking to him," says Smith, whose piercing blue eyes and floppy red mane seem to take on extra wattage when this subject comes up. "We have this history with Mark that we were very careful to try to convey through the editing," he says. "That's why it took more than a year and a half to edit the film. We'd show a rough cut to somebody and they would come away saying something like, 'Man, what a loser'--which showed us that they just didn't get the film. We'd think, 'Well, there must be something in the edit that's not right.' It was about finding the right balance between the comedy and the drama, and about putting it all in context. When we finally showed the film to Mark, and he told us that he liked it, to us, that felt really good."

When Smith first met Borchardt four years ago in a film class Smith was teaching at UW Milwaukee, Borchardt expressed his great admiration for American Job--without yet knowing that he'd soon be the subject of Smith's thematically similar followup. "It's kind of amazing to me how compatible the two films ended up being without really intending it--and one is a narrative film and one is a documentary," Smith says. "To me, that's kind of reassuring, the idea that I could move to another genre and maybe still be able to keep some consistency. I don't consider myself a documentary filmmaker or a narrative filmmaker, but just a filmmaker, you know? And as far as any future projects, I mean, I would love to make..."

"Armageddon?" jokes Price.

"Well, no, probably not," Smith says.

American Movie's great success among the industry players and bottom feeders at Sundance probably had a little to do with the apparent subject of "making it" in the film world, although it bears mention that "making it" isn't Borchardt's goal per se, nor is it the principal focus of the documentary. To its credit, American Movie is more generally about the burden of dreams, as documentarian Les Blank once defined Werner Herzog's herculean struggles--that is to say, it's about the personal costs for a man whose life has not equipped him to achieve his vision without tremendous sacrifice. In this sense, the film could just as easily be the portrait of a wood carver, a notion that Price shares. "To me, watching somebody who has a passion or a drive for anything is exciting," she says. "I would love to see a story about someone who has a passion for, you know, racing cars--somebody who really knows the ins and outs, somebody who has a philosophy about what they do. I just find that really exciting. As far as documentaries about artmakers, it's always a struggle to create, and so it's interesting to see somebody go through that process and come out the other end--emerging either as a better person or, like Mark says, 'with something under your belt.'"

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