The Middle Of Somewhere

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

Regarding the particulars of this process, Price thinks there's a regional dimension to the creative freedom that she and Smith (and, for that matter, Borchardt) have been able to maintain. After all, Milwaukee is safely located halfway between either coast, and well out of meddling range. "The approach in the Midwest is about doing what you think is exciting--whatever opportunity presents itself with people you like," says Price. "Living here, there's not as much pressure to 'make it.' You're not necessarily pigeonholed or pressured into saying, 'Okay, now I want to do an action thriller' or 'Now I need to do a romantic comedy to complete my résumé.' It's more like, 'Now I have this idea, and I'm going to start working this idea out, and this person is inspiring me and maybe I can do something with it.' It seems like that's sort of the way Mark is working, and that's the way our other filmmaker friends in Milwaukee are working--and it's how we got into American Movie, following Mark around because he was interesting. Living in a place that's not very glamorous or sexy gives you the time and space to do what you feel like doing."

As it happens, what Smith and Price feel like doing next is a project that again deals with the plebeian working world: The pair recently signed with the indie outfit Good Machine to make American Splendor, a fictional film based on Harvey Pekar's long-running cult comic-book series about (what else?) a man's philosophy of his ordinary American job as a hospital file clerk. As Pekar himself has been a defiantly independent character for decades, even the short item in Variety that broke the news of Splendor in mid-May couldn't fail to note the perfect consistency of Smith's third American movie. The article quoted Good Machine's Ted Hope to the effect that, just as Pekar has kept his civil servant job in Cleveland long after earning wide acclaim as an artist, "'Chris Smith lives in Milwaukee and he has no plans to move into the L.A. hurricane.'"

 

From American Job and American Movie to American Splendor, Smith has somehow managed to expand his horizons while staying put. The main thing that encourages him and Price to remain in Milwaukee is the continued presence of fellow filmmaking friends Xavier Leplae, Didier Leplae, Peter Barrickman, and Brent Goodsall, who run the River West Film and Video cooperative (formerly known as Pumpkin World) on a burgeoning boho block of the city's Locust Street. In addition to cutting their own low-budget movies on an ingeniously ad-hoc editing system in the co-op's basement, this tight-knit group of cineastes rents equipment and tapes to other filmmakers at affordable prices.

Not surprisingly, Smith can often be heard championing the co-op's alternative definition of the American job. "It's like a living version of Three's Company over there, in the sense that they all spend a good portion of their time together, collectively making the rent. They sell pop and beer to the people who hang out there, marked up ten cents or whatever. They're all in bands, and now and then they shoot weddings and industrial videos. The goal is to make their living as much as possible through running the store. We all hope that one day there'll be enough equipment there for all of us to collaborate on an in-house movie using only the co-op's resources."

In a way, the River West co-op, with its A/V thrift-store mise en scène and abundantly creative vibe, is the concrete realization of the communal artmaking ethic embodied by Smith's films. Stemming from American Job and American Movie is a veritable family tree of artwork: the no-budget satirical comics with which American Job's Randy Russell established his character; the acoustic guitar playing of Borchardt's lotto-loving buddy Mike Schank, which supplies American Movie's alternately glum and galvanizing score; and Smith and Price's bands the Friday Knights and Competitorr, respectively, which played at Sundance to celebrate Movie's success. "In fact, everybody connected with [American Movie] was doing their own form of art," says Smith, who hopes to collect some of this work on the Movie DVD.

And then, of course, there are the movies of Mark Borchardt, including the impressively bare-bones "Coven"--which, at Smith's insistence, is being included as a midnight attraction concurrent to the run of American Movie (it plays at the Uptown Theatre on Saturday, January 8 at midnight). Smith is effusive in his praise of Borchardt. "Mark has kept up the same level of ambition since he was 12 years old making short horror films," he says. "When I went back to find archival material to pull from his movies, it took days, because there were literally hundreds of Super 8 films that he had made over the years, and they were all incredible. I mean, sure, they were in the horror genre or whatever, but the cinematography and the editing and the framing was just so impressive, and to see his development over the years has been great. He completely knows what a good film is, and he wants to be able to make that film.

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