Sony // 1999 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 22nd, 2000
A quirky independent film about the making of a quirkier independent film.
This is a documentary that follows Mark Borchardt around as he spends three years trying to make his own piece of cinematic history; a short horror flick called Coven (that's CO-ven, since he didn't want it to rhyme with "oven"). Working with little education, no experience or budget, and terrible luck, we follow Mark and his friends as they pursue their own piece of the American dream. Ultimately the documentary turns out more successful than the film it documents, and American Movie goes on to win the Grand Jury prize at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and is bought for $1 million. Now Sony Picture Classics has produced a DVD release of both the documentary and Coven. See how not to make an independent movie but a decent documentary.
Chris Smith met Mark Borchardt in film class and decided then to document Mark making his film. As time went by he saw how interestingly and poorly prepared he was for making this film and the some of the quirky people who were helping him. This led to a four year odyssey of documenting the process of finally getting the film made and editing 70 hours of footage into a working documentary.
It's hard to imagine ever getting a film made by Borchardt after seeing this documentary. It is telling that he still doesn't have a movie deal after so many producers got to see him in action trying to make a low-budget film in the documentary. First, it seemed Mark was more interested in drinking and staying high than in actually doing good work. Despite his inebriation he doggedly stuck to his project. Ultimately it took him three years to make a 35-minute black and white film with poor production values.
Of course Mark didn't exactly have high quality help. His buddy Mike did the music for Coven, and while his music worked he was obviously a guy who'd taken a couple acid trips too many. He comes off like Silent Bob in a Kevin Smith movie but serious. The financing ultimately came from his Uncle Bill, who seemed disoriented most of the time himself. It is also telling that the man still wasn't buying what Mark was selling even when he was out of it. Ultimately the documentary is quirky and funny like the people being covered. Most of the humor was unintentional as the protagonists tried to seriously describe what they were trying to do. It rambles along much like the people making Coven. In Mark Borchardt's defense, Coven wasn't all bad. Some of the shots were really striking. Smith takes an affectionate yet dispassionate view in doing the documentary, which worked.
The picture quality is about what you would expect from a documentary filmed often with hand-held cameras. While it didn't have nearly so low of a budget as Coven, it still suffers from the limits of money and source film quality. The picture quality is often grainy, and there are some motion artifacts visible in the outdoor scenes. The film clips from Mark's work was worse though, being very grainy black and white.
Sound quality is pretty good, and more than adequate for a documentary. Dialogue is always clearly understood and there is virtually nothing else to listen to.
The extras are very good as a whole. Of course you had to be able to see Coven, which only has a few clips in the documentary. It is offered in its entirety and offers some striking shots, particularly at the beginning. Those shots are far better than the short film as a whole, which suffers from poor picture quality, distorted sound, and a story line as disjointed and jumbled as Mark's personality. There is a feature length commentary track with director Chris Smith, producer Sarah Price, and the stars of the show Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank. It was good to see that both Mark and Mike seemed more astute and well, normal, than they did in the documentary. Mike showed that he still has some brain cells left, and Mark seemed embarrassed about the level of his drinking during the making of the documentary. Hopefully now Mark, who has acquired financing from an inheritance for his next film, will be able to give the professionalism and sobriety needed to make a film that can realize his dream of being a respected filmmaker.
Next there are offered numerous deleted scenes, chosen from among the 68 hours of footage not used in the film. Considering what was left in the film was often rambling, you can expect the deleted footage to meander around and ramble even more. Entertaining in its way, but ultimately I thought about 30 more minutes belonged on the cutting room floor along with what was left there.
A variety of trailers are also offered, including for American Movie and Crumb, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Opposite of Sex, and SLC Punk.
Like I said, the documentary rambles. I consider it a good hour crammed into 107 minutes. Scenes tarry on rambling minutiae, though I'd have to say if you took out all the rambling minutiae there would only be about 15 minutes left.
The characters are somewhat endearing but watching this guy living with his parents and delivering newspapers at age 30, and getting drunk all the time instead of really trying to get his movie made makes it difficult. I had the feeling that Mark should have spent his money on say, film instead of booze and maybe spent the time working on someone else's film and perfecting his craft.
The documentary gets almost painful to watch at times as you see so many screw-ups and mistakes. I think I respect Robert Rodriguez even more now as I see what can be done with an ultra-low budget film. El Mariachi is certainly a masterpiece next to Coven.
I shouldn't be so hard on Mark and the gang making Coven. Ultimately they did get their film done, and a lot of people saw it, thanks to people seeing American Movie and wanting to see the actual film it covered. I genuinely wish them the best in their future endeavors. Chris Smith made a documentary about the film better than the film itself so that shows talent as well. To be fair to everyone, it seems most film critics, notably Roger Ebert, liked this documentary more than I did. I'd say those interested in the process of making an independent film will enjoy this.
All involved in American Movie are acquitted, and Mark Borchardt is released to make another film. Sony Picture Classics has done a fine job of presenting the documentary with a nice package of extras and is likely acquitted.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bonus Film "Coven"
* Commentary Track
* Deleted Scenes