Saturday, November 19, 2011


To Create and Complete (some final, passing words on the subject of the greatest Wisconsin movie ever made).

The time has come for me to end it all. With this twelfth and closing month in the last full year before the predicted demise of all things, the moment has arrived to address the last standing point of interest in this all consuming, state to cinema pair up. At long, long last I get to slap some lucky bastard of a film up on a metaphoric pedestal as a (hopefully) fitting representative of our oh so totally beloved fortress of dairy and booze stuffs, all-pro sports collectives and plus-size citizens (aka-Wisconsin).

But, which film do I choose? A troublesome dilemma, but not really. Do I go with Rodney Dangerfield mugging his way across the UW-Madison campus in the mid-80s feature length sitcom BACK TO SCHOOL? Nah, how about that grim yet proper, deep Gothic, Black River Falls based checklist of startling fatalities and somber, monochrome psychosis packaged (in book and film as) WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP? Eh, too one-note and stuck in the distant past. Maybe one of them low profile (not to mention quality) horror flicks (SEVERED TIES, THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION) they like to shoot in one of our lesser, remote towns? Certainly not the exaggerated qualities of something like the over hyped, Mid-Western hopping, Johnny Depp led lesson in old school, criminal glamor, PUBLIC ENEMIES?

I can do better, I think.

There is one film far better suited then any and all of these mentioned here (and several more that have slipped my cluttered mind, I'm sure, with good reason) and that film is called AMERICAN MOVIE.

Contained herein we have the perfect, personal saga, captured in the raw and sometimes earnest style of the scrape and scratch independent documentary form, that fully encapsulates many of the finer charms (and even some alarming quirks) that may feel overly familiar to anyone who has logged in a substantial measure of time in the Badger State.

It's all based around the lifeline of an exuberant persona named Mark Borchardt discovered by director Chris Smith while he was working on a separate, earlier project (AMERICAN JOB) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Mark is a head strong creative force of the most addictively absurd sort, bent beyond hell at completing a feature film entitled NORTHWESTERN. However, as the tempestuous fate of the grass roots gods would have it, Mark is compelled by way of erratic preparation and ever mounting debt to shift his ambitions to finish off his previously abandoned, but now more manageable short thriller film endeavor COVEN.

From this point, the film dives into an inspired and quite colorful breakdown and delineation (some might add, aberration) of the film making process by virtue of a motley line-up of none too professional, yet attractively rogue Wisconsinites, many well worthy of a film all their own

Mark's ceaselessly loyal right hand man is a deeply substance abused fellow named Mike Schank. A fairly portly and often scruffy looking gentleman with a penchant for acoustic guitar (he even put out a record-'Songs I Know') and gambling on scratch off tickets, Mike accompanies Mark throughout the body of his daredevil stab at cinematic infamy, laughing uneasily and injecting dumbfounding yarns from his drug addled past.

An equally significant compadre in Mark's immediate social circle is his frail and world weary Uncle Bill. Arguably the top bid for a sentimental favorite in the film (or, at least, in a tight tie with Mr. Schank), Bill is a wonderfully weathered ol' miser type who chills about his trailer court palace and endures frequent motor mouth visits from his financially handicapped nephew. Although Willie hems and haws (and hacks and coughs) at the idea of funding Mark's brand of distraction afflicted, stop/start style of movie making, he can often be seen filling space in and around the core action as a sort of begrudging moral anchor. Because, in Wisconsin, family is everything.

Oh, wait...

The remaining human satellites (both blood relation and otherwise) that rotate around Mark's cold hard real life vary wildly in their take on the man and his mission. His parents, though not without a loving respect for their child's flawed obsession, could do without the equally fanatic drinking habit (a shocking trait in these parts, I know) and persistent profanity (the guilty quality that earned this film its R rating) and would rest better if only he would settle into a solid 9-5 routine (a thing Mark loathes passionately). Two male siblings hold contrasting views on their brother and his bombastic exploits, one (the far more 'effeminate') seeing him as suitable for little more than factory labor. Other solid peripheral players include hangers on from the aborted NORTHWESTERN pre production days (a pair of whom, Dean Allen and Matthew Wiesman, earned tangential side coverage by the filmmakers that wound up, largely, as deleted scene fodder), COVEN cast mates and girlfriends past and present (as well as Mark's trio of kids who provide spunky comfort during even some of the lowest points in our hero's journey).

AMERICAN MOVIE earns its place as a chief representative of this Wisconsin by way of the ease in which the picture dips into and reflects back thick, genuine chunks of the state's culture and epic, idiosyncratic delights. The narrative thread covers a pivotal two year span, from 1995-97 and thus places the Mark Borchardt experience on a direct parallel with the rise to triumph of another long suffering (at the time) local institution, the Green Bay Packers. Said NFL forefathers complete their sole championship run of the Favre era just ahead of Mark's final stretch to his own, personal, happy ending, the wrapping up and premiere of COVEN in front of a packed and still disbelieving house of his many co-horts.

What Chris Smith and his main (no, only) direct partner in this necessary crime, Sarah Price have achieved here is nothing shy of a perfect inspirational miracle. It is smoothly and beautifully cut and arranged (with ample sonic assist from many a drifting Schank guitar piece) to best sell the soul and struggle of the entire of this most fascinating of down home, Wisconsin dream come (semi) true scenarios. The filmmakers never truly film down to their subjects and even manage to imbue their key protagonist with a heady level of gravity. By example, at several parts throughout the picture, Mark is shown waxing quasi-philosophical in his own abstract Mid Western reconfiguration of the English language on subjects ranging from basic life lessons to spiritual conflicts and even the juxtaposing of a standard, overcast Wisconsin terrain with the work of Ingmar Bergman.

Like with any piece of art I so self affectingly respond to and deem 'classic', I want to know and absorb every single incremental detail of its very existence. This begins with excessive repeat viewings (for this film, I've logged close to 100 such by now) and later by seeking out the participating parties in the mortal flesh. At a screening for AMERICAN MOVIE held at the upscale think joint, Lawrence University in shit-hot downtown Appleton, circa 2001, I managed to corner Sarah Price in the lobby and quiz her on, among other topics, the chance of ever baring witness to more of the alleged 70 hours of exposed footage apart from the finished film and the near hours' worth of DVD bonus scenes. She dealt with such fanboy gushing with a gentle demeanor and vaguely suggested I keep an eye on the internet for the unveiling of any additional footage. The same event also boasted a drunken Mark Borchardt ranting on about the Sundance Film Festival and porn star gang bangs and Mike Schank taking requests for acoustic renderings of everything from 'Smoke on the Water' to 'Reign in Blood'. Lawrence has never been nor probably ever will be a cooler place to hang in than on that night.

Beyond the success of AMERICAN MOVIE (Sony snapped it up for a cool $1 million) Chris Smith has progressed to helm well regarded work like the Errol Morris inflected HOME MOVIE, THE YES MEN (again with Sarah Price) and the compelling 'one man act' (if you will) COLLAPSE which allows former L.A. cop turned author/radical thinker Michael Ruppert to expound upon the issues and incidents that are corroding our nation's infrastructure and depleting our much coveted oil supply. The duo of Mark and Mike have expanded their cinematic careers as well. Sir Borchardt has made his way onto the David Letterman Show and bit parts in films like THE ONE (with Jet Li), CABIN FEVER 2-SPRING FEVER, THE GODFATHER OF GREEN BAY and BRITNEY BABY, ONE MORE TIME (reunited with Mike Schank as a faux documentary crew following a cross dressing male Spears impersonator as she/he travels to New Orleans to meet her/his idol, much better as a concept than as a finished film). Schank also pops up in Todd (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE) Solondz's STORYTELLING but he's not forced to press his acting chops too hard.

I can also spot a thread of the story covered in AMERICAN MOVIE living on in the undertakings of several strong willed Wisconsin natives here and now. I see it in Hunter Adams who dived right in and crafted a delightful little Fox Valley based comedy, THE HUNGRY BULL with friends and family in tow. I see it even more in the growing Oshkosh juggernaut Head Trauma Productions, lead by the blessed forces of John Pata and Adam Bartlett. This duo birthed a hokey yet likable zombie short (BETTER OFF UNDEAD) several years ago and are now poised to drop a fat, full length feature (DEAD WEIGHT) in the impending, year to end all years, 2012. It can be seen in guys like Jason Buss and his peers in the Wildwood Film Festival each spring, and in people I know who have taken the influence to such diverse places as Minnesota and California to make it happen on film. I am pretty certain not one of these cats can say they've never crossed paths with the mastery of AMERICAN MOVIE, the greatest Wisconsin movie ever made!

You tell me different. Also, if for some stupid reason you've never seen or heard of this film, either get to it with much haste or move the fuck to Illinois.

Thanks. Experiment over.