That having been said, "American Movie," itself a microbudget documentary film, provides a a sometimes-funny, often-poignant look at two years in the life of microbudget horror film auteur Mark Borchardt. Borchardt could be a poster child for what Friend of the Empire Bwana refers to as the general problem of horror fans becoming horror filmmakers. Beginning with Borchardt's attempt to drum up financing for his autobiographical feature "Northwestern," the documentary changes course after the director decides to complete his 35-minute short subject "Coven" (pronounced "COE-ven," mind you), estimating that if he can sell 3,000 copies of this film he will be able to produce his full-length picture. While many viewers underscore the "car crash rubbernecking" aspect of watching this film, I don't find this to be its primary value. Certainly there are moments when Borchardt, an unmarried father of three whose means of income are as a newspaper delivery person and--later--a cemetery groundskeeper, says ridiculous things or imbues his projects with over-the-top significance, but the portrayal of this Wisconsin Don Quixote is deeper than that of the dreaming fool. There's a real drive behind this man, and those who support him can see that, even when they don't share his vision. The often uncomfortable-to-watch relationship between Borchardt and his elderly and ailing Uncle Bill is at the center of the film. There's some ambiguity as to whether Borchardt is exploiting the old man or if Uncle Bill is living vicariously through his nephew's probably-mad creative ambition.
There's no doubt in my mind that "American Movie" is an enormously successful film, but a fair assessment of Borchardt's "Coven" would be far more difficult after watching the documentary. Clips of Borchardt's films are shown throughout the documentary, but since the filmmaker had such an obsessive need to record and re-record material ("Coven" took three years to complete), it's impossible to tell if the frames selected are simply the best few moments out of hours upon hours of footage. Is Borchardt driven by an impulse to perfect, or is he procrastinating in order to put off the eventuality of completing his work and handing it over for public review? Borchardt's ambition seems to have three phases: filmmaking, the hard stuff, and fame; and his relationship with Phase Two is fraught with anxiety.
All is not Serious Bidness in this documentary, though, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, even if many are at the expense of the emphatic-but-probably-misguided director and his misfit pals. Borchardt's friend Mike Schank is a superb counterpoint to the frantic director, floating through life with a grin and a childlike understanding of his world. When Borchardt rants during casting that the actors are turning his script into a "theatrical mockery" and asks if Schank can understand what he's saying, Schank smilingly tells his buddy that no--he doesn't understand what he means. Another stand-out is Robert Richard Jorge, who plays the villain in "Coven." Let me put it to you straight, folks--I kind of want Jorge to be featured in EVERY MOVIE. He completely OWNS his role as the cultish leader of a Satanic 12-step program, with his foppish mannerisms, arched eyebrows and complete immersion in campy evil. The scene in which he prissily explains to Borchardt that his film's title is properly pronounced "CUH-ven" is one of the more priceless moments in a movie brimming with priceless moments.
Rather than detailing everything that happens on-screen and typing out the unintentional dry humor of the verbal exchanges, it's best to experience this movie if you haven't done so already. It's quite handy that you can get it free on the web even now: