American nightmare

Film - Jonathan Romney enjoys a dark docu-sitcom about suburban angst in the States

I can't remember the last time I heard a film-maker invoke the American Dream, but it was most probably a fictional one - a sleazy producer, perhaps, hoodwinking an innocent hopeful in some satire on Hollywood squalor. But in Chris Smith's documentary American Movie, it's the hopeful who takes the phrase as a mantra. "The American Dream stays with me each and every day," declares Mark Borchardt early on. By the end, he's swearing in desperation: "I will be goddamned if I don't get the American Dream."

Smith's film presents Borchardt as the ultimate American Dreamer, which is tantamount to saying the ultimate American Loser. He's a motormouth fantasist who spends his whole life dreaming of making movies, and even puts considerable effort into making them, although the results seem fated to calamity. Aged 30, Borchardt has three young children from a failed relationship, lives with his mother in a Milwaukee suburb, is deep in debt and has been trying for years to make a thinly veiled autobiographical feature called Northwestern. But he seems chronically incapable of finishing anything he starts, and abandons Northwestern to complete his horror short, Coven (rhymed here with "cloven"). Although Smith's film is subtitled "the making of Northwestern", it is actually Coven that gets made.

Between fits of acute self-doubt, Borchardt has infinite faith in himself and seems to have the gift of making friends and collaborators share this faith. His family just about tolerate him - his brothers feel Mark would have been more suited to life as a factory worker, or possibly a stalker. Borchardt's closest friend is Mike Schank, a gentle guitarist whose amiably sloth-like personality is explained by a rich fund of drug anecdotes.

It's hard not to see American Movie as a docu-sitcom - a real-life Wayne's World about suburban no-hopers and their ludicrous aspirations, with Borchardt as a cartoon creation who incidentally has an autonomous existence in the real world. We laugh at his grandiloquence, proverb-mangling and second-hand motivational movie-speak. And we marvel at the larger-than-life characters around him: the goatee'd luvvie who plays Bela Lugosi to Borchardt's Ed Wood, or the decrepit, trailer-dwelling "executive producer" Uncle Bill, kvetching away in his barely intelligible, doom-laden mumble.

But if we laugh at Borchardt's circle, is it the film's problem or ours? Admittedly, Smith editorialises, cutting for maximum comic effect so that scenes tend to end on a punch-line or verbal pratfall. We feel we're invited to snigger at the hicks, to see Borchardt's world as an extended freak show. But Smith doesn't package that world's tragedy quite as obviously as he does the comedy. It's up to the viewer to look beyond the farce and see how serious Borchardt's existence is, how desperate and economically driven is his dream of a "second chance".

Borchardt's erratic grip on reality is explained by a turbulent family background, while his monomania is clearly endangering his own children's future. Mike, similarly, is not just a sweet-natured lunk, but apparently an irreparable drugs casualty, while cranky old Bill is a wealthy man who seems to have chosen an existence of decaying dementia. All this makes American Movie as much a horror story as Borchardt's own The More the Scarier III.

There's actually much to admire in Borchardt's obsessiveness, although that makes his propensity to fail all the more distressing. He doesn't just sit and talk about film, but gets on with it, displaying an impressive degree of technical know-how - he's fanatically hands-on, tirelessly acting, shooting, editing and recording. His ranting apart, Borchardt may well be no more incompetent or deluded than the armies of no-budget film-makers who regularly achieve moderate success in the US. It just happens that the Blair Witch Project crew beat Borchardt to the punch. But, had he been more astute at career-building, there's no reason why it might not have been him.

American Movie also conveys a delicate understanding of Borchardt's relations with others, which are tempered with real love. Mike Schank ceases to be a joke figure as we realise how much he holds Borchardt's universe together, simply by making him smile. We may laugh at the squalid anarchy of the scene in which Borchardt helps his Uncle Bill have a bath, but beneath the grim farce is some of the tenderness with which the British photographer Richard Billingham has documented his own chaotic family background.

Unlike Billingham, Smith is an outsider looking in. Whether or not we accept American Movie depends on how we perceive the pact between Smith and his subjects. Could Borchardt possibly have known, and accepted, that he would emerge as a larger-than-life comic creation? Or perhaps he realised that he would always be his own creation, and that Smith was offering him his big break, if not as a film-maker then as a sort of novelty talk-show turn, an exemplary Ameri-can Case History? Some critics have called Smith irresponsible in giving Borchardt the limelight, in encouraging him to take himself seriously. But attention is what Borchardt seems to crave more than anything, even more than achievement as a director. In this sense, everybody wins: Smith makes his documentary, while Borchardt becomes a genuine cult figure and gets to tour the world with in-person appearances and screenings of Coven. Horror buffs tell me that it's actually not too bad.

American Movie (15) is released on 7 July nationwide

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?