Let me take a moment and applaud this summer's programming at UW Cinematheque. It is awesome and eclectic as always, with titles that range from the Iranian ultra-meta film Close-Up to This is Spinal Tap. But nothing makes as happy as learning about it screening a 35 mm print of the Wisconsin classic American Movie. Directed by Chris Smith and originally released in 1999, it will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday, July 18 in Union South's Marquee.
When American Movie first came out on video, my high school friends and I watched it over and over again. It's a documentary about filmmaker Mark Borchardt's attempts to make a short horror movie in the Milwaukee suburbs. We quoted it, we compared it to our then-recent attempt to make a horror film of our own, and we even called up one of the people featured in it, musician Mike Schank, and listened to his answering machine greeting.
My mother also watched American Movie. She thought it was funny and charming -- but also horrifying. She could see me as a future Mark Borchardt, still holding onto a futile dream of making movies in my late twenties. It was around that time she started suggesting teaching as a career.
After college, I struggled to find work as a teacher and now make videos as my full-time job. It looks like my mom's nightmare became reality anyway.
American Movie has stuck with me since its release. When one of my friends was going through a period of severe depression, I quoted him a line from the movie: "It's all right, it's okay, there's something to live for. Jesus told me so." Was that quote helpful? Probably not, but we both laughed.
I'm not alone in my love for this film about filmmaking. In February, film publication The Dissolve selected American Movie as its "Movie of the Week." As Tasha Robinson puts it: "There's terrific drama in the film's exploration of why these guys feel so driven to make these movies."
The cult status of the film acts as a handshake. When I pronounce "coven" as "COH-ven" around someone else who works in video, I'll usually get a wink and a nod that we've both seen a film that is all but a rite of passage for aspiring Midwestern filmmakers.
I haven't actually sat down and watched the film in more than a decade, though.
Learning that American Movie was going to be screened on the UW campus, I decided to rewatch it. I'm now older than Mark Borchardt was at the time he was in the documentary, and he seemed so old to me back then. Watching it again as an adult, the whole enterprise of even attempting to make a movie seems so much braver than it did when I was a teenager.
When it comes to making films, everything was so much damn harder in the '90s. Cameras were expensive and actual film was a pain; now you can shoot something that looks much better with a consumer DSLR camera and a handful of cheap memory cards. Independent distribution was a nightmare too. VHS tapes needed to be mailed, and there wasn't even a glimmer of YouTube and the video culture it would create. And try to raise a budget without Kickstarter or another crowdfunding options; it is so much more humiliating to ask friends and family for money in person.
But even if filmmaking technology, viewership and the market for each has changed dramatically, the idea of being a dreamer doesn't change.
Though I work in video, I found the movie resonated with me far more as a comedian. I've been doing stand-up and sketch comedy for years, and my odds of making professionally are not good -- but I still keep doing it. Any Madisonian who has an artistic dream -- musicians, comedians, actors, visual artists -- can find something familiar in Borchardt's passion project.
Friends, family and significant others of artistic hopefuls will also be able to recognize the frustration of watching someone devote countless nights and weekends to endeavors with questionable payoffs.
There's a time in our lives when we are encouraged to pursue our dreams, but that falls away as we get older. The odds of making it in an unlikely field gets slimmer and slimmer as the years go by. There's something I admire about people who still get up there and still work at their passion. The folks who do something because THEY MUST DO IT.
Madison is a town full of people who have held onto a dream a bit longer than they should have. American Movie is the kind of movie that celebrates people like us.