American Movie: The Making of Northwestern
Director: Chris Smith
Genre: Documentary
NY Distribution Status: opens 5 November 1999 (Sony Pictures Classics)

Grade: B-

There's but one element missing from American Movie that prevents me from converting the 'B' just above to an 'A': the closing credits, sadly, do not include a cast list. A portrait of an inept but driven indie filmmaker by the name of Mark Borchardt, the film is so consistently hilarious, so beautifully structured, that it could easily be mistaken for the latest knowing mock-doc, This Is Spinal Tap crossed with Ed Wood; as it happens, everything we see is real, a fact that both heightens the comedy and -- for me, at least -- produces a feeling of mild nausea. Take, for instance, Borchardt's best pal Mike, a glassy-eyed, inarticulate reformed party animal who punctuates most of his monotonous sentences with a disturbingly mirthless giggle: if he were an actor's invention, he'd be a riot, but as an actual corporeal human being, he's funny only in the same way that asylum inmates are sometimes funny -- the joke, in other words, is unquestionably on him. Glowing reviews of the film from Sundance invariably include the word "affection," but in fact Smith's camera is resolutely objective, dispassionate; meanwhile, he and his editors, presumably with an eye toward commercial accessibility (this picture, unlike Smith's deadpan debut American Job, has secured a distributor), have seemingly included all available footage in which Borchardt or one of his cast or crew members looks like a complete doofus. Tim Burton's paean to the indomitability of the talent-free human spirit was made possible by the critical distance that his expressionistic style lent to his protagonist's fictionalized foibles; Smith's flat, uninflected non-fiction equivalent winds up evincing the same let's-chuckle-at-the-rubes mien of which the Coens have sometimes (unjustly) been accused.* In a grave miscalculation, the subject of potential ridicule is never once addressed; there's a single moment, very brief, in which Borchardt confronts the man behind the lens, asking him somewhat contentiously what he, Herr Director, thinks about the events he's been documenting...but Smith cagily feigns misunderstanding, and the moment passes, and the question of Borchardt's self-consciousness or lack thereof never arises again. Consequently, I couldn't help but feel that we were being encouraged to enjoy the inane antics of an oblivious loser, and quite a lot of my laughter wound up stuck in my throat.

* (Even the film's subtitle is something of a wry joke: What we actually see Borchardt making is a short horror film called Coven -- a word that he, typically, insists on pronouncing with a long 'o' -- which he rather naïvely hopes to use to raise the money for his first feature, by selling 3000 copies on video at $15 per. Of course, ironically, once this film is released, he may well realize his dream after all: the closing credits do include a sales pitch for the cassette.)