Chris Smith | 100 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R
A behind-the-scenes making-of with a difference, American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (to give its full title) is a documentary about wannabe-filmmaker Mark Borchardt attempting to produce a horror feature film with little more than some mates and good intentions, battling against a lack of money, interest, and dedication. It descends, quickly, into the kind of farcicality that leads some to assume it’s a This is Spinal Tap-style spoof. But it isn’t. It’s real.
It’s hard to know if you should laugh at it all, in fact. These are individuals whose lives are so quietly, subtly absurd that you can genuinely think they’ve been scripted or improvised by comedians — it’s funny, yes, but it’s also kind of sad. It’s a combination that could make for uncomfortable viewing, but for some reason it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the boundless optimism that Mark has; the belief that what he’s doing is worth pursuing and that it’s going to work out. Perhaps that’s less optimism and more naïvety.
I imagine this is actually a story that’s repeated regularly all around America — heck, all around the world: people who’d love to be filmmakers, trying to realise their dream, without really knowing what they’re doing. Hopefully not all those stories are as amusing and lightly-crazed as this one, but the vast majority will be just as unsuccessful. Whether there’s a lesson to take away from that, and what that lesson is, I’m not sure. “Don’t bother,” perhaps (to be pessimistic about it!)
Whatever you take away from it, American Movie feels like a must-see for certain sections of film fandom, particularly anyone who wants to make a movie themselves. Its appeal is broader than that though, an everyday story of adversity that isn’t so much overcome as temporarily averted. It’s not bleak or sad, but it is melancholic. And, whatever the morals of it, often laugh-out-loud funny.
Rarely seen (I hadn’t even heard of it until Film4 bunged on a late-night screening once last year), I recommend catching it if you can.