A madcap tribute to a beer-guzzling Midwestern filmmaker -- and indie spirit in general -- docu "American Movie" is well placed at Sundance. Indeed, ambitious, wildly funny chronicle by Chris Smith ("American Job") could be the poster child for a fest that celebrates the do-or-die lifestyle of pic's subject, a redneck auteur named Mark Borchardt.

A madcap tribute to a beer-guzzling Midwestern filmmaker — and indie spirit in general — docu “American Movie” is well placed at Sundance. Indeed, ambitious, wildly funny chronicle by Chris Smith (“American Job”) could be the poster child for a fest that celebrates the do-or-die lifestyle of pic’s subject, a redneck auteur named Mark Borchardt. With proper handling in specialty venues, the sky’s the limit for this one. Rave reviews, fest kudos and cable deals await.

Think “Northern Exposure” crossed with “Ed Wood” and you’ll have a pretty fair approximation of pic’s quirky, deadpan appeal. On one level it’s about a George Romero-Tobe Hooper wannabe in Menomonee Falls, Wis.; on a deeper level, it’s about daring to be different and earning the mantle of town nut case for your trouble.

In his way, Borchardt is as passionate about hobbling together pics as Orson Welles was. Chief difference: Welles was a genius, Borchardt is the local character who thinks he’s a genius, dropping references to Bergman, Woody Allen and “the magic hour” at production meetings. Borchardt’s oeuvre spans 16 years, and includes the 8mm epics “The More the Scarier” and “I Blow Up.” His dream project: something called “Northwestern.”

But even grade-Z movies cost money, and Borchardt can’t dig himself out from under last year’s bills. He decides to finish the 16mm horror short “Coven” begun years ago and finance “Northwestern” — modestly dubbed “the great American movie” — with the $45,000 raised from video sales. Bill Borchardt, Mark’s 82-year-old uncle, is dragged, muttering and swearing, to the bank to cut a check for $3,000. In exchange, Uncle Bill will receive producer credit on “Coven.”

Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, and Borchardt has his Mike Schank, a good-natured druggie whose commitment to the Menomonee maestro knows no bounds. (Schank receives music credit on pic.) Also lending a hand on sub-zero shoots are Borchardt’s Scandinavian mother, his g.f. Joan and a stuffy local thesp with an affected Brit accent. Latter, cast as a satanic leader, bursts Borchardt’s bubble by explaining, “It’s pronounced COV-in, not CO-vin.”

Pic, which covers the two years it took to complete and preem B&W “Coven” (shown at Sundance), benefits from having not one, but two unforgettable characters — Borchardt and the skeptical Uncle Bill. Scenes in which Borchardt attempts to reassure the old guy that he’s investing in cine immortality are hilarious. Uncle Bill may look out of it, but he’s nobody’s fool. Other bust-a-gut moments include Uncle Bill’s bath, Uncle Bill’s marathon recording session and a “Coven” fight with a breakaway cabinet door that refuses to break away.

To their credit, Smith and co-producer Sarah Price never impose themselves on their subject or succumb to the temptation to jump in and share funds and equipment. Not that the headstrong Borchardt would have accepted, even in his bleakest hours (delivering newspapers, vacuuming cemetery crypts). This guy doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. Which is why he’s emblematic of something fundamental in the American ethos.

American Movie

Production

A C Hundred Film Corp. and Blue-mark Production. Produced by Sarah Price, Chris Smith. Co-producers, Jim McKay, Michael Stipe.Directed by Chris Smith.

Crew

Camera (color), Smith; editors, Jun Diaz, Barry Poltermann, Smith; music, Mike Schank; sound, Sarah Price; additional photography, Price. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 1999. Running time: 107 MIN.
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