Toronto International Film Festival 1999 Now You're Playing In The Big League By Mike White. American Movie (dir. Chris Smith) In American Movie, filmmaker Mark Borchardt—the subject of Chris Smith’s documentary—is described as having a "primeval knowledge of film"...

American Movie (dir. Chris Smith)
In American Movie, filmmaker Mark Borchardt—the subject of Chris Smith’s documentary—is described as having a "primeval knowledge of film". "Sophisticated" is not a word that comes to mind when thinking about Borchardt, that’s for damn sure. Borchardt comes from a Wisconsin world of trailer parks and heavy metal t-shirts where his biggest concern is often when he’s going to get his first beer of the day.

Borchardt’s early films include Super-8 works like The More the Scarier, I Blow Up, and The Mad Doctor's Revenge. One of Borchardt’s favorite settings is the local cemetery, not necessarily for arty pretense but because he enjoys being around the dead because they "don’t yell at you." In fact, to finance his later work, Borchardt even gets a job at the cemetery where duties include vacuuming the mausoleum.

When director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price began American Movie, they thought it was going to be a simple six-month project involving the production of Borchardt’s film Northwestern. It ended up taking two years of shooting and two years of editing before American Movie was complete, racking up seventy hours of film.

About the American Movie ’s budget, Smith says, "We were much better off than Mark in the sense that we were able to shoot color negative and we had a decent synch sound camera that we borrowed from the University [of Wisconsin]. But at the same time we were running out of film continuously. We couldn’t afford to develop our footage while we were shooting—it was between buying raw stock or developing footage and we always opted for buying raw stock. We had hundred of cans of film on my porch in the winter just waiting to get money to get them developed. In the end, I think it was kind of nice to not be burdened with editing while you were shooting. We just went through it on instinct."

The long production process stemmed from Northwestern going south and Borchardt’s decision to finish a film he began several years earlier, Coven (which he insists on mispronouncing with a long "O"). Not going much smoother, the production of Coven was plagued by so many problems and staffed by such a colorful lot of characters that American Movie has often been mistaken for a mockumentary as some journalists can’t believe these situations/folks are "for real."

Meeting Borchardt in Toronto I found him to be frighteningly true to life. Borchardt rambles incessantly. "We’ve got every f-stop known to man in this film," he says about Coven. He’s quicker to throw around film terms than Ira Konigsberg and seems willing to unload his spiel on anyone willing to listen.

At first Smith and Price would document production meetings or other "events" surrounding the pre-production process for Northwestern but soon, they realized that they were missing significant pieces of Borchardt’s topsy-turvy life. By the end of their first year, when Coven started heating up, it got to the point where Borchardt would call them every morning to let them know what was going on for the day.

".Into the second year it got more intense," says Price, "where we were just hanging around with him and his family as flies on the wall. And for the last six to eight months it got really intense where we were filming a lot and especially leading up to the release of Coven."

Those final harrowing nights of Borchardt and his crew of family and friends show the filmmaker on the edge. After years of work and hundreds of man hours of bullshitting, the moment of truth arrives...

Yeah, Mark Borchardt talks a lot of shit. At one point in American Movie he describes a proposed shot for Northwestern, holding up his hands and assuring his crew not to worry what’s between them because he’s got that image locked in his brain. With terrible glee I anticipated what Coven was going to look like, knowing the messy moments from behind-the-scenes; old Uncle Bill wasting over thirty takes for his one line of dialogue and never getting it quite right, Borchardt’s mom acting as his cinematographer and not knowing where the frame is, et cetera.

But, then, Coven started and I was amazed. Shot in grainy black and white, Coven is the story of Mike (Mark Borchardt), a pill-popper and heavy drinker who’s joined a self-help group whose "higher power" might not be too benevolent. Watching Coven, I realized that, indeed, Borchardt does have a knowledge of film. He employs a good number of cutaways that help the film immensely, keeping the pacing strong while helping to cover most discrepancies brought on by such a long production schedule. Sure, the acting and dialogue could use a little help but the mood Borchardt creates reflects his fondness for Bergman and Romero. The outstanding score of Coven deserves special recognition as it amplifies the moodiness of Borchardt’s mise en scene.

American Movie is a terrific portrait of what it takes to get a movie made when you’re dealing with a low budget in middle-America. Scrimping, saving, and working your ass off just to "do it." Borchardt despises being called a "dreamer" because no one buys tickets to see a dream and no theater has ever been filled by empty promises. Borchardt knows and American Movie demonstrates that only hard work is what gets movies made. For more about American Movie and Coven, check out www.americanmovie.com.

Black and White (dir. James Toback)
This movie has all the makings of a Robert Altman flick: oversized cast, meandering story, and mush-mouthed acting. Beginning under the guise of a study of why white kids like to adopt African-American characteristics (speaking Ebonics, wearing similar fashions, listening and identifying with rap music), we’re introduced to a bevy of characters including Elijah Woods as a homeboy, Joe Patoliano as Manhattan’s District Attorney, Ben Stiller as a cop, Claudia Schiffer as a slut, Robert Downey Jr. as a homosexual hitting on anything that moves, and Brooke Shields as a documentary filmmaker who couldn’t frame a shot to save her life. Mike Tyson tries out his acting chops to play himself while Power and Raekwon of the Wu Tang Clan play two gangsta rappers (what a stretch!).

After being introduced to character after character (the aforementioned are only the tip of the iceberg), I wondered if Black and White was ever going to get anywhere near a plot or were there a dozen more actors just waiting in the wings? The film quickly became as dull and redundant as the bass beats ever-present on the soundtrack. The fa├?┬žade of white kids acting black eventually gives way to a wafer thin narrative that continuously builds to the overwrought orchestra section before abruptly ending without any resolution.

Instead of this mess of a movie, I would have like to have seen an ethnographic documentary about white kids acting Black. A study of this historical phenomenon from Homeboys going back to Beatniks and beyond is a great topic for a well-done documentary. In Black and White, it’s simply used as an excuse for conflict and for Brooke Shields to introduce herself as a documentary filmmaker (she even has the apparently prerequisite nose ring and dreadlocks of the hipster NYU modern primitive).

Black and White is populated with unlikable characters and no clear protagonist. At no point was I convinced I should care about anyone on screen, neither was I motivated to have any feelings about the film other than boredom and disdain. Characters come and go: dropping out for no apparent reason. With the large amount of over-dubbing, I imagine that this film might have been longer or significantly different from its current form.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Though I think I’ve seen all of Jarmusch’s films, I wouldn’t consider myself a big fan. I respect what he’s trying to do and appreciate what he’s done for film. Without Jarmusch, I don’t think that I'd be aware of the wonderful work of the brothers Kaurism├?┬Ąki.

Jarmusch’s latest effort, Ghost Dog shares with his previous work the slow pacing, cool atmosphere and offbeat humour. Yet, in mixing a gritty urban mob movie with the philosophical zeal of Bushido with a good dose of Seijun Suzuki’s outlandishness, Ghost Dog becomes a quirky, meditative revenge flick.

Starring Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog, an assassin well aquatinted with Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure (the book of the Samurai) and Branded to Kill, the film examines honor (or the lack thereof) among thieves. Though some folks may have had enough of goofy movie mafiosos, these gangsters feel closer to the antagonists in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player than Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. By skillfully interjecting scenes of cartoon violence, Jarmusch makes Ghost Dog’s on-screen gunplay more poignant.

Despite being craftily built with multiple layers of dissolves and superimpositions, scenes of Ghost Dog driving around listening to rap music tend to get boring. Apart from those moments, the film moves at a determined clip and well portrays a bushi urban samurai.

The Jaundiced Eye (dir. Nonny De La Pe├?┬▒a)
Set in Monroe, Michigan, The Jaundiced Eye is a shot-on-video documentary about Melvin Matthews and his son, Stephen. The Matthews stood trial for molesting Stephen’s son. They were accused of heinous acts of perversity and violence that included threatening a five-year-old boy with a machete. The story follows the Matthews after their release from prison and the days before their second trial while recounting the events surrounding their initial incarceration.

The press materials for this film describe Stephen Matthew’s story as "a horrifying example of justice miscarried in a society of legal labyrinth where science is easily confused about fact, and sexual orientation can provoke prosecutorial vendettas based upon long-held biases." Now, that’s a movie I'd like to see! What I saw instead was a slip-shod documentary where significant issues surrounding the case were glossed over and the subjects’ innocence was left unclear.

Certainly, the charges made by Stephen’s son sound elaborately nonsensical and his taped testimony sounds like he’s being fed leading questions but his words are simply deflected by those he’s accused, not denied. Stephen and Melvin are beyond the point of denial or anger but they aren’t convincing in their lack of guilt.

Stephen abandoned his son and ex-wife, moving to California because it apparently offered him a chance at "fun" and experimentation in his new gay lifestyle (Stephen didn’t realize he was gay until after he and his ex- had their son). Showing little concern for his own child and too much for himself, Stephen appears utterly selfish. Meanwhile, his father, Melvin, became an ardent born-again Christian in prison and talks in a monotone with glassy, empty eyes. His cold lack of emotion doesn’t help build sympathy either.

When push comes to shove and the Matthews win their release from prison, the reason seems little more than a "technicality" based on a wrongfully preformed/assessed chlamydia test. Meanwhile, the filmmakers briefly juxtapose discrepancies in the boy’s testimony showing how the psychologists and social workers that interviewed and counseled him before trial apparently influenced him. These segments speak more to the innocence of the main characters than anything else.

The film’s title comes from a line by Alexander Pope, "All seems infected that th'infected spy as all looks yellow to the jaundic'd eye." It’s invoked to imply that when people are looking for molestation, then that’s what they’re going to find. However, it seems that the filmmakers are seeing "institutionalized homophobia" that wasn’t clear in the film while I was looking for the Matthews to be vindicated but I just couldn’t see that either.

It’s a shame that The Jaundiced Eye didn’t have the vigor or intensity of the producer, Dan Gifford’s previous work, the compelling Waco: Rules of Engagement.

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