Concurrently, there was also another film at the festival that was gaining attention for its unique subject matter. Similar to The Blair Witch Project, the film was also about DIY low budget horror filmmaking. The film, directed by Chris Smith and produced by Sarah Price was called American Movie, and it had won the Grand Jury prize documentary at Sundance that year.
American Movie focuses on independent filmmaker and horror film buff Mark Borchardt, a working class man from Milwaukee. It tells the story of Mark’s trials and errors as he attempts to finish a short horror film entitled Coven. Mark’s motivation for completing Coven is to raise enough money from sales of that film to produce a feature film called Northwestern. The film captures Mark over a two-year journey as viewers learn about his life, his coterie of friends, and the struggles he faced growing up as a working-class youth in Milwaukee. Moreover, the documentary provides a close up view of the process of filmmaking from the lens of a working-class artist.
The origins of American Movie came when Smith had a chance encounter with Mark at the University of Wisconsin. In 1995, Smith was in Iowa completing a film called American Job, which would later premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. Smith had just graduated college, and was still using the University’s equipment to complete the film. When summer rolled around, the university shut down the film department, leaving Smith with no place to finish his film. A friend informed him that Milwaukee was a great place to work and that he should come for a visit. Smith left Iowa and headed to the University of Wisconsin where he would later complete his film. While editing American Job, he came across Mark, who at the time was editing Coven. Smith met Mark on the steps of the University’s building, and the two struck up a conversation about Mark’s feature film project called Northwestern. Smith states that "He [Mark] had this passion and enthusiasm for the film that just seemed so rare. You see people with a passion to become independent filmmakers, but the way he articulated his vision for what Northwestern would be was just completely intriguing to me." Mark planned to attend the Toronto Film Festival to raise money for Northwestern and hopefully meet film critic Roger Ebert. Their discussion of the film intrigued Smith so intensely that he decided to make a short documentary about Mark’s weekend in Toronto. The weekend project of a short film turned into a feature length documentary, which consisted over two years of filming Mark as he pursed his dream to make Northwestern.
The narrative of American Movie begins in the fall of 1995 with Mark starting pre-production on Northwestern, but quickly realizing he does not have enough funding to produce the project nor enough time to organize the project to start filming. Mark comes up with an alternative plan and decides to complete Coven (a short film he had started in 1994) with the intention to sell 3000 copies at $14.95, which will provide him with enough funds to produce Northwestern, and to pay back his Uncle Bill, who has loaned him $3000.
The various representations of Mark on his journey to obtain the American dream raises questions of visuality and ways in which culture learns to see the world. W.J.T. Mitchell notes, "[V]ision is never a one way street, but a multiple intersection teeming with dialectic images….(97)" It is easy, as Mitchell notes, to fall into the naturalism category when consuming images on television or cinema. Naturalism or mythmaking is a process in which the producers of visuality attempt to veil the construction of the image. Roland Barthes makes a similar point in Mythologies, which describes the process of masking the connotative code as a way to create a naturalistic illusion. Barthes notes, "Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it’s an inflexion…. [The] very principle of myth [is] to transform history into nature" (129). We can see myth making, for example, in many traditional Hollywood films where the producers of the film attempts to place the viewer in the middle of the action without being conscious of how the image is being produced.
Questions of visuality and representation are important concepts for ethnographic and documentary filmmakers. In Colin Young’s article "Observational Cinema," he points out how visual representations of culture began to move away from telling audiences what they are seeing and towards a showing mechanism—or what is called "direct cinema." That is, the traditional "voice of God" is removed from describing the events within in the documentary, which in turn lets the images and subjects speak for themselves. Early examples of direct cinema can be seen in the Maysles brothers’ documentaries Salesman (1968) and Grey Gardens (1975). In both films, the subjects talks directly to the filmmakers off-screen, but viewers never see the Maysles brothers.
But, as Young stresses, observational cinema cannot simply be a replacement for the anthropologist’s method of note takings. Young notes, "[If] you distinguish between using the camera as a surveyor’s instrument and as a method of examining human behavior and human relationships in detail, you cannot afford in the latter case to stand back and get distant panoramas of human behavior—you have to be close to it and follow it intimately" (101). Even though the filmmaker’s presence remains veiled, he or she must be close to its subject. The proximity of the filmmaker emerges in the ways the subject or culture is photographed such as situating the camera closer to the subject as opposed to zooming into the space where an event is occurring. It is what ethnographer filmmaker Jean Rouch terms "cine-trance." As Rouch notes, it [cine-trance] is where the filmmaker "adapts himself to the action as a function of space, to generate reality rather than leave it simply unfold before the viewer" (89) The filmmaker’s closeness can be felt in the process of editing and arrangement of the footage. And, most importantly, the director of observational cinema does not pretend that he or she is objectively distanced from its subject(s), which is a key distinction from traditional anthropology filmmakers.
Smith breaks away from the traditional anthropological approach by allowing Mark to speak in his own words about his struggles as an independent filmmaker. At the start of the film, Mark drives through the streets of Milwaukee at twilight as the acoustic song of "Mr. Bojangles" is heard. In Mark’s voice over, he acknowledges that he has to confront his failures of the past in order to obtain the American dream in the future. Mark tells us: "I was a failure, I was failure and I get sad and depressed about it and I can’t be that no more. I really feel that I betrayed myself big time. I know when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world. Now I am being back to Mark who has a beer in his hand and is thinking of the great American script and the great American movie, and this time I cannot fail… I won’t fail… it’s not in me. You don’t get second chances and mess them up… you’d be a fool to…."
Examining the scene closely, we can feel Smith’s presence close to Mark through the form of the film. For example, the images of Mark traversing the city at twilight not only provide viewers with a sense of space, but it also captures him at a liminal point in his life. That is, Mark has reached a crossroad in his existence, and he wants to push forward to complete his dream. It is striking then that the first image viewers encounters in the film is blackness, continued by an upward shot of street lights in order to present an image of re-birth—that of a new beginning in Mark’s life. In Mark’s words, "This time I am not going to fail… this time it’s most important not to fail, not to drink and dream, but rather to create and to complete." The use of "Mr. Bojangles," which tells the story of the street man in a jail cell that could dance, is a possible a reference to Mark’s social and economic situation. Viewers learn throughout the film that Mark battles with bills, alcoholism, child support and the fear of living a life as a factory worker. But even more so, the song "Mr. Bojangles" connects viewers to the cinema of the street. Of course, this is one of Italian Neo-realism well-know tenet of film making, by photographing their subject in real locations. From the start of the documentary, Mark’s desire to fulfill his dream as a filmmaker is not going to contain the glamorous images of Hollywood. The choice of filming Mark at the twilight hour and using "Mr. Bojangles" are examples of the observational mode where the filmmaker’s physical presence is absent, but is still in close proximity to its subject through form and technique.
Participatory mode of filmmaking, however, is where one does see and hear the filmmakers, where he or she enters into in the space of the subject’s world. David MacDougall’s essay "Beyond Observational Cinema," argues that "The main achievement of observational cinema is that it has once again taught the camera how to watch.... Beyond observational cinema lies in the possibility of participatory cinema, bearing witness to the 'event' of the film and making its strengths of what most films are at pains to conceal" (125). Unlike observational filmmaking, the filmmaker’s physical presence enters into the world he or she is documenting in order to amplify the quality of his or her materials. As MacDougall puts it, "By entering actively in the world of his subjects, he can provoke a greater flow of information about them" (125). But MacDougall points out in the 1994 postscript to his essay that the influence of postmodernism has greatly complicated the distinction between observational and participatory modes. MacDougall writes, "The borderline of between observational and participatory cinema … now appears blurred" (128). The recording of "Mr. Bojangles," for instance, is performed by Mark’s childhood friend Mike Schank, who is also featured in the documentary. Smith also has Mike perform other songs for the film such as an acoustic version of Metallica’s "Fight Fire with Fire" and Randy Rhodes' classic "Dee." Mike is not only as a subject that further explains Mark’s back story, but is also enhances the documentary by using his musical talents as participating force of the film.
As noted earlier, Smith employs the participatory mode to create a second narrative line that involves Mark’s friends and family as they describe their personal history growing up with Mark. When interviewing his subjects, Smith’s voice can be heard off-screen as he asks them specific questions. For example, the second scene of the documentary begins with Smith interviewing Tom Schimmels, one of the main actors in Coven. Off screen, we hear Smith asking when, how and why he got involved with Mark. Schimmels tells him that he first worked with Mark on a radio show, which begins the time line of the documentary. The first segment of the narrative’s time line shows Mark working on the script for his Halloween radio show “The Creeps” as we hear Tom speaking about Mark. The narrative quickly jumps ahead to Mark (now back in the observational mode) as he is driving in his car, delivering newspapers. Mark tells us that he was drinking and smoking marijuana during the recording, and was not even directing his actors. Mark admits that he has to corner his drinking problem in order to make Northwestern. Thus, Smith’s employment of the participatory mode lets viewers hear his voice when interviewing his subjects, which in turn enhances the value of his material. By allowing these two methods of filmmaking to co-exist with one another (the observational mode, which captures Mark’s journey towards completing Coven, and the participatory mode, interviewing Mark’s friends and family member, Smith creates two narratives side by side, presenting viewers with a multi-facet portrait of Mark and his social conditions. It lets Mark speak in his own words, while at the same time allows Smith and viewers learn about Mark’s upbringing through the eyes of his friends and family.
Towards the end of the film, when Mark finally completes Coven and screens the film to the community, the dialect between the observational and participatory folds into a harmonious synthesis. It is a striking moment within the film because viewers are finally able to see scenes from Coven. It is here where American Movie and Coven co-exist side by side.
During the ending credits of American Movie, a website is listed where viewers can purchase video copies of Coven. I began this paper by addressing the financial success of The Blair Witch Project and its connection to the Internet and other new forms of media platforms. The Blair Witch Project is typically recognized as the first film to utilize the notion of media convergence where viewers can pull information from a variety of media platforms to learn about their favorite films. How does this connect to American Movie? The Internet involvement in movie promotion was practically non-existent during the time Mark was making Coven. And furthermore, the new technology of DVDs was not even on the market. Mark’s source of generating capital for his feature film was through the sales of video cassettes. But how would he advertise Coven to sell 3000 copies? As just noted, at the end of the credits of American Movie, a web site is provided where viewers can purchase Coven. However, documentaries and independent films are not mass marked like commercially made cinema. American Movie was released into the theaters on November 5, 1999 and ran until April 27, 2000, and its total domestic gross was $1,165,795. The film only opened on 13 screens, ending its run on 29 screens. But by the time American Movie was released on home video in 2000, DVDs and the Internet were popular media technologies, and then very influential in the publicity and sales of Coven. In fact, one of the supplements on the DVD contains Coven in its entirety. In an interview with Mark, he stated that he already reached his quota of 3000 copies. We can postulate that these new media technologies and digital platforms made a significant impact not only for promoting American Movie, but for generating publicity for Mark and his short film.
To conclude, American Movie provides a glimpse into the world of DIY filmmaking at the end of millennium. American Movie reveals the complex problems that independent filmmakers face, as well as visually demonstrating how discourses and social conditions play a major role in the process of filmmaking outside of the Hollywood system. More so, the film depicts the challenges of 16mm and 35mm filmmaker as digital cinema was slowly gaining attention. Chris Smith’s methodological approach in American Movie is the blending of observational and participatory modes. His research follows Mark as he struggles to overcome his past demons and existential crisis in order to finish Coven. American Movie addresses the concern of visuality and questioning of the image production through its attempt to make visible Mark’s external and internal struggles is his odyssey to complete Coven. Thus, Mark’s journey in making Coven takes what is invisible (or what has been mythologized) and visualizes it for viewers as a way to evoke a dialogue of what it means to be an independent filmmaker through the lens of a working-class artist. Lastly, American Movie can be lyrically viewed as a visual extension of Smith and Mark continuing the conversation they began on the steps at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1995.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.
MacDougall, David. "Beyond Observational Cinema." Principles of Visual Anthropology. Ed. Paul Hockings. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.
Mitchell, W.J.T. "Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture." The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Rouch, Jean. "The Camera and Man." Principles of Visual Anthropology. Ed. Paul Hockings. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.