Thursday, August 25, 2016

American Movie

(1999) Directed by Chris Smith; Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Ken Keen and Bill Borchardt; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½

“I know when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world. Now I’m back to being Mark, who has a beer in his hand, and he’s thinking about the great American script and the great American movie, and this time, I cannot fail. I won’t fail.” – Mark Borchardt

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.

Outside of the blogging arena, I rarely share my favorite movies with others, because our preferences are often very personal. It’s hard to articulate why I gravitate toward certain titles, or why one would have such an effect on me. Several years back, I loaned my copy of American Movie to a friend, and learned my enthusiasm wasn’t infectious. She thought it was entertaining in spots, but was perplexed why I found it so special. Regarding the main subject, Mark Borchardt, she commented, “He’s a loser.” In my humble, albeit biased opinion, I think she missed the point of American Movie. At its core, it’s a film about tireless passion, ambition, and a desire to succeed in the face of everything working against you.

Director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price (who also assisted with the sound and camera work) filmed American Movie over the course of two years, and edited for another two years. The end result chronicles the arduous path* Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt takes to complete his short horror film Coven. Movies are Mark’s passion – a lifelong obsession not shared by the majority of people around him. His most ardent supporters are his girlfriend and best buddy Mike, but they seem to be in the minority. Most of his family greets his ideas with skepticism or outright disdain. As his brother Alex observes, “His best asset is his mouth.” Mark appears to overflow with a flurry of ideas, and his fast-talking style sounds quite convincing on the surface, like the mogul he aspires to be. What sets Borchardt apart from those who have managed to climb to the top of the movie business? He has many positive attributes: an encyclopedic knowledge of film, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. Yet, he struggles to pay the bills, and he’s plagued by a series of projects that never reached fruition. His manic episodes are often followed by periods of intense depression and self-loathing. He’s unhappy where he is, and wants to do something about it. In the meantime, he’s relegated to working a series of dead-end jobs (including a paper route and groundskeeper for a cemetery) to keep his head above water.

* In an ironic parallel to Borchardt’s production woes, the filmmakers experienced their own troubles financing their feature, and continually ran out of film stock.

Another key player in American Movie is Mark’s buddy Mike Schank (who confessed that the initial basis for their friendship was their mutual appreciation of vodka). Mike, now a member of several 12-step programs, is the rock in their friendship. On the surface, he appears to be a mellow burnout, but for Mark he’s a safe harbor amidst all of the chaos. Mike battled drugs and alcohol and remained mostly intact, while Mark is still struggling with his demons (which obviously inspired Coven). Mike is an amiable presence, seemingly unfettered by his friend’s tirades. He’s the proverbial shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.

Mark’s relationship with his cynical, laconic uncle Bill is a fitting metaphor for his endeavors. Bill, whose best days are clearly behind him, sits in his cluttered mobile home, mostly silent while his nephew talks a mile a minute about his grandiose dreams and plans. In his zeal to complete Coven, Mark begs and cajoles his friends, family members and acquaintances to help him with every aspect of the production,** managing to rope almost everyone in his circle. In one of the funniest scenes, Mark convinces Bill to go through 32 takes to record a single line of dialogue. Like many of the other people involved in the production, Bill isn’t buying anything Mark is selling, but he goes along with him anyway.

* On a sad note, Uncle Bill passed away shortly after American Movie was filmed. He willed $50,000 to Mark for the completion of Northwestern, which remains unfinished.

** Mark’s mother Monica, who’s featured in the film, is recruited to help him with camerawork, and as an extra (despite her protest, “I have shopping to do.”).

Taken at face value, many of the situations depicted in American Movie evoke feelings of schadenfreude, but documentarians Smith and Price are not interested in being mean spirited. For anyone who’s ever struggled paying the bills, or suffered from chronic underemployment, many scenes ring true. It’s easy to see the film as a freak show, but there’s a tragic undercurrent that runs throughout. There’s a feeling of desperation, as if getting Coven made is a matter of life or death for Borchardt. Coven isn’t an end, but a potential launching point to finance his semi-autobiographical film Northwestern. Many of us have met people like him – full of talk and ideas, but with little to show for their labors. What sets Mark apart from other dreamers is he didn’t move on to something else. His persistence and dedication to film creates its own inertia. Mark is motivated by the very American belief that there’s something bigger and better on the horizon, just out of sight.

American Movie should be required viewing for any would-be independent filmmaker, or anyone who ever asked why any rational individual would try to break into the movie business. How much is talent, tenacity and good connections, and how much is just plain luck? American Movie is a romantic film in the sense that it’s about one man’s relentless pursuit of his ideals, regardless of the substantial personal and financial toll. How you ultimately react to the film and Mark Borchardt’s predicament is sort of a barometer for how much you believe in the value of holding on to your childhood dreams. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not the end product of Borchardt’s labors is any good,* but that he persevered, even when plain old common sense dictated he should stop. As a post-script, it’s comforting to know he’s still out there, perhaps no closer to making the great American movie, but continuing to fight the good fight for no-budget indie filmmakers.

Additional Note: As an added bonus, the DVD includes Borchardt’s short film, Coven. So, is it any good?  The stark 16 mm black and white reversal footage works to its credit, with some nice atmospheric exterior shots that capture the quiet desolation of the Wisconsin countryside. As for the story, acting and dialogue, well… You can’t have everything.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Grizzly Man

(2005) Written and directed by Werner Herzog; Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Jewel Palovak and Willy Fulton; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I disagree with him (Timothy Treadwell) over his basic view of nature, and there's an ongoing argument between him and me because I do not see wild nature as anything that harmonious and in balance. I think I – and I'm saying it – I think the common denominator is, rather, chaos, hostility and murder.” – Werner Herzog (from 2005 NPR interview with Scott Simon)

“I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land. For once there’s weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I’m dead.” – Timothy Treadwell

At some point in our life, most have probably entertained the romantic notion of dropping out of society and living by our own ideals and standards. Due to relationships, financial obligations, or taking an honest inventory of our options, most of us wake up and come back to earth. If we’re really lucky, we retain our ideals throughout adulthood, but even those with the best intentions have to make some compromises. A select few individuals refuse to adhere to society’s rules, choosing to live by their own ethos. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary eschewed prevailing wisdom, choosing to live and ultimately die by his obsession with cohabitating among grizzly bears. The story is told partially by Treadwell himself (in video clips), the recollections of the people who knew him best, and through Herzog’s narration.

Treadwell* spent 13 summers in the remote Alaskan wilderness, among grizzly bears, chronicling his exploits in a diary and (for the last five years) on videotape. The last summer proved fatal when Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard (her family did not appear in the film) were attacked and devoured by a rogue bear. Through the course of his documentary, Herzog re-traces Treadwell’s troubled origins, pieces together a composite of his personality, and attempts to determine what compelled him to return to harm’s way summer after summer. We hear from his parents, Carol and Val Dexter,* who describe a fairly normal childhood and a lifelong love of animals. After dropping out of college, Treadwell moved to California to pursue an acting career, but fell into a downward spiral of depression, drugs and alcohol when he failed to find success. His rudderless, peripatetic lifestyle eventually led him to Alaska, where he took on a second life as a naturalist and amateur videographer.

* In an effort to differentiate from his family of origin and foster an image, the eponymous Treadwell adopted his surname. His father comments, in his defense, that “Treadwell” was actually a family name.

Herzog paints a complex portrait of a man driven by his strong convictions and defined by contradictions. Although Treadwell shunned society, he obviously sought to be a celebrity, making numerous appearances in schools, and appearing for interviews on national television. He fostered an image as an almost mythical character, a lone protector of wildlife, who in turn found meaning through his one-man crusade. He lived for the animals, and was willing to die for them. The video clips from his forays into nature demonstrated the warring sides of his psyche, which vacillated between mania and self-loathing. He could be alternately charming and irritating, sometimes within minutes. As he continued to build his reputation, he became increasingly paranoid, which manifested itself in his animosity toward the National Park Service and people he deemed harmful to his beloved grizzlies. He envisioned a strong kinship with the bears (a relationship that wasn’t reciprocated), and “wanted to become like the bear,” according to a friend and fellow naturalist, Marge Gaede. There are moments when Herzog steps in to editorialize, comparing Treadwell’s delusional behavior to his own experiences on a movie set, where the line between the person and the actor occasionally blurs. In another clip, where Treadwell mourns over a dead fox, Herzog steps in to comment about his contrasting view of a cruel and uncaring nature.

The most unsettling aspect of Grizzly Man is how the film discusses Treadwell’s fate. We hear from pilot Willy Fulton, who discovered the remains and the coroner, Franc G. Fallico, who reconstructs Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments. The graphic descriptions create a vivid mental picture that’s hard to shake from your brain. Treadwell’s camera was running at the time of the attack, but with the lens cap on, leaving a final audio epitaph. Although Herzog wisely chooses not to include the audio recording in the film, he crosses the line by listening to the tape in the presence of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, Jewel Palovak. He admonishes her not to listen to the tape herself, but describes it in detail. It’s a powerful, emotionally charged scene, but in the interest of good taste probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. One of the most effective scenes was shot by Treadwell, a short time before his death. It’s haunting to see him sharing the same frame as his killer, known only by its National Park Service designation, “Bear 141.”

Werner Herzog doesn’t praise or condemn Treadwell, but leaves it to us to decide if there was any meaning in his death. Was he a “kind warrior” as he described himself, or simply a misguided man with a death wish?  It’s hard to dispute the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death, however, since he was responsible for taking her into harm’s way. Since Treadwell is unable to defend his stance, we are only left to speculate about his ultimate motivations. The only thing that seems certain is that he was chasing something we could scarcely understand. Despite the unsettling subject matter, there are many scenes in Grizzly Man that showcase the inherent beauty of nature. But Herzog reminds us this beauty comes with a great price.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Decline of Western Civilization

(1981) Directed by Penelope Spheeris; Starring: Alice Bag, Claude Bessey, Darby Crash, Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Lee Ving; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“The cool thing about these bands to me is that they were there to break every rule of rock ‘n roll and traditional music.” – Penelope Spheeris

More so than virtually any other music movement that preceded it, punk rock spoke to the oddballs, the disenfranchised, the angry and the aimless. It was a counterculture response to the establishment, corporate rock and social inequity. Although I never looked the part, I was attracted to punk at an early age because of its high level of energy and innate disdain for popular acceptance. It spoke to me on an almost cellular level because it was music for outsiders, by outsiders.


The Decline of Western Civilization encapsulates a moment in time (filmed between December 1979 and May 1980) of the vibrant Los Angeles punk scene. Director Penelope Spheeris showcases several key groups from L.A.’s punk heyday. Instead of overwhelming us with commentary, we hear from the band members in their own words, and listen to a diverse sampling of their music. Spheeris takes a minimalist, fly-on-the-wall approach by letting the scenes play out instead of calling attention to her camera, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Shot in 16 mm, the film possesses a raw, unpolished appearance that suits the material perfectly. The results are sometimes unnerving, occasionally funny, and frequently poignant

One of the more depressing profiles focuses on The Germs, a band on the edge of implosion. Their ex-manager, Nicole Panter, describes them as if they were a bunch of naughty children. Darby Crash, the lead singer appears to be in a perpetual drug and alcohol-infused haze.* What seemed funny to me at an earlier age now seems like a cry for help. His incoherent singing and shambling stage antics paint a portrait of a young man without a center, lost in a sea of self-loathing. Spheeris provided some insight into Crash’s self-destructive behavior in her DVD commentary, inferring that keeping up a certain stage persona became his undoing (“I think the joke went too far.”).

* On a sad, but not unpredictable note, Crash died of an intentional heroin overdose several months after filming was completed.

By far, the most talented of the bunch are the members of X,* who demonstrate a winning combination of articulate lyrics and musicianship. Singer-songwriting duo John Doe and Exene Cervenka share their thoughts on writing music and performing, and discuss how their life influences art. Guitarist Billy Zoom displays his amiable nature, and discusses how he started playing at the age of six (compare to members of The Germs, who started out not knowing how to play their own instruments).

* Full disclosure: I’m a bit biased when it comes to X, perhaps because they’re the only band in the documentary I’ve seen in concert (in 1982 at the now defunct Country Club in Reseda, California). For more about this seminal group, check out the superb documentary X: The Unheard Music (1986).

We also visit with the members of Black Flag, and get a tour of the run-down, graffiti-decorated edifice they call home. Claude Bessey, lead singer for the band Catholic Discipline and editor for an underground magazine, talks at length about the punk movement, and provides further insight into the social aspects. Spheeris saves one of the more divisive groups, Fear, for last, as the lead singer, Lee Ving, goes out of his way to bait the audience.

Spheeris also profiles several punk fans, who discuss what they like about the music and the scene. One of the common denominators is that they find a kinship in the music and the concerts. Most of them don’t seem to fit in anywhere else, and find it as an outlet for their misplaced aggression. Their comments show the darker side of punk. Michael has an “X” shaven into his head, and enjoys getting into fights. Another teenager, Eugene,* has a shaven head and talks about his disgust with society while letting a racist epithet slip. These fan interviews represent an area that could have been explored more thoroughly, hinting at the unsavory aspects that dwell in a subset of the culture.

* As a surprising postscript, Spheeris revealed in her commentary that Eugene is now a folk singer.

The Decline of Western Civilization makes it clear that punk is more than just music, but a social movement. Watching it again after so many years provided a surprising revelation. Spheeris draws some interesting parallels between the then-current punk movement and the hippie generation that preceded it. Both shared many similarities: they represented a counterculture reaction to the norms of society, their music and culture conveyed a strong social message as agents of social change, and dressed to be noticed. They were not a part of the older generation, but a response to it. But punk differed significantly from the hippies as well. The hippies’ underlying credo was that peace and love would ultimately prevail, and we could come to an understanding that would transform the world. In contrast, punk wanted to watch the world burn. It took a much more cynical stance with the conceit that everything’s broken.

The most striking aspect of The Decline of Western Civilization is its timelessness. While other music fads have come and gone, the music still sounds fresh and relevant. Many of the people, their fashions and music look as if they came from a modern documentary, rather than something that was filmed nearly four decades ago. Punk’s aesthetic is alive and well today, albeit in a more watered down form, processed for mass consumption. The counterculture elements have been supplanted by empty posturing, and what was once deemed unmarketable is now the norm (witness a recent phone app commercial featuring a Ramones song). This film remains a testament to an era, not so long ago, when music and people merged to take a stand against blandness and blind acquiescence to pop culture.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Fact vs. Fiction: Nanook of the North

(1922) Directed by Robert J. Flaherty; Starring: Allakariallak, Nyla, Allee and Cunayou; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“The secret of Nanook is, I believe, is in those two words: being themselves. Not acting, but being.” – Frances Flaherty (co-editor and wife of Robert J. Flaherty)

I’m proud to participate in the Classic Movie HistoryProject blogathon, hosted by the incomparable Ruth of Silver Screenings, Fritzi of Movies Silently, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss a pioneering, captivating and controversial film.

While it wasn’t the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North is one of the most popular early examples of the genre. Its director, Robert J. Flaherty probably would have contested the “documentary” label, however, since the film was intended for the masses, not stuffy academics (Hey, not that there’s anything wrong with documentaries. Heck, I devoted an entire month to them!). On the title card, the film is described as “A story of life and love in the actual arctic.” As such, Flaherty’s film exists in a gray area that skirts the line between telling a story and retaining integrity for its subject matter.* The film’s prologue informs us that it was filmed on location in Hopewell Sound,** a desolate region of northern Ontario, Canada described as “…a little kingdom in size – nearly as large as England, yet occupied by less than three hundred souls.” The frozen landscape lends veracity to the simple tale of family life and survival.  

* In an interview, Flaherty’s widow Frances commented that he was an explorer first, and “a filmmaker a long way after.” (From interview with Robert Gardner for the television program, Flaherty and Film)

** According to the 2002 article “Nanook and the Kirwinians: Deception, Authenticity, and the Birth of Modern Ethnographic Representation,” much of the film was actually shot in Inukjuak in Quebec (Burton and Thompson).

In the prologue, Flaherty describes the Inuit (which he commonly refers to under the more generic term “Eskimo”) denizens as “the most cheerful people in all the world,” despite living in conditions that would be inhospitable to most of us. He goes on to describe Nanook (meaning “The Bear”) and his cohorts as “happy go lucky,” which, given their travails, seems rather condescending. Despite some tinkering with the events depicted, the film succeeds because of its unblinking, earnest portrayal of a culture that is alien to most of us. Flaherty’s lens reveals a part of the world that even today few of us have ever seen.

Some of the film’s scenes, depicting the harsh reality of arctic life, are difficult to watch, especially for animal lovers. We learn that Nanook and his brethren have to subsist almost entirely off the animals they catch. This includes fur trading (we see a huge rack of fox pelts, and witness Nanook as he catches a fox in a trap). An inordinate amount of Nanook’s existence is devoted to the search for food. His family’s diet consists largely of salmon, seals, and the occasional walrus. In one scene, Nanook risks life and limb, hunting a walrus in the frigid surf with a spear. While this existence on the precipice of life and death can be harsh and unforgiving, it can be beautiful as well. We’re treated to scenes of ice floes and the family taking time to cavort in the snow. We also see cute scenes with husky pups, but it’s hard to shake the nagging concern about what became of them when things got rough.

It’s no secret that Flaherty played fast and loose with the facts, in service of his story.* The scene with Nanook’s wife Nyla rubbing noses with her child helped perpetuate the myth about the “Eskimo kiss.” One of the most notorious sequences, in which Nanook constructs an igloo, was staged for the benefit of Flaherty and crew. In the opening scene, Nanook and his family emerge from a small kayak. Through a series of edits, they appear to emerge one by one from the impossibly small boat. Unless the kayak has the interior volume of a TARDIS, this would appear suspect, but it’s played for laughs rather than realism.

* One of the more bones of contention with historians is that many of the hunting scenes were staged. While spears added to the dramatic impact, rifles were the weapon of choice for Inuits of the day. (ibid)

So what is Nanook of the North? Is it a documentary or a work of fiction? We’re still asking the same questions about some modern documentaries and so-called “reality” television. It’s a little bit of both, best viewed as fabrication augmented with fact. What we see isn’t always what we get, thanks to editing tricks, omissions and behind the scenes finagling. Although the film was a big international success, its greatest irony was that the title character never lived to learn about it (he died two years after filming, due to starvation). While Flaherty fudged with many details for the camera, this sobering fact reminds us the daily life or death struggle for Nanook and his family wasn’t make believe. For all of its faults, Nanook of the North is a remarkable cinematic accomplishment. Flaherty intended to address the harsh realities of life on the frozen wastelands of northern Canada, but also wanted to tell a story that could speak to us on a universal level about love, hope and survival.