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By Dave Beuscher | March 2, 2001

Attention: This DVD is a “must-own” item for any prospective filmmaker. It is the perfect way for wanna-be film directors to see the kind of dedication it takes to get a film made. Columbia/TriStar Home Video has turned what could have been a ho-hum standard release into a full-blown Special Edition DVD with a commentary track, a selection of 22 deleted scenes, 5 theatrical trailers and, most importantly, all 36 minutes of filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s labor of love, “Coven.”
After watching only several of the opening minutes of “American Movie,” it is easy to see why director Chris Smith decided to make Mark Borchardt the centerpiece of his documentary. The guy is a genuine, one-of-a-kind character. Armed with his CP-16 and Bolex 16-millimeter movie cameras and not much else, Borchardt has transformed his hometown of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin (a northwestern suburb of Milwaukee) into his own backlot. He doesn’t waste time by sitting around talking about someday shooting that horror film he has always wanted to make, he actually goes out and shoots it. Borchardt not only serves as director on “Coven,” he is the lead actor, editor, sound man, cinematographer, money raiser, you name it. On the days he can’t convince any of his friends to help him shoot he puts his mother behind the camera to roll the film while he performs.
There are plenty of opportunities to laugh at Borchardt throughout “American Movie” but the guy deserves admiration for letting nothing stand in his way of finishing a film. It is inspiring to watch him as he perseveres through one Sisyphian task after another. One of the more unbelievable incidents that he encounters involves a bar he has planned to use as a key location for “Coven.” Two days before Borchardt is scheduled to shoot there the entire two-story establishment is leveled in a fire. Shortly thereafter, Smith conducts an interview with the undaunted Borchardt standing right in front of the smoldering wreckage that was once his prime location.
The “American Movie: Special Edition” DVD is presented in its original Academy ratio of 1.33:1 filling the full screen of the television set. Video quality on the DVD is fine for a film shot on high-speed 16-millimeter stock in natural lighting conditions. Not surprisingly, film grain starts popping out during the night scenes, but this is not the type of disc anyone is going to buy expecting optimum video quality. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and is satisfactory for a documentary, but its the extras that this disc contains that really make it such a treat.
The commentary track features “American Movie” director Chris Smith, producer Sarah Price, Borchardt and his friend Mike Schank, who performed the film’s score. Right off the bat Borchardt reveals that the stack of bills and “past due” notices shown piled up on the kitchen counter of his parent’s house has not gotten any smaller despite the film’s success. Smith and producer Price describe what it was like during the “Hoop Dreams”-esque two-year journey they followed Borchardt around Menomonee Falls. Also early on, Smith tells an a story about how he interrupted Borchardt’s paper route one morning when, overcome by intense gasoline fumes inside of a beat-up Mercury Zephyr, he stumbled his way out of the back seat onto the pavement to vomit up his breakfast in the middle of traffic. Borchardt sums up the incident as, “a pathetic sight.”
The commentary track is a great feature but the producers of the DVD might also have included a brief videotaped “Where are they now” interview section to show how the success of “American Movie” has changed Borchardt’s life (he has since appeared on the David Letterman show several times) and how “Northwestestern,” his feature-length, magnum opus, is progressing.
One of the most interesting of the 22 deleted scenes included on the DVD documents Borchardt’s sojourn to the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival where he hopes to schmooze with producers at the classy Sutton Place Hotel and attract financial backing for “Northwestern.” There is a priceless scene in the hotel’s restaurant where Borchardt desperately attempts to make it appear as though he actually is a registered guest by nonchalantly scribbling a room number on his check.
Even after watching its entire production in “American Movie,” “Coven” is a difficult film to figure out. The plot revolves around a pill-popping writer (Borchardt) who is tormented by visions that his Alcoholic’s Anonymous support group is really a demonic cult intent on murdering him. Borchardt throws himself gung-ho into the lead role of an addict teetering on the brink of insanity and goes way over-the-top with his performance, but “Coven” is at its best when there is no dialogue to weigh it down. Borchardt’s locations are well chosen and the point-of-view shots of the black-robed cultists who torment him especially eerie. “Coven” is by no means a masterpiece but it shows a great deal of promise and is an extraordinary accomplishment for a person who completed the film with only $3000 and a one-man crew.
Also thrown on to the Special Edition DVD for good measure are the theatrical trailers for “American Movie,” “Crumb,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “The Opposite of Sex” and “SLC Punk.”
Columbia/TriStar Home Video deserve a lot of credit for giving the Special Edition treatment to an independent documentary which only grossed a modest $16 million at the box office. Hopefully, the success of this disc will start a trend with the studios. Needless to say, the “American Movie: Special Edition” DVD is well worth its $27.95 retail purchase price and is highly recommended.
For more information on Mark Borchardt and to read about the production of “Northwestern” – his dream project, visit his Web site at Northwest Productions. And check out the [ Film Threat Review ] of “American Movie” in the [ Film Threat Archives. ]

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