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By Dan Erdman | April 6, 2005

While waiting in the concession line for my popcorn, my eye was caught by a tall, lanky white guy with long hair, thick glasses and a goatee. He wore a stocking cap with the Green Bay Packers’ insignia on it. Who IS this guy? I thought. He seems familiar somehow. Did I take a class with him? Is he one of my wife’s friends?

I was still lost in reverie when a bunch of girls approached the mystery man and asked if they could take his picture. The guy immediately started jabbering away and smiling broadly and acting in an egregiously friendly manner. Once I heard his broad, dopey midwestern accent (I’ve got it too), the lightbulb went off: it was none other than Mark “guy from ‘American Movie’” Borchardt! Seized by my journalistic instincts, I took the opportunity to stage an impromptu interview. I present to you, dear reader, An Intimate Conversation With Mark Borchardt:

FT: Hey, Mark!

MB: Uh, Hello. Hi.

…and then one of the girls distracted him, the concession line moved forward, I decided he probably didn’t want to be pestered by someone who didn’t really have anything to say anyway, got my popcorn and took my seat in the theater.

“The Godfather of Green Bay” is another entry in the Wisconsin Film Festival’s “Wisconsin’s Own” series. This feature follows the adventures of a struggling stand-up comedian in L.A. He and his friend, a transplanted Wisconsinite, embark on a road trip to Green Bay in order to catch the eye of a “Tonight Show” producer who is vacationing there. Once they reach their destination, they meet a bevy of northwoods weirdos including an unfunny would-be comedian, a small-time gangster, a foxy hotel proprietor and several babbling drunks (one of whom is played by Mr. Borchardt!). There’s also a subplot about an L.A. hitman mixed in there somewhere, although this is as much a setup for the deus ex machina ending as anything else.

I rather desperately wanted to like this movie. I myself grew up in northern Wisconsin and have always believed that there’s a cinematic masterpiece lying dormant in its snow-blasted landscapes and bizarre inhabitants (I guess there’s always Stroszek, which captures both qualities fairly accurately and was shot just a few miles south of my hometown to boot; however, it was directed by Werner Herzog, who’s not exactly a native. More on him later, actually).

However, it seems that every feature which attempts to portray life in the dairy state is more than happy to paint everyone with the “fat, alcoholic, Packer-obsessed” brush. Not that such a stereotype is entirely inaccurate; its just not very interesting. “The Godfather of Green Bay” doesn’t rock the boat in this (or any other) respect. The worst part is not that some cosmic slight has been visited upon the fat, alcoholic, Packer-obsessed denizens of the northwoods, its that the uniformly loony supporting characters outshine the main character (played by writer-producer-director Pete Schwaba, never a good sign), whose essential blandness is thrown into sharp relief by all of the quirkiness, er, “quirkiness” around him. Naturally, he gets the girl.

“The Godfather of Green Bay” just looks like kind of a shabby production. Every scene that wasn’t under the blazing sun in the great outdoors looked murky and dark. Even worse, it is painfully obvious that all of the scenes that are supposed to be taking place in L.A. or Las Vegas were actually shot in northern Wisconsin with Wisconsin extras. I’ve only been to L.A. once, but I seem to recall that there were far fewer white people and FAR fewer fat people there than “The Godfather of Green Bay” would have you believe. I understand that corners have to be cut when funds are in short supply, but still.

There are some funny moments in “The Godfather of Green Bay,” most of them involving the main villain’s love for the Macarena (and, for what its worth, the packed-house audience absolutely loved this movie, erupting into explosive laughter at almost every joke. I, on the other hand, am merely a guy writing an article for an on-line ‘zine, so what do I know…?). For the most part, however, this was a very cookie-cutter affair, another widget straight out of the three-act handbook. It always depresses me when a supposedly independent production, free to play by its own rules, free to create an entirely unique fictional world and free to take chances that the Rob Reiners or Michael Bays of the world wouldn’t dare to, instead does its level best to ape the dullest clichés of the Hollywood mainstream. Go for it if that’s your thing, but this movie put me in a bad mood.

Thus it was fortunate for me that my next movie was “Wheel of Time”, directed by Werner Herzog (remember him…?). This was a part of the festival’s series of films from and about Tibet, “From the Roof of the World: Films from the Himalayas,” although I must admit that the only reason I decided to go to this one was because Herzog was involved. I was in for a bit of disappointment from the start, though. I tip-toed into the theater a few minutes late, just in time to hear the lecturer introducing the film say that it was “a very un-Herzogian movie.”

True enough. “Wheel of Time” is actually a documentary about a Buddhist religious festival which begins in India and, due to sudden illness on the part of the Dalai Lama (presiding over the ceremony), continues in Austria some time later on. I must admit that I am shamefully ignorant of the ideas and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, so much of the significance of what was going on was lost on me. But the particulars of the ceremony itself were fascinating to watch: a large, intricate ceremonial design is painstakingly built out of colored sand; a line of pilgrims crawl thousands of miles on their hands to the site of the festival; more pilgrims slowly circle around the base of a large mountain, some clockwise, some counterclockwise; and endless, endless streams of faces, as Herzog pilots his camera down impossibly crowded streets. The repetition of these and other seemingly mundane activities give the film a solemn, ritual quality that mirrors that of the gathering of pilgrims. I found myself becoming completely absorbed in the action (or, often, lack thereof) on screen.

“Wheel of Time” looks and sounds fantastic, and there’s even some room for a bit of Herzog humor in it as well (there’s a joke near the end about a security guard that’s particularly rich). Every Buddhist and Herzog devotee will want to see this (I’m much closer to the latter than the former); I would recommend this to any moviegoer with patience and curiosity.

Check for more coverage of the 2005 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Go to Day One coverage>>>

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