February 19, 2013

Trainwreckiphilia and American Movie

Here's a taste of American Movie, the 1999 documentary by director Chris Smith following filmmaker Mark Borchardt on his years-long project to make a low-budget horror film.

The film won the Grand Jury prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Fest. The International Documentary Association named it one of the top 20 documentaries of all time. It is a massively entertaining film that had my doc class riveted (and laughing).

And it depresses the hell out of me.

I tend to write off shows about human train wrecks - documentaries or reality shows with casts of self-destructive, self-indulgent people careening toward relational, financial or chemical disaster.  I'll watch for five minutes — I admit it — because the bottom of the barrel is enormously entertaining.

"He's going to do whaaaaat? After drinking all that? Stahp, Rahn, stahhhhp!"

But these shows and movies get boring faster than studios can pump them out. Their stars don't want anything more than to be famous. Their ambitions stop at the Twitter-trending, sex-tape posting, gossip-column bar they've already stumbled over. Sigh. Yawn. Click.

I can't dismiss American Movie, though. Mark Borchardt may have a mullet, low self awareness, brutal social skills and a Midwest accent that could stop a train, but he also has a grand dream of making THE American movie. When he's rattling off shot lists and character motivations, he's staring past both the camera and his rust-coloured Milwaukee suburb, eyes fixed on the American dream.

That's the inspiring train wreck I can't stop thinking about. There's no chance this alcoholic, often depressed, confrontational, low-skilled father of three will reach the filmmaking success he craves. Here's a man who'll live life in the frustrating gap between his abilities and his dream.

That's depressing. And I think it's true for my life, too. It's true for anyone who wants a significant life. Because there is no grand, lasting significance to human existence. We're here on one planet in an infinite cosmos for the briefest flash of time. And then we're gone. You and I may have better social skills than Mark Borchardt but we've got roughly the same odds the impact of our lives will be felt 100 years from now.

You are Mark Borchardt. So am I.

And it's bumming me out. Or as he would say, "Not cool, man, Not cool."