I'd like to talk a bit about the movie American Movie...
A movie that, upon first viewing, several years ago, I found to be one of the funniest documentaries I'd ever seen up to that point--and possibly, now that I think about it, ever. But, I missed the point. You see this movie, about a group of struggling filmmakers in Wisconsin in the late 90's, but mostly about writer/director Mark Borchardt and his friend and musician Mike Schank and their families is a seriously immensely heavier tale than what I first took from it. A deep, dark, sad tale about the down luck side of America and the sad loneliness of the dreamers that inhabit its cracked pavement suburban streets.
It is brilliantly funny, yes, absolutely. But that is because Mark can talk at great lengths and often does, sometimes in surprisingly nonsensical and amazing ways. Such as this little doozy, "Last night, man, I was so drunk, I was calling Morocco, man. Calling, trying to get to the Hotel Hilton at Tangiers in Casablanca, man. That's, I mean, that's, that's pathetic, man! Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? That's senseless! But that's what happens, man." Every time I hear that come out of his mouth I burst into laughter, as one is wont to do. I mean, it's brilliant, it's hilarious, it's Mark Borchardt, mad genius that he is. And on the other side of the talktative spectrum, if there was one that is, is his friend Mark Schank, who seems to of done so many drugs in his life that it has in effect slowed his brain. As every word out of his mouth flows as if it were molasses dripping down a barn roof in the middle of winter. (An expression I can attribute to my grandmother, who often compared slow things to molasses. I'm sorry.) That is unless he's screaming. (Do yourself a favor and Youtube "Mike Schank scream", you'll be very pleased.) And on the surface these two genuinely funny, genuinely goofy individuals and their brilliantly mid-western families supply a great deal of hilarity, of which I could talk about for hours and hours, listing several points in the film that engulfed me in laughter. But instead, you should probably just watch it.
All of which, I took from it upon first viewing. But as I said earlier, I had missed the point, severely. The point wasn't to look at how ridiculous these people were, and for them to exist simply as enjoyment and for me to look and point at them and to laugh at all of the ridiculous things they do. No, no, no. The movie has more depth than that. I mean, upon first viewing I realized that he was mostly a lost cause as were many of his friends. I mean, the guy, although knowledgeable, was still WAY out of his depth. I mean, to be frank, he was what some might call a "white-trash Mid-western kid", who was most likely destined like so many other rust-belters to work the rest of his life in some endlessly mundane factory job. Which is something, in this, that he often rebukes, including a drunken explosion during the Packers-Patriots 1997 Super Bowl, revealing in a drunken state the anger and slight egotism that has lead him down his path. A path that includes a lot of drinking, a lot of depression, and a lot of bitterness. This time watching the film, it was much harder to watch, myself now being many years older, and admittedly, spending most of my twenties making films, most of which I'm not all that proud of, and realizing just how close I was to this guy. But not just me, instead, any creative person, or any dreamer who throws said dreams to the rocky shores of life, hoping, praying, inexhaustibly that our plans will work out. Though finding that most of the time, in ten years time, we just end up embarrassed and disillusioned by our attempts.
I mean, when you really look at it, when you put it under a microscope, our pasts are painful. It is often very hard to look back at who we use to be, and to not be embarrassed by the lack of knowledge we were imbued with. Yes, most of us look back at the past and feel nostalgia. I do too. But when we were look at the things we don't want to look at, our failures, our mis-steps, what we're left with is a lot of pain.
The movie begins with Mark narrating a drive through, what I assume to be Milwaukee, at night, in a dilapidated car, the purple-black sky of twilight in the background as Mark muses "I was a failure. I was a failure and I get very sad and depressed about it. And I can't be that no more. Cause I really feel like I betrayed myself, big time. Cause I think, 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 is thinking about the 'great American script' and the 'great American movie'. And this time I can not fail, I won't fail, it's not in me. You don't get second chances and mess em up, you'd be a fool to. Not just finishing films or in the long run getting some money. But it's right now. I feel like, like I said it's five, ten, fifteen years ago now. I've got the same options again and this time I'm not gonna fail. This time it's most important, not to fail, just to drink and dream but rather to create and complete." It's an immensely beautiful opening for the film, and something that I missed upon first viewing, myself at the time, a young man, filled with hope and joy, ignorant of the hardships of adult life, the heartbreaks of failure, the weight of years worth of watching the people you know and love grow up, and face this unforgiving task. This life.
And that's what I got out of it upon second viewing, this time a much older, wiser, more confident man. An adult, in more ways than I was in my early twenties. Though, I do know more years are to come and with them more heartache, and more knowledge, both good and bad. It is not easy to watch the people whom you've spent most of your life with, your friends and loved ones grow up. How your feelings change about them. How they come into your life and leave. How their skin begins to form the cracks of their years. To watch them fall down, lose faith, grow old, and in some cases leave this earth--as in some cases in my young age, I have had to do. Time is harsh. It's harsh, and that is possibly why we dream. Possibly why we imagine a future with something better, something happier, or for some form of life after this wherein the pains of today are washed away. And we're left with the beautiful memories we left with.
I'm not saying don't dream. No, please dream away. Dreams keep us up, but they also help us do something even greater. They help us enjoy life. As the film ended and Mark went to visit his elderly grandfather, the ever pessimistic Uncle Bill, there seems to be a stark contrast between Mark and his grandfather, and it hit me like a bullet this time around. As Mark delivers a rumination on 'The American Dream' his grandfather responds with a series of sentences and sentence fragments, that kind of seem random, but in a way end up summing up the film, beautifully. I'm not going to try to interpret them. But their contrast in ideals of life, and whether or not to dream and what that does to you throughout the years is quite clear and poignant. And it left me with an urge to keep dreaming, though within that to simultaneously work on accepting the harsh facts of life. One day you're gonna hurt, more than you've hurt before. One day you're gonna lose faith. One day you're gonna experience heartache. One day you'll see the people you love leave. One day it'll all end. And so, baring this, we must dare to dream, we must take life headlong, because there is no other option. It is a beautifully harsh and heartbreaking thing, even when it is good, and it is worth every second, every failure, every regret. It is a beautiful thing, and it has purpose, real purpose. So, don't be afraid to fail, for failure is just a part of the trip. Though you may never succeed, success should never be the goal. The goal should be simply to spread something you love with the world, and nothing more.
Mark still makes movies, for the most part. Though, his dream never was fulfilled, I think, he'd admit to being at least considerably happier about things. I don't know, maybe not. But it is interesting how a film can effect you, especially at different periods in your life. How in youth you might miss the messages that are staring you in the face. Just as Mark looks back, in the film at his younger days and sees only his failures and mistakes, that in contrast look to be filled with nothing but, unbridled joy, displayed for us in 16mm black and white as Mike Shank covers Mr. Bojangles. It's a sad, but also brilliantly beautiful ending, that if allowed to gestate then blooms into something quite wonderful. A lot can be said about the past, the future, the present and what they mean to us, or mean to the course of our life and existence, but all in all, as I stated earlier, it's not so much where we're going, or where we've been, but simply to bring to the world something we feel is honest, and to simply be happy with the 'journey' it takes to bring about that honesty. -Chad