Death Be Not Proud

**A portrait of an aspiring film director, Chris Smith's American Movie has its share of disconcerting power relationships. Smith's minimalist first feature about overqualified wage slaves wasn't exactly a Hollywood calling card, but it certainly alerted people to his talent. Rather than pursue the fiction feature route, Smith spent three years documenting obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he attempted to get his dream project, Northwestern, off the ground.

Though he's acquired basic film-school lingo, Borchardt's appreciation of cinematic form and expression is limited to the ghoulish ambience and gory specifics of the films that fascinated him as a prepubescent: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While there's no doubting his passion, as a filmmaker he's an uninteresting case of arrested development.

Smith films Borchardt on the set and in various home environments with his three kids, doting mom, skeptical dad, loyal girlfriend, and contemptuous ex-wife. His decrepit Uncle Bill is persuaded to provide completion funds for the 20-minute horror short, Coven, to which Borchardt returns when Northwestern proves overly ambitious. His brain permanently scrambled by bad acid, Borchardt's best friend Mike Schank makes an indelible impression, as does Mark's alarmingly affectless brother, who must be projecting when he opines, without a trace of humor, that he expected Mark to become a serial killer.

Something nearly sublime: McKellar and Oh in Last Night
photo courtesy of Lions Gate Films
Something nearly sublime: McKellar and Oh in Last Night


Last Night
Written and directed by Don McKellar
A Lions Gate release
Opens November 5

Train of Life
Written and directed by Radu Mihaileanu
A Paramount Classics release
Opens November 5

American Movie
Directed by Chris Smith
A Sony Pictures Classics release
Opens November 5

His honorable intentions notwithstanding, Smith has preempted Borchardt's cherished Northwestern by packaging it as American Movie. With a passive-aggressiveness worthy of Warhol, he has used the camera to exacerbate a relationship of unequal power. Borchardt has been accompanying Smith to one major festival after another. Although I don't begrudge Borchardt his year of fame, what he doesn't seem to understand about his exploitation creeps me out.

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