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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 6/1/00

American Movie
Special Edition - 1999 (2000) - Columbia TriStar

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

American Movie: Special Edition Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A/A

Specs and Features

104 mins, R, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case packaging, Coven short film, audio commentary (with director Chris Smith, producer Sarah Price and cast members Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank), 22 deleted scenes, trailers for American Movie, Crumb, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Opposite of Sex and SLC Punk, web link, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"We're in America today and we're ready to roll."

For the average person on the street, the phrase "independent cinema" means a movie that only costs one or two million dollars instead of twenty-five, and stars Steve Buscemi and Parker Posey instead of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Some of us, though, have quite a different picture in mind when we talk about independent movies. The budget is slightly less than what it will actually cost to buy the raw film stock, the locations, props and costumes are begged and borrowed from the things around you, and the cast is made up of everybody you've ever met. At this point I suggest we drop the use of the word "independent" when referring to these kinds of movies. These are DIY movies (Do It Yourself, for those of you unfamiliar with either punk music or home improvement).

DIY movies aren't always the easiest things in the world to watch. Believe me, working at Troma, I've sat through more than my fair share. But sometimes you'll stumble across something really unique and, always, the filmmakers' passion and enthusiasm for what they're doing will come through. American Movie, a terrific new documentary, introduces us to Mark Borchardt, a DIY filmmaker from Milwaukee with more genuine love for making movies than I've seen on display in any of the behind-the-scenes features on major studio DVDs in the past year.

The movie introduces us to Mark as he's in pre-production on his first feature film, Northwestern. After several production meetings and auditions, that movie falls apart. Undaunted, Mark refocuses his energies on completing Coven (pronounced CO-ven, because the other way, cuv-en, rhymes with oven and that just doesn't work), a short horror film he started the year before. The scheme… sorry, plan… is to sell Coven on VHS at $15 a pop and finish funding Northwestern with the proceeds. What follows should be familiar to anybody who's ever picked up an 8 or 16mm camera and headed outside with a bunch of friends - difficulties rounding up cast members, cajoling family members into helping out, and all-night marathon editing sessions. But Mark has two secret weapons that other filmmakers don't. One is an almost superhuman confidence in what he's doing. No matter what goes wrong (and plenty does), Mark perseveres. The other is his friend Mike Schank, one of the most genial and laid back people ever captured on film.

Director Chris Smith spent two years with Mark and it shows. Mark and his friends have been playing with cameras all their lives, so if at times they seem to be playing towards the camera, they are. But Smith is able to capture some remarkably intimate and honest moments as well, particularly with Mark's Uncle Bill, the executive producer (that is, he's putting up the money) of Coven. American Movie won Best Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, a sign that good things can still occasionally come out of that increasingly commercialized festival.

Columbia TriStar has done an exemplary job putting together this disc, particularly since this is hardly going to sell in record numbers. The full-frame video is surprisingly good, though the edited in footage from Mark's movies is understandably of considerably lesser quality. This is not going to replace A Bug's Life as the disc you use to show off your DVD player to friends. My appreciation for the transfer increased after listening to the commentary track, as Smith tells a few anecdotes about his own problems shooting the documentary. The mono sound is also excellent, and Sarah Price discusses her own problems in that department on the commentary, so I'll leave her to justify any faults.

But it's the special features that really make this disc. Mark and Mike also participate on the commentary track. There's a few gaps, surprising when you've got four people in the room, and once in a while they'll simply repeat what's being said on the dialogue track. However, these are minor prices to pay for some of the genuine insights into the movie that are imparted over the course of the track. The disc also contains the complete 35-minute short film Coven. Perhaps surprisingly, it's not half bad (I've seen plenty of genuinely awful short films to know the difference). Continuity is somewhat questionable and there's some rough patches, but Mark has done some good work here. It compels you to watch to the end, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies. I would have enjoyed hearing a commentary by Mark and Mike on Coven, but that's a minor complaint. The real prize on this disc is the generous selection of deleted scenes. Deleted scenes on DVDs almost always disappoint me. They're often unfinished looking and, even when the director passionately declares how hard it was for him to cut a scene, it's usually pretty obvious that the movie works much better without it. American Movie provides nearly enough deleted scenes for a whole other movie. And while I can understand why they were trimmed (they're tangential to the main narrative), they're all pretty damn funny.

American Movie is one of the best documentaries I've seen in recent years and Columbia TriStar deserves high praise for giving it such a respectful treatment on DVD. Now if only we could see some movies by Michael Moore and Godfrey Reggio released on DVD, I would be one happy non-fiction film fan.

Adam Jahnke
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