Right up there at the top of any list of favorite documentaries I might compile would have to be Chris Smith’s brilliant American Movie. With the possible exception of King of Kong, I can’t think of another slice of life that captures the dual realities of human nature better than the story of Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt: the beauty and the absurdity, the aspirations and degradations, the endless victimizing and victimization, laughing and crying, creating and destroying, loving and losing, it’s all there. Lightning struck. And while, yes, we laugh at Mark and his too-good-for-this-world buddy Mike Shank – their outsized personalities are simply too rich in that regard – we also laugh with them and root for them. In fact, if American Movie were simply an exercise in condescending hipster archness, it wouldn’t pack the emotional punch it does. Who doesn’t envy Mark’s passion and determination? Or Mike’s childlike serenity? Or feel some brotherhood with them in their struggles, regardless of how self-inflicted they might be? It may ultimately be a story of defeat, but what a magnificent defeat! In addition to the obvious fascination, director Chris Smith clearly loves and feels for these guys. He has compassion for them, and it shows.
The sheer fact that Mark and Mike exist and are doing what they do is enough to renew one’s love for one’s fellow man. At least it is for me. And there’s something fundamentally gracious about that. Slight language warning naturally: