Should flailing indie filmmakers take heart from the example of aspiring auteur Mark Borchardt or be discouraged? The subject of Chris Smith’s hilarious and weirdly inspiring 1999 documentary, “American Movie,” he is a mulleted 30-year-old part-time newspaper deliverer and cemetery groundskeeper from Milwaukee with a single-minded dream to make his autobiographical epic film “Northwestern.” When that project, already six years in development, hits a rough patch, he switches gears to “Coven” (pronounced KOH-ven) a horror short. If he can sell 3000 VHS units of that film, he figures he’ll raise enough money to resume work on his magnum opus.
“Coven” runs into problems too, though, and Smith spends a year with his subject as he wages a part-Sisyphean, part Christopher Guest struggle to complete the project. Borchardt is not without experience or talent — he and his pals had already made Super 8 shorts with titles like “The More the Scarier 3” and the rushes for “Coven” have the inky working-class bleakness of Borchardt idol George Romero’s debut, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).
But Borchardt’s collaborators, however game, have limitations. Kudos go to his Swedish immigrant mother, Monica, who, her ignored common sense demurrals notwithstanding, volunteers when her son needs a hooded extra to help drag him repeatedly through an icy swamp for a key scene. But childhood friend Mike Schank, who looks like a version of the horror movie TV show host Svengoolie, has the glazed stare and nervous giggle of someone who might have given up drugs a little too late. Still his scratchy but serene classical-guitar playing provides “American Movie” with its compelling soundtrack.
And then there’s Uncle Bill, an octogenarian and a moribund tightwad living in a trailer park from whom Mark is trying to extract money by promising him fame and riches as “executive producer.” He also gives him a cameo. One of the film’s funniest and most oddly profound scenes, maybe more so than the sequence when Borchardt repeatedly fails to crash an actor’s head through an inadequately doctored cabinet door, has Mark trying to loop Uncle Bill’s lines for his cameo. “It’s all right! It’s OK! There’s something to live for! Jesus told me so!” he’s supposed to say from a car window. After 31 takes, Uncle Bill gives up in disgust.
Borchardt, however, does not give up. He completes “Coven” and Smith ends “American Movie” with contact information on how to get a copy of it. “Northwestern” may still be a work in progress, but to his credit Borchardt has in the meantime appeared five times on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” had a cameo in “Family Guy,” and shot a documentary of his own, “The Dundee Project” (2018), about UFO enthusiasts. As for Smith, he has made several other documentaries, including the critically lauded “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (2019). Though Uncle Bill might have muffed the line, maybe there is something to live for.
“American Movie” can be seen on the Criterion Channel, beginning July 19. Go to www.criterionchannel.com/american-movie.
Toons of glory
If you’re the parent of a young daughter, you might be familiar with the animated children’s show “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” in which various anthropomorphic equines have adventures and learn about life. You’d also know about them if you were the brawny motorcycle mechanic and former bodyguard who goes by the name of Dustykatt and who claims to be “the manliest brony in the world” — “brony” being “bro”+”pony.”
The subjects of Brent Hodge’s “A Brony Tale” (2014) are adult fans of the show. Most of them are men between ages 18 and 30. Ashleigh Ball, one of the principal voice actors (her other credits include Slim Pig, a 2-D porker in a 3-D world, and a sexually confused tomato who isn’t sure if it’s a fruit or a vegetable) was unaware of their existence until she got an invitation to appear at the 2012 BronyCon in New York City. Accustomed to the anonymity of a studio mic, she felt uneasy attending the event and asked her friend Hodge to check them out. Hence the premise of the film.
Hodge crosses the continent, from Nova Scotia to the Santa Monica Pier, to research the bronies. He finds that they don’t just dress up but also create art, videos, and music about the show. They say they are drawn to “My Little Pony” because of its quality storytelling and complex characters — like Ball’s Applejack and Rainbow Dash — who face relationship difficulties and resolve them and are better ponies for it. As one brony puts it, “They learn, they forgive, they share, they celebrate friendship and kindness instead of mocking [them]. We’re so far from that. But we’re getting there.” Not to be a naysayer, but years later we still seem far away.
“A Brony Tale” can be streamed for free on Documentary+ via Amazon, Apple TV, Roku, and on mobile devices. Go to www.docplus.com.
Dark side of the sun
Rati Oneli’s “City of the Sun” (2017), which is about the abandoned mining town of Chiatura, in the country of Georgia, looks at times like an outtake from the Science Channel series “Mysteries of the Abandoned”: huge derelict machinery, shells of deserted buildings, a dying wasp on a doorstep.
But people still live there. Miners toil listlessly in precarious-looking tunnels with crude tools, two girls run tirelessly around a track in a crumbling stadium, and someone in a crummy white sedan speeds down the empty roads toward no apparent destination. As the film develops, these characters show that despite the bleakness they aspire to art and beauty. One of the miners leaves work for the dilapidated local theater to rehearse a play, and a dogged music instructor teaches old women and children how to play old folk songs on traditional instruments.
Like other recent documentaries from former Soviet bloc filmmakers, such as fellow Georgian Salome Jashi’s “Taming the Garden” (2021) and the Moldovan Pavel Cuzuoic’s “Please Hold the Line” (2020), Oneli shows a surreal, dystopic, present-day landscape that may be a preview of the world’s future.
“City of the Sun” can be streamed on OVIDtv. Go to search.ovid.tv/cart/coming_soon.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.