The Hermit Saints of American Movie

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“It’s alright, it’s ok. There’s something to live for. Jesus told me so.”

In its most enduring sequence, Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie finds amateur filmmaker Mark Borchardt coaching this simple line of dialogue from his aged uncle, Bill. This is the first line of the film, Borchardt pleads, “it has to be on the money.” But again and again, the old man blows it.

“I believe we can do this,” Borchardt urges around take sixteen. “I believe this can be done Bill.”

“Well I don’t,” Bill says. “I don’t believe in nothing that you’re doing.”

American Movie depicts Borchardt’s struggle to summon his cinematic dreams into reality through little more than sheer will. Shot from 1996 to 1997, Smith’s film evokes the slacker-cum-loser aesthetic so wedded to the period, but American Movie occupies a space of spiritual resonance deeper than its period aesthetic; while superficial connections could be made between Borchardt and other lone wolf filmmakers with questionable talent—from The Room’s Tommy Wiseau to the prolific Len Kabasinski—Borchardt’s closest filmic contemporary might be found in the work of surrealist Luis Buñuel (Un Chien Andalou, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).

In Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert, the titular Simon lives his life on a pillar in the desert, awaiting a dawning of spiritual purification. The stylites of the early Christian era saw the suffering of their bodies as the surest path to salvation, and Buñuel’s film is loosely based on the story of one of the earliest practitioners of this hermetic calling. It finds Simon tempted by a female Satan, who ends the film by transporting him to the then-swinging ‘60s, to be tempted by the allure of skyscrapers and rock music. Buñuel directed the film in the wake of his first exile to Mexico, and its rebuke of the religious establishment so incensed the Spanish Church that he was returned to exile shortly after its release. In the hands of this dissident atheist, the iconography of the Catholic Church was employed as a tool of perversion and dissent, from the bare breasted Satan of Simon’s desert to the implied, ecstatic sodomy of L’Age d’Or. Buñuel’s career saw him move beyond such overt religious settings, but he never set the sights of his criticism far from the politics of his native Spain, or the repression of his homeland’s mother church. Like Simon himself, Buñuel so needed to explore his passions that he would time and again sever his connection to his own homeland in order to critique it. He was part of a generation of Spanish artists for whom the victory of fascism and the Franco government led to long years of exile and repression. The only way home was through the suffering of an iconoclast.

It is the ultimate costs of artistic pursuits that both connect and differentiate Luis Buñuel and Mark Borchardt. Buñuel’s was a suffering of exile, of alienation from Spain and eventual death in Mexico, marked by the dramatic movements of a man born into a generation of outspoken artistic and political statements. And though his art brought him to borderlands of banishment, it also broadcast his politics and visions to a receptive, global audience. His suffering—like the saints of his own, rejected Catholic pantheon—can be said to have meant something. Mark Borchardt was born into a time and place defined more by Beavis and Butthead than by Spanish Anarchism. His work, though no less a key to his navigation of an invisible spiritual landscape, only seems to have drawn him into credit card debt.

Uncle Bill’s doubts are echoed throughout American Movie. Crew members question Borchardt’s decision to split his resources between unrelated projects. His girlfriend questions his commitment to their relationship. Even his children admit that they don’t think being a filmmaker looks like very much fun. Outside of his often present companion Mike, Sancho Panza by way of one too many upper Minnesota acid trips, every person in Borchardt’s life doubts his directorial ambitions, his talent, and his long term financial planning strategy. And the more we are privy to Borchardt’s life, cast dark by the shadows of alcohol abuse, depression, a failed marriage and unpaid child support, the more difficult it becomes to disagree with these doubts. His singular drive towards artistry seem like something with no other explanation than a spiritual one. He may not seek to achieve salvation through the depletion of his body, but he is as exposed and, in many ways alone, as Simon atop his pillar, as the hermits of the fields of Judea.

As much as friends and relatives doubt Borchardt’s talent and ambition, he counters their lack of faith with a religious commitment to his ideas. Watching Borchardt frame imaginary shots in front of his face, it seems that this may have been the appearance of the early mystics. Every soaring apse and mega church owes their lineage to something like this, a lone idiot raving in the wilderness with all accounts delinquent. “I wish I could give them destinies,” the latent director says of the people in his life. He dreams in such radioactive quantities that the fallout has to spill out into the creeks and junkyards of Milwaukee. Borchardt wants to give us destinies whose trajectory only he can navigate. He seems to have found a window into that place. If he could only extract some fragment of otherworldly light by which to show us what he has seen, this would inject meaning into every unpaid bill and every year of failure. And yet the only byproduct is an existential suffering.

Like the saints themselves, Borchardt seems compelled into the wilderness. This compulsion draws him physically outward, into the snow to orchestrate scenes of scarecrows and cultists. It drives him into the late winter woods to gather the sounds of birds, leaving him with nothing but the hum of nearby trucks. And it drives him through an existential wilderness of incompletion. Smith films Borchardt alone in his car, filming the final frames of his short horror film Coven (pronounced in rhyme with woven, the alternative, “Sounding like oven, man.”). He speaks of the terror of completion, of avoiding the moment when moving on is the only subsequent option. “There was still territory out there,” he says of his youth. “In the mind or around the block.” Never has an artist been captured completing a multi-year project with so much unspoken despair.

“I’m not a Christian,” Borchardt says of himself. “[I’m] half the Satanist’s idea and half with the Christian idea.” But this idea, in his words, is “the pursuit of higher levels.” His faith is almost Gnostic. Early Christian Gnosticism urged that that the teachings of Christ represented those of a supreme being who transcended the petty, jealous God of the Old Testament. The pursuit of gnosis is the path towards an understanding of this divine knowledge, a taking of truths into one’s own heart. “Beach at Cancun boy,” Mark complains of potential vacations as he sets up props. “There’s gotta be meaning in this somewhere. Fucking around with scarecrows on the roof of your car. Somehow it’s got to make sense, ultimately.”

And yet on a level of pure filmmaking, one finds something far more valuable than Borchardt ever gives himself credit for. Unlike other trash mavericks like Tommy Wiseau, Borchardt produces images that are both visually striking and wedded to place. As he spends years compelled by some strange inner muses to make lots of clichéd horror melodramas, Borchardt accidentally captures images of a postindustrial Wisconsin, all lonesome junk yards and narrow roads through northern woods. His search for meaning may not lead to the masterpieces Borchardt sees in his head, but it does reveal flashes of light hidden in the lower middle class cadence of his community. Borchardt seems at times surrounded by a whole pantheon of accidental mystics. His sidekick Mike, moon faced, almost cherubic, speaks of visions, of rooms filled with green webs, of brain death and the smell of hospital salts. Uncle Bill sings of the dead, of promises to visit graves whose location he does not know, of unnamed loved ones long since passed. Mark bathes his uncle, marveling at the man’s quarter inch thick toenail. The compassion of Mark’s bathing ritual recalls the Pietà. But Bill’s sanctity tells of something deeper, for it is unintentional. While Mark is forever searching and seeking to define, Bill reports a lack of desire for anything different. He is content to sit outside of his trailer, his requests as simple as peppermint schnapps mixed with Sprite. A few moments before a title card announces his death after the end of filming, it is Bill’s words that are chosen to close American Movie. “Come again,“ he says. “Come again. Stay. Stay a while. Stick around a while. Stick around. As long as you can. Heaven help you. God help you. Jesus help you. Everybody else help you. Everybody. Everybody make happy. Make everybody happy. Be a comedian.”

Old Bill is dying and probably struggling with memory and an everyday ability to express his own thoughts. The same words could be read as encroaching senility in an old man’s final days. And twenty years later, it is impossible to divorce American Movie’s manchild slackers from a kind of endemic, male entitlement, in which a deficit of talent and funds is no match for assumptions of artistic importance. Borchardt must have known the narratives of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, both film nerds of his generation who rose from nowhere on nothing but their self-taught cinematic passions. But these narratives seem as wearisome now as the public personas of those same directors, and Borchardt, for the very reason of his ecstatic suffering, seems somehow more interesting. And Chris Smith, ending his film on Bill’s accidental poetry, seems to be suggesting something deeper lying within. The old man seems to have found something his nephew will forever search for. Perhaps the prophets sounded like this once, drunk and alone atop their silly pillars. And it could be that the only difference between a drunk and a saint is the perspective of a couple of thousand years.