Why Dream the Impossible Dream? The Quixotic Visions of Man of La Mancha, American Movie, and Waiting for Guffman

American Movie (1999) | Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics

Man of La Mancha is not just the story of Don Quixote. It’s not just the story of that mad senior citizen gallivanting across 16th century Spain ensconced inside the bubble of his own projected reality. It’s not just the story of his relationships with Sancho Panza—friend and well-meaning enabler—and Aldonza, cynical barmaid whom Quixote is able to see only as the fair maiden Dulcinea. It’s not just the origin story for a type of impossible dream so specific they had to coin a word just to describe these ambitions so cracked and misguided they could be called nothing but quixotic.

It’s not even, strictly speaking, the story of Don Quixote at all.

Man of La Mancha, both Arthur Hiller’s 1972 film and the 1965 Broadway musical from which it was adapted, is the story of Miguel de Cervantes, or at least a fictionalized version thereof—the boundary between fact and fiction should always be at least a bit blurry in a properly quixotic story—and his brief stint in a dungeon awaiting judgment by the Spanish Inquisition. It’s here that Cervantes spins the story of Quixote’s quest, enacting the role himself and seducing his fellow prisoners into leaving behind their tragic lots, taking up roles in the performance, and allowing themselves to get lost, if only for a little while, in the joy of creation.

This storytelling exercise represents Cervantes’ defense in the dungeon’s customary kangaroo court trial for new arrivals. Learning that he’ll be subject to the judgment of his fellow prisoners, Cervantes inquires as to the charges.

“I charge you,” sneers his prosecutor, “with being an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man.”

Without a second thought, Cervantes pleads guilty.

*

Cervantes’ charge could be just as easily applied to Mark Borchardt, the subject and quixotic hero of Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary American Movie.

Mark is unquestionably an idealist, having devoted his adult life to the development of Northwestern, an independent feature film he intends to be both a grand statement on his slice of rural America, and the fulfillment of his personal American dream.

Tragically, though, Mark is an unquestionably bad poet, a fact illustrated every time we hear his dialogue performed by amateur local actors—with pulp lines like, “Dear girl, do you know what you possess in your hand? Do you have any idea of its capabilities? Do you have any inkling, any semblance of understanding whatsoever?” Mark comes across as a dramatist who can only aspire to the heights of Ed Wood.

And whether intentionally or not, and often to his detriment, Mark is an honest man. He’s honest when he tells us he’s most comfortable drinking and dreaming, a (semi-)functional alcoholic living on the razor edge of the poverty line in rural Wisconsin. And he’s honest about his plans to overcome these limitations and create the great American independent film. The fact that it seems virtually impossible Mark will ever finish—or even begin principal photography on—Northwestern is immaterial. He isn’t lying; he’s being honest about what the world looks like inside the bubble of hermetic reality he’s projected around himself.

American Movie (1999) | Sony Pictures Classics

American Movie tells the story of the countless setbacks Mark encounters in his quest to make Northwestern, beginning with the monumental initial setback of recognizing he’s in no position to make the film at all. With only 11 days until his self-imposed production start date, Mark finally accepts—of his own volition, of course; a projected reality can never be breached by mere persuasion—that with an unfinished script, no locations, no cast, and no budget, Northwestern is currently unfeasible.

And so he rallies with a new plan: he will complete his long-abandoned short horror film Coven (pronounced -ven; Mark, ever the auteur of his own reality, believes the universally accepted pronunciation sounds silly), distribute it on VHS, and use the proceeds as Northwestern’s budget.

The remainder of Smith’s film details the litany of errors, both forced and unforced, that plague the production of Coven. When Mark enlists his mother to film a close-up shot of his starring role, she is unable to use the viewfinder and can’t keep him in frame. When Mark needs to bash his costar Tom’s head through a cupboard, the door is unwilling to yield no matter how much the crew weakens it in preparation, leaving Mark to repeatedly hurl the poor man’s head full-force against solid wood. When Mark needs his Uncle Bill, frail and hovering on the edge of dementia, to provide ADR for the film’s opening line (“It’s all right! It’s OK! There’s something to live for! Jesus told me so!”) Bill stumbles and stammers across 31 unusable takes before giving up in frustration.

These sequences of Mark’s stymied efforts are the film’s accidental comic highlights, each one a classic rake gag that’s only more hysterical for being unstaged. And yet where so many of us would recognize the flaws in a plan and change course, Mark embodies the old aphorism that defines insanity as repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

What Mark seems unable—or unwilling; the line is never entirely clear—to recognize is the core lunacy of his scheme. The plan hinges on selling 3,000 copies of an ultra-low-budget 40-minute amateur film for $14.95 per tape (the equivalent of about $24 today). If that doesn’t happen, there will be no Northwestern—and, Mark snarls to the camera in one of his frequent bursts of sudden and alarming passion, “I won’t be shit.” But the fulfillment of this task is so unimaginable that the film’s dramatic tension comes not from whether Mark will achieve the dream, but whether he will ever accept its impossibility.

On release, American Movie drew frequent comparison to the Quixote legend, and it’s an easy one to make (the film was sold on the image of Mark, lanky and wild-eyed, alongside his friend Mike Schank, short, rotund, and blissfully vacant, a pairing that bears no small resemblance to Quixote and Sancho) but for as much as this story might evoke Cervantes’ novel, the Quixote most resonant to Mark is the one portrayed by Peter O’Toole in 1972, the one who sang about dreaming the impossible dream.

American Movie (1999) | Sony Pictures Classics

Mark is loath to admit the impossibility of his filmmaking dreams and resents the very use of the word dream to describe his efforts. Why, he grumbles one drunken night, does nobody ever call the ambition to work a factory line a dream?

On some level, the point is fair. Dreams are by their nature illusory and so referring to his projects as dreams carries an implicit skepticism. Might it be kinder to speak of his goals, particularly when he’s in the midst of production? Yet on a deeper level, Mark should certainly be able to grasp the difference between the goal of being hired by a factory and the goal of completing an independent feature film when you lack the means—and, to be painfully frank, the abilities—necessary for the job.

Where Mark’s main talent does lie, as anyone interviewed for the film will attest, is in his cockeyed charisma. It’s another quality that aligns him with O’Toole’s Cervantes—all that separates Cervantes’ soliloquies on how “evil brings profit, and virtue none at all” from a Borchardt rant are a few instances of a drawled, Gen-X “man.” And when Mark expounds on the genesis of his own artistic visions, he speaks with such primal poetry about growing up alongside “the Americans who were still fightin’ the west with a bottle of vodka in their hand” that it takes a moment to pause and recognize that none of it means very much in particular.

It would be easy to imagine, then, that Mark’s gift for persuasion could make him a Cervantes figure for the band of merry performers and technicians who surround him, that he casts a similar spell inspiring them to leave their worries behind and enter his land of cathartic make-believe. But most of his collaborators’ admiration is more weary resignation than enraptured devotion. “It’s Mark’s dream,” remarks Tom by way of justifying his continued participation in a project that has jeopardized his cranial stability.

The two most enthusiastic members of Mark’s entourage are his longtime friends Ken and Mike, who form a sort of bifurcated Sancho. While Mike is usually slotted into the role for his aesthetic aptness, his vacuous manner makes it seem like he’s generally willing to stand wherever he’s placed. But Mark’s childhood friend and longtime collaborator Ken, while not quite matching the Sancho archetype with his taller frame and sharper acuity, embodies the true Panza spirit of dogged, admiring loyalty. “My first impression of him,” Ken recalls with a wistful affection, “was: he looks like a pretty raw dog. He’s pretty tall and crazy looking. I liked it!” With just a minor swelling of strings, Ken could easily burst into Sancho’s simple explanatory paean: “I Like Him.”

And it’s hard not to. It’s this tall, crazy, raw dog who’s turned American Movie into one of the enduring cult classics of the ‘90s. But while he cuts a preternaturally compelling figure, Mark leaves the viewer feeling less like the devoted Sancho than the wary innkeeper, the one who may wish Quixote luck on whatever perils the future might hold but gasps in an aside: “Thank God I won’t be there to see!”

American Movie ends with Mark’s moment of triumph, the gala premiere of Coven—all of the production mishaps having resulted in useable footage, from Bill’s cobbled-together ADR to Tom’s head successfully shattering the cabinet—but Smith pointedly fades to black before Mark begins his efforts to sell 3,000 copies. Thank God we don’t have to be there to see him try.

*

Waiting for Guffman (1996) | Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics

Though they were shot roughly simultaneously, Christopher Guest’s 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman feels like a film in direct conversation with American Movie, as though the parody had been completed before its object. Aesthetically they’re virtually identical—Guffman is an uncanny pastiche of mid-‘90s indie observational documentaries, and both set their stories in uncinematic rural Heartland communities where it always seems just a bit overcast and nippy. If two movies could be twins separated at birth, it would be American Movie and Waiting for Guffman.

The quixotic artist at the center of Guest’s film is Corky St. Clair, a community theater director in central Missouri. After spending 25 years toiling in “off-off-off-off-Broadway” theater in New York, Corky has come to the small city of Blaine to mount such productions as a stage adaptation of Ron Howard’s Backdraft (unfortunately shut down when Corky’s inspiration to create an immersive effect by burning newspapers in the vents proved a safety hazard). And in this case, the passion project is “Red, White, and Blaine,” an original musical Corky has composed to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial.

So far, so reasonable. But Corky’s expectations for his project—a plotless spin through notable events in the town’s history with a cast that includes local dentist Allan Pearl and Dairy Queen server Libby Mae Brown—are distinctly unreasonable by any objective standard. Midway through the rehearsal process, Corky begins querying New York producers, inviting them to come view the show for a possible Broadway transfer, and when one promises to send a representative, he lobbies the town council to allocate an additional $100,000 to the production (his request is denied with the explanation that this is roughly 10 times the town council’s entire annual budget).

In addition to his impossible dreams, Corky embodies the quixotic spirit in his tendency for vain and selfish behavior. Despite Quixote’s self-image as a valiant hero out to right the world’s wrongs, the vast majority of his acts in Man of La Mancha are exclusively self-aggrandizing. From badgering a barber for his shaving basin under the belief that it’s a helmet divinely owed him, to badgering Aldonza to provide a token he can carry into battle, Quixote is seemingly more interested in possessing the status of a knight errant than in performing any actual feats of heroism; in private moments, he narrates his activities in the past tense, envisioning the tales that future bards will tell of him. Similarly, Corky is focused so entirely on his work that he has little time for others’ concerns, from his disdain for “Red, White, and Blaine” music director Lloyd Miller’s request for equal rehearsal time, to his solipsistic rage when the town council refuses his ludicrous funding demands—“You’re bastard people,” he shrieks, declaring his intent to go home and bite his pillow.

This meltdown ends in Corky quitting the production, able to be lured back only when a group of council members come to him with pleas and flattery. “Take your magic wand,” one of them begs, “and make this town special again.”

Waiting for Guffman (1996) | Sony Pictures Classics

Corky seems to hold this sway over the majority of Blaine, no matter how outrageously selfish his behavior. Citizens beg for the chance to join in the make-believe, to be the prisoners to Corky’s Cervantes—the audition line for “Red, White, and Blaine” extends further than the camera’s eye can see, and when councilman Steve Stark is denied the chance to audition, he contorts himself in agony, histrionic over being unable to work with an artist comparable in his mind only to Barbra Streisand.

Though “Red, White, and Blaine” fails in its bid for a Broadway transfer, the bitter end to this particular quest lends his small ensemble of would-be stars a new lease on life. Much as Aldonza finds herself unable to accept her drab prior reality after Quixote’s death and chooses to carry on the mantle of the impossible dream by answering only to Dulcinea, Allan Pearl finds he cannot return to a life of small-town dentistry. The film’s epilogue sees him relocated to Florida, where he now entertains small, half-catatonic audiences in nursing homes. And while there’s implied comic value in the juxtaposition of Allan’s rhetoric on his duty to share his talent and the reveal of where, exactly, this duty has led him, the truth of the situation lies less in our perception of Allan’s efforts than in the euphoria on his face as he gives 110% to his performance of Yiddish folk songs.

Corky’s self-preservational gift for living his own happier truth has proved infectious, and the artist formerly known as Dr. Pearl now projects a bubble of reality all his own, ready to do battle with windmills for years to come.

*

It seems a bit uncanny that two such specific quixotic dreamers as Mark and Corky could emerge virtually simultaneously out of the American ether, but maybe the answer to the synchronicity lies in that adjective. Early in the production of Coven, as the crew prepares for a day of shooting in the frozen woods, Mark shouts to the assembled technicians, “We’re in America today, and we’re ready to roll!”

Mark brings up his homeland so often that it approaches a compulsive verbal tic, almost as though the very concept of America is the silent partner in his filmmaking effort. And while what it means to be “in America today” has been a conspicuously moving target across the lifespan of this nation, there was a specific and euphoric meaning to the term in the midst of the last decade of the millennium.

At the dawn of the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in The National Interest titled “The End of History?” in which he posited that the Western world had achieved “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” Far from suggesting we’d reached the end of civilization, he rather suggested we had finally achieved civilized stability—by Fukuyama’s reckoning, every ideological threat to the American way of life had been firmly eradicated with no particular indication of threats on the horizon. “There are powerful reasons for believing,” Fukuyama argued, “that [this] is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.” The America of the ‘90s, it seemed, represented the ideological Platonic ideal.

Both American Movie and Waiting for Guffman were shot directly in the middle of the decade’s borderline miraculous economic boom, halfway through a cycle of staggering job growth that would see the GDP nearly double. The stories of Mark and Corky take place in a society ostensibly devoid of hardships—if the impossible dream of societal and economic nirvana had been achieved, then why shouldn’t impossible artistic dreams be within reach, too? As American citizens, it would practically be their right.

And yet if the indomitable American spirit gives Mark tacit permission to live the quixotic life, it also clangs against the material truth of his existence. Mark lives in a trailer park where he agonizes over credit card debts, overdue taxes, and child support, able to drive only if he can pry gas money from his mother. When Mike Schank wins $50 on a scratch-off lottery ticket, it qualifies as a major windfall, but he has to keep his winnings a secret from his friends for fear that they’ll come begging for cash.

It’s a milieu not dissimilar to Guffman’s. During the brief “Red, White, and Blaine” shutdown, Libby Mae comforts herself by noting her job security at Dairy Queen while grilling a single chicken wing in the dirt patch behind her shotgun home; later, a tossed-off line by a Blaine councilmember—Lloyd Miller can’t really care about the city if he shops at Walmart—presages the coming economic downturn that would put the lie to Fukuyama’s premise. Even the film’s most cringeworthy element by 2019 standards—Corky is explicitly coded as a closeted gay man, with the rest of the town cheerfully credulous about the wife he claims is perpetually traveling—takes on a more painful note when you consider the very real dangers of being an openly gay man in the majority of America in the mid-‘90s, still a few years before Matthew Shepard would be brutally killed in a small city not very much unlike Blaine. For a society congratulating itself on having achieved perfection, the America that Mark and Corky traverse seems much more like a work in progress.

Not that this fazes Mark. In one of his many moments of poetic contemplation, Mark notes the symbolic value of a rusting car in a field. “That’s what it’s all about, y’know? Rust and decay.” His tone is one not of chagrin, but rather of awe at this grist for his artistic mill, something he’ll use as a stepping stone to his inevitable prosperous future. When he needs motivation, he drives around wealthier neighborhoods pondering what his luxurious future home will look like. “The American Dream stays with me each and every day,” he announces with grim determination standing outside a stranger’s McMansion. It’s notable that he’s now willing to use a word he so loathes—he doesn’t call it the American Goal.

“The End of History?” closes with Fukuyama’s personal admission that he finds America’s theoretical post-history status a bit uninspiring, and some musing on whether this restlessness will prove viral and start the gears of history grinding once more. It’s an ending that now looks like a bleak prophecy—by the 21st century, Fukuyama’s essays would have shifted to topics such as “The Crisis of Democracy” and “The Fall of America.”

From the vantage point of 2019, it certainly appears that permanent societal perfection is probably about as feasible as transferring a local historical pageant to Broadway. Never say never, and there’s certainly a benefit to the effort, but there are going to be some significant obstacles along the way.

*

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Appropriately for a story of insurmountable obstacles and bone-crushing setbacks, Don Quixote is perhaps better known for its failed adaptations than its successful ones, and the notoriety of the project tends to be in direct proportion to the fiasco surrounding its production. Along with Man of La Mancha, there has been one fairly straightforward adaptation in Peter Yates’ 2000 TV movie starring John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins. But likely most universally synonymous with the Quixote legend is Lost in La Mancha, the 2002 documentary that might as well be the big-budget remake of American Movie, detailing as it does the ludicrous mishaps befalling Terry Gilliam in his efforts to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a movie considered, until very recently, to be cursed.

“I’ve lost a lot of battles with windmills,” Gilliam told Matt Fagerholm in 2018 on the occasion of the film’s improbable completion. “My problem is that I don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. That’s why I keep being knocked down.”

Gilliam, at least, can take comfort in the fact that he got his project across the finish line. Orson Welles worked sporadically on his own adaptation of Don Quixote for three decades, dying with the work still in progress. Welles deliberately sought neither outside funding nor support so that he could pursue the project at his own pace, following his own whims and desires. Though he shot enough footage for a rough assembly to be completed in the early ‘90s, Welles never felt fully satisfied with the film, and so, as Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in Discovering Orson Welles, the film remained the director’s “ultimate plaything,” a project that was worth more for the joy the work provided than it would be as a finished project to be exhibited, judged, and—at least in Rosenbaum’s analysis—likely found wanting.

Welles’ vision for his adaptation was so wildly ambitious and contradictory that it’s unlikely a coherent film could have been assembled, and so his vision may well have been impossible. And yet it seems nearly as unimaginable that any filmmaker ever manages to conjure a dream into tangible product at all. As Tom Bissell writes in the introduction to his book Magic Hours, “to create anything—whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom—is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic.” With due respect to Mark Borchardt’s frustration, it’s hard to fault anyone who defaults to skepticism until the moment a film is unveiled. The line between a genuine artistic vision and a particularly vivid delusion can be quite blurry.

It’s no wonder, then, that the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha is so eternally alluring to filmmakers. What could be more relatable than a man who expends all his worldly energy willing his self-contained reality into existence like the blissfully oblivious bumblebee never told it’s physically incapable of flight?

During his kangaroo trial, Cervantes’ prosecutor asks why artists are so often fascinated by madmen. When Cervantes responds that artists see kindred spirits in the mad, the prosecutor understands it as an admission that artists reject reality.

In response, Cervantes looses the greatest emotional outburst of his time in the dungeon. “We select from life!” he roars. Life is painful, life is unfair, life is often a search for meaning in a meaningless void. And so, “maddest of all [is] to see life as it is and not as it should be!”

And with that he bursts into a reprise of the show’s triumphant anthem: “I am I, Don Quixote,” Cervantes bellows as one impossible dreamer melts into another before our eyes.

*

In a moment of unusual vulnerability even for this honest man, Mark Borchardt admits that he might prefer Northwestern be for him what Don Quixote was for Welles: an eternally unfinished impossible dream.

“Obviously there’s gotta be some fear,” he whispers, watching old Northwestern test footage while his daughter sleeps on his lap. “Like, if you actually go ahead and do it and complete it, there’s more consequences to it. You let a day go by and fantasize, and then that day slips into years…”

It’s hard to say whether his mood is one of regret or of grudging self-admiration for his ability to keep believing in his impossible dream for the better part of a decade.

A few minutes later, we see Mark crouched alone in the backseat of his car getting ready to shoot an insert shot that will serve as Coven’s martini shot. He’s procrastinating because he knows, as he claims his girlfriend Joan has recently told him, “Now [I] got nothin’.”

It’s not uncommon for directors who finally achieve their dreams to fall into some type of malaise. Mark Duplass has spoken of the immediate depression he experienced after doing the impossible and getting distribution for The Puffy Chair, his debut microbudget feature that signaled the dawn of the mumblecore movement. Unable to enjoy the achievement he’d worked towards for so long, he set other impossible goals for himself, ones even he acknowledges were meaningless save for their function as a star on the horizon. And if Mark and Corky set themselves impossible goals from the outset, it saves them from these bittersweet letdowns along the way.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote | Warner Bros.

In Man of La Mancha’s enduring showstopper, Quixote sings about the nobility of dreaming the impossible dream, fighting the unbeatable foe. It’s a subtle but essential point that Quixote does not dream of beating the unbeatable foe—that would change the entire nature of the dynamic. Nobility lies not in dreaming the extremely difficult dream but rather the dream that can never come true no matter what. By the close of the song, Quixote reveals that the ultimate purpose of the dream is not any slim chance of success, but rather “that my heart will lay peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest.” Dying with his dream unfulfilled would be the triumphant ending because the goal is not to be the victorious knight, but to know that he was able to sincerely call himself a knight at all.

It’s an idea echoed—almost exactly—by Mark Borchardt when he attempts to rally feeble old Uncle Bill’s support. “When you go to the grave,” Mark frantically demands of a man for whom this notion is no far-off theoretical, “when you’re just layin’ there in the casket, the last hoo-rah, the final goodbye, what’re you gonna think about, Bill?” In the zero-sum game of life, Mark’s real dream is to die believing his life was worthwhile. And sometimes that’s an easier truth to tell yourself when you never finished the project at all, never allowed yourself to be judged in anyone’s eyes but your own.

*

Man of La Mancha and American Movie are two films that frequently rhyme, but there is one startling instance of perfect unison. In his opening stage-setting, Cervantes suggests that Quixote is driven to madness by “man’s inhumanity to man;” towards the midpoint of American Movie, meanwhile, a deliriously drunk Mark washes Bill’s clothes in the middle of the night, muttering and slurring a litany of semi-coherent grievances, one of the few fully audible being a decontextualized, “Fuckin’ man’s inhumanity to man.”

There’s no way of knowing to what Mark may be referring, but the term has circulated since at least the late 18th century when it appeared in Robert Burns’ poem “Man Was Made to Mourn.” In the poem, the speaker encounters an old man who notes all the cruelties of existence (“hundreds labor to support a haughty lordling’s pride…crowds in ev’ry land, all wretched and forlorn”) and ponders the tragic paradox of being granted—or cursed with—self-awareness in a world so defined by man’s inhumanity to man.

Though unexplained and uncited, Mark’s utterance does seem to be one of the few moments in which he brushes up against the essential hopelessness of his ostensible quest. Meanwhile, true to the harrowing bleakness of the poem he cites (intentionally or otherwise), Cervantes’ time in the dungeon concludes with this idealist, bad poet, and honest man being led off to what we expect will be his execution. The fate of Quixote, Cervantes’ creation and doppelganger, is no happier—the old man’s projected reality is finally and fatally shattered in the only way possible when his niece’s fiancé accepts the premise and takes on the role of a villainous and superior knight.

Both Waiting for Guffman and American Movie end with their central artists’ reality still unbreeched, and no indication of when, if ever, that might change. It’s a matter of perspective whether the future for either looks hopeful or tragic. To this day, Northwestern has never been completed, and Coven can be judged independently online where its painfully low view counts serve as testament to its merits; while we leave Corky in a position of ostensible happiness, continuing to whistle past the graveyard by accepting producer Mort Guffman’s conciliatory offer to audition for a revival of My Fair Lady, the line readings he offers (he proudly demonstrates a purportedly Cockney accent that renders “How are you?” as “‘Ow are ‘oo?) suggest the audition’s inevitable result. Still, 20 years after Chris Smith’s film made him an unlikely folk hero, Mark Borchardt continues to work as a writer and a filmmaker—he recently completed a short documentary of his own, and regularly stages local productions of his plays—and if Corky has made it this far with his spirits intact, it’s hard to envision any future setback that could truly put him down for the count.

Mark and Corky both dreamed of mainstream success and acceptance, and as neither achieves that aim, it would be entirely forgivable to view these outcomes as bleak. But the interpretive key to the value of trying may lie in an anecdote tossed off not by Corky but by his frequent lead actor, travel agent Ron Albertson, who tells the story of the season his high school football team failed to win the state championship.

That loss is an aside to the true point of the story—in a precursor game, the quarterback blew out his knee, and rather than despair, the team rallied behind the second-string quarterback, who was then injured as well. But after rallying behind the third-string quarterback, they went on to win against the eventual state champions. The tragedy of an unsuccessful effort is all a matter of where one casts the mental spotlight. Cropping out the pile of injured players and the final defeat, Ron can call himself a success for one triumph in the midst of the failures, an achievement as valid and meaningful as the gala premiere of a completed Coven.

In the final summit between nephew and uncle that closes American Movie, Mark asks Bill what he dreams of now that Coven is finished. Bill, drifting bemusedly in and out of lucidity on what a postscript will acknowledge is among the last days of his life, replies that he no longer has any dreams.

Appalled once more, Mark gapes at his uncle.

“You can’t stop now!

For a true quixotic spirit, to cease dreaming is to cease living.