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February 11, 2000

Did I mention how much I like the Rialto theater? Not only do they show films that you don't see in the multiplexes, but you also aren't subjected to the canned Movie Tunes and advertising cards that the big houses hammer you with before the show. Tonight's pre-show music was Keb' Mo'. There's really nothing like a little acoustic blues on a Friday night to get you right.

Because of the weather and the threat of traffic, I left early for the movie, so I was sitting in the theater long enough to hear one whole side of the Slow Down album. That is, if today's artists still made albums and they still had sides. Anyway, Keb' Mo' is a favorite of mine, and it was nice to see people of all ages tapping their feet to his music.

The movie was the documentary American Movie, Chris Smith's affectionate look at the struggle of Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt to piece together his limited talent and resources and realize his dream of producing a feature film. It's a peek into the mind of a man with an all-consuming passion, who believes that he must succeed and refuses to be swayed. At times you get the sense that his way of looking at life is the only way. He wants to leave his mark, to make his life mean something, and film is the medium that speaks to him. What he creates might not be great art, but he has the soul and spirit of an artist nonetheless.

Mark Borchardt is a determined, single-minded visionary who knows what he wants to do and is forever on the edge of almost but not quite doing it. Sometimes things go wrong, and he has to make compromises. The torture he puts himself through is so heartfelt and honest that you root for him to come out of the experience with something, even if it's a scaled-down version of his grand scheme. The fact that he's doing this in rural Wisconsin, with no money and little support, makes his small triumphs even more satisfying.

There are times when it all seems ridiculous, even to Borchardt himself, and he laughs along with the audience. At other times, the frustration he feels with each new obstacle screams to the surface. But there's never a point where he doesn't have a backup plan, anything to keep from having to give up. This is a gentle film about a man who doesn't believe he's trying to do the impossible. It's mesmerizing, the way he is able to convince his family and friends to contribute their money and time to fulfilling his dream. To be honest, it's a bit chilling at times, too, as when he admits being behind on his child support, and when he cons his ancient Uncle Bill into investing $3,000 in the project.

But Borchardt is a man driven by that dream, and so thoroughly convinced that he is meant to make his movie that you can't help pulling for him. His friend and assistant director Mike Schank is an endearingly confused former stoner, who deadpans his way through interviews, whispering to the documentary makers how much he has won on that day's lottery scratcher. He doesn't want his buddies to hear because they might ask to borrow money. I heard more genuine laughter in the auditorium tonight than I've heard at most Hollywood comedies I've seen recently, and none of it was mean-spirited. It was a good way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy evening.

This is what reality programming would like to be, if it didn't have to make fun of its subjects. It's what The Real World started out to be, before it became the freak show it is now. The subjects of American Movie did no posturing for the documentary cameras. All of the parts they played were for each other, and all the lies they told were to themselves.

You see on the screen the simple truth, that every human life has a story to tell. If you let people be themselves, in natural situations, and get to know them, you can't help being interested in them. Mark Borchardt and his friends do not register in the world I inhabit, but tonight I was transported to their world, and I couldn't help being drawn to them. The diversity of the human experience is a wondrous thing, and it can't be celebrated enough.

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