Sunday, November 02, 2008

American Movie, Chris Smith, 1999
, Todd Solondz, 2001

“The common sensibility of these filmmakers is that they invite the audience to share their feelings of superiority to the people they put on screen. And too often, the largely white, urban, liberal, educated audience these filmmakers attract have been happy to join in, looking down their collective noses at the hicks and rubes and bourgeoisie trapped on the screen like specimens under glass.”—

I can’t help but feel that this quote (and the rest of the longer review from which it was extracted) drastically misses the point of the films it condemns: the works of Chris Smith, Todd Solondz, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, and so on. These are all directors whose movies I happen to enjoy (I count Morris as one of my favorite filmmakers of all time), so does that mean that I’m among the guilty—that is, the nose-thumbing, smugly laughing urban white liberal audience?

Here’s my take on Chris Smith’s American Movie: it’s an inspiring portrayal of a unique character’s intense and dogged quest to make a film. Despite his lack of means, Mark Borchardt is determined to fulfill his dream, and while the resulting short film, Coven, isn’t exactly a masterpiece, he accomplishes his goal. (There are some great shots in Coven, by the way, and I don’t think it’s too farfetched to speculate that if he were to make a movie using a better script, he might have ended up with something really remarkable. So he’s not a great writer—that’s only one part of making movies.) Sure, the documentary is peopled with some strange and inimitable characters, and some of the things they say are very funny, whether or not it’s deliberate. Much of the humor stems from Borchardt’s extreme earnestness (and come on, wouldn’t anyone who had been present on the day one actor’s head was smashed through the “prop” kitchen cabinet, barring said actor himself, have thought the scene unfolding before them was completely hilarious?). But these quirks are endearing, only making me like the characters even more—sure, I laughed throughout the movie, but not patronizingly (really!). Responses such as the Salon review seem kind of knee-jerk—the viewer is so afraid of offending someone that they fail to see the film for what it is.

I’m sure there are some who do laugh at these characters unsympathetically. But is that the fault of the filmmaker? Some, Todd Solondz among them, seem to think that intention is only one factor, that once the film has an audience, that audience’s reactions are as much a part of the film as what’s onscreen. I, however, must disagree—the stunted response of some brainless douchebag has nothing to do with the greater work of art. It’s just one opinion, one response among many.

Solondz’s Storytelling tackles this issue of culpability, of mocking one’s subjects for comedic purposes. It seems to be as much of a reaction to American Movie* as it is to criticisms of his own films. “I’m not looking down on them, I love them!” Toby Oxman proclaims a little too defensively (ahem) when someone challenges his intentions in tackling his current project, a documentary about a suburban New Jersey family. In one scene, Scooby, the disaffected, aimless teen of the family, walks into an early screening of the documentary and is horrified to find the audience cracking up as he’s interviewed. But the difference between this and something like American Movie (or Vernon, Florida, or Roger and Me) is that not only is the audience laughing much harder than would realistically happen (especially since the scene they’re watching isn’t all that funny, which I suppose could have been intentionally exaggerated within Scooby’s mind), but that unlike Mark Borchardt, Scooby isn’t endearing—he’s just annoying. (And come on, why doesn’t he just grow a pair? I can’t stand all this sensitivity!) For me, the appeal of the aforementioned documentaries is the sheer joy of catching a glimpse into lives that I know nothing of, that I would never see unless someone like Chris Smith or Errol Morris aimed their camera at it. It’s thrilling just knowing that there are people like this in the world—and you know what? Some of them are really fucking funny.

*As if to drive the point home a little more, Storytelling co-stars Mike Schank, the real-life stoner friend of Mark Borchardt who appears in American Movie.