In Praise of the Never-Will-Bes

American Movie and the special pain of the almost good

We rarely appreciate how remarkable artistic mediocrity is. Bland competence gets a bad rap. But visit a college campus sometime, attend a screening of agonizing student films, and you'll come away with a whole new respect for the Hollywood hacks who churn out all those TV shows and movies you forget as soon you've seen them. In art, there are a handful of true geniuses touched by God and more precious than a thousand rubies; there are the legions of hopeless amateurs, making all their nowhere plans for nobody; and there are the stalwart hacks, churning out 90-something percent of the not-so-good, so-so and, occasionally, accidentally great stuff we entertain ourselves with on our long march to the grave. Without the hacks, TV would not exist, two or three movies would be released per year, and the bookstores would be filled with unreadable chapbooks of heartfelt poetry about cats.

But now and then, an artist comes along who doesn't fit comfortably within the ranks of the amateurs, hacks or geniuses. His vision is too singular, too special to dismiss him as completely untalented, and he lacks the temperament (and chops) to ever make it as a hack. Perhaps he's a genius of sorts, but somehow he never produces anything that's actually good. People almost invariably describe his work as "an interesting failure." But there is promise there, something special—he is just gifted enough to keep him frustrated and miserable for all of his days. Most of these guys end up anonymously toiling away in bowling alleys or real-estate offices and drinking a lot on evenings and weekends, but some of them, such as Ed Wood and Ralph Bakshi, manage to achieve a certain notoriety. Is the highly original, heartfelt work of Wood and Bakshi good? No, not really. But you can't write it off as simply bad, either. You can only call them . . . interesting failures.

With Chris Smith's 1999 documentary, American Movie, we are introduced to Mark Borchardt, one of the most interesting failures to come down the pike in a long while. A thirtysomething, jumpy boozer who lives with his folks, works in a Wisconsin cemetery and is up to his stringy hair in debt, Borchardt has every reason to give up on his dreams of becoming a great director. But, heaven help him, he can't because he sees something special within himself, a gift going to waste. From what we see of Borchardt's work, it seems unlikely he'll ever amount to much, but there is something unique about him, and his talent is undeniable. We can't help but laugh at his arrogance and folly, but we also can't help rooting for the poor son of a bitch.

If, as our high school guidance counselors always told us, success is mostly persistence, Borchardt should have had a blockbuster hit ages ago. The man is relentless, badgering friends and relatives for funds to complete his epic, Coven (which he consistently mispronounces so it rhymes with "Cohen"), putting them into service as actors and crew, and remaining generally impervious to any suggestion that he's wasting everybody's time. Some of his loved ones go along with his delusion because, well, they're his loved ones; but some of them really believe in this beautiful loser. And so, by film's end, do we. Whether Coven as a film deserved an Oscar or not, we leave the theater feeling it should have been given one as a symbolic gesture, a tribute to all the talented never-will-bes out there who bridge the gaps between the amateurs, the hacks and the geniuses and make the world just that much more worth living in.

American Movie screens at the UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus & W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 & 9 p.m. $3-$5.

 
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