Rupert Pupkin Speaks: An Underrated '99 Essay -- by Raymond Creamer ""

Friday, July 12, 2019

An Underrated '99 Essay -- by Raymond Creamer

Raymond Creamer is a Los Angeles based filmmaker. He is currently prepping his directorial debut and you can find him @creamatoria on Twitter and LetterBoxd.

Obsession, Addiction & the American Dream: Mark Borchardt and the Art of Self-Delusion
The Matrix was the apex of big budget filmmaking in 1999. Fight Club is probably the year’s most enduring cult classic. Another contender for that distinction would be Mike Judge’s Office Space. American Beauty took home the Oscar and Eyes Wide Shut was a high profile arthouse star vehicle the likes of which may never get made again. These movies cover a wide stretch of the cinematic landscape so, aside from their release year, you might not think they have much in common but, to paraphrase American Beauty’s tagline, let’s look a little closer. In the late 90s we seemed to be at the end of history. The twin towers were still standing, the NASDAQ was peaking and the first dot-com wave had yet to recede. Life was pretty easy for white America, or easier than usual. Prozac had spent the last decade working its way into our veins and Eminem was public enemy number one. The wolves weren’t at the door; they couldn’t even make it past the neighborhood’s gates. Comfort clears the way for introspection and, if the aforementioned movies are any indication, it seems like a lot of Americans were gripped by a very contagious strain of suburban ennui in the late 90s. Why else would so many of the year’s culturally significant films center on characters questioning, confronting and ultimately liberating themselves from the status quo? Whatever the reasons, It seems pretty obvious that there was something in the water as the new millennium approached and Mark Borchardt was drinking it.

Mark Borchardt is obsessed with the American Dream. He hammers that home in scene after scene of Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary American Movie. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend checking it out, not just to give you the necessary context for this essay but because I can all but guarantee any reader of Rupert Pupkin Speaks will find something to love in it. The movie focuses on Borchardt’s attempts to produce a feature film called Northwestern before aborting that project to finish Coven, a previously abandoned short film that he hopes will help him shore up financing for the feature. If that sounds like a convoluted plan, you’re right but, when you hear Borchardt speak, it makes sense that it makes sense to him. On first viewing you might see Borchardt the way he sees himself, as a charismatic and passionate filmmaker whose grit and determination will eventually guarantee success. He talks a mile a minute, regularly selling his friends and collaborators on his vision by feeding them feelings and moods rather than anything tangible. Mark is asked at a pre-production meeting for Northwestern if financing for the project is locked and he sidesteps the question entirely with a romantic diatribe about the imagined experience of watching the film beneath grey skies at a drive-in theater. Later, when setting up scarecrows for the first shots of Coven, he lets out a weird, atonal warble to help communicate the mood of the opening sequence to his sidekick Mike Schank. Sure enough, when you watch the finished short, the musical score for those establishing shots is a foreboding synth tone that sounds a lot like what he vocalized. Moments like that give credence to Mark’s vision and, if you watch Coven, it’s pretty clear that he has a decent eye but, for every idea that he has the wherewithal to execute, there seem to be countless others stuck beyond his grasp.

While many of his friends are still buying Mark’s line, his family offers the clearest window into the reality of living with a full-time dreamer. His mother lovingly supports him in all of his endeavors but, when asked point blank if she thinks her son will be a success, she offers a gentle, “I don’t think so.” His father, who has sunk 10,000 dollars into Mark’s ventures, seems to be carrying a grudge against Mark that their proximity to each other (At the time of filming, Mark was living with his parents) is only making worse. Mark’s brother Alex openly disdains him and goes on the record to belittle Mark and the movies he makes and express his concerns that Mark would become a serial killer or, at the very least, plan to murder him. Alex says Mark would always talk about how he was going to become a millionaire and that their whole family would be jealous of him and, while Mark never says that on camera, his sense of entitlement becomes increasingly evident with each viewing. While setting up a shot in the woods, Mark says to nobody in particular that someone has to scale a tree to knock some snow off before they roll. He says it as an aside, presumably just expecting one of his volunteer crew members to leap at the opportunity to break their neck for him. When Mike Schank wins some money on a scratch off ticket, Mark tries to convince his friend (a recovering alcoholic) to spend twenty of it on beer. He makes a habit of driving out to an upper middle class suburb when he’s depressed to remind himself of the American Dream and, while there, points out a McMansion to the documentarians, stating, “My house ain’t gonna look like this. It’s gonna be flatter and less obnoxious.” Mark is so concerned with wealth as the signifier of success you begin to wonder if he’s passionate about filmmaking at all or if it’s just a means to an end. In the deleted scenes, Mark talks about how he’ll get the Wall Street Journal one day and read it with his feet up on a mahogany desk. He fantasizes about getting cash in hand to make his movie and then hitting a beach in Cancun to trade drive-thru sodas for drinks with umbrellas in them. Every time I watch that scene I picture Steve Martin in The Jerk, holding up a rum ad that says “Be Somebody” in one hand and an umbrella’d cocktail in the other, convinced he’s made it now that he has the same drink and smoking jacket as the model on the page. After watching American Movie dozens of times, I can say confidently that I still believe Mark Borchardt is a passionate filmmaker but I don’t know if he’s passionate about his films so much as the life he thinks they’ll afford him one day.

Early on in the movie, Mark’s father says that Mark tested into a gifted program when he was younger and, in the same segment, his mother says that he dropped out of high school because he claims he wasn’t learning anything. On the DVD commentary, Mark blithely replies to his onscreen mother with a “Damn right.” With his persuasive patter, it’s easy to imagine Mark as a precocious youngster, challenging adults both in and out of the classroom. He’s still surrounded by a few of his peers from adolescence and his social circle is rounded out by fellow misfits and aspiring artists, many of whom exhibit a loyalty to Mark that borders on pathology (Coven star Tom Schimmels lets him bash his head into a cabinet door over and over and over again) and lays bare their own interests. He’s the star they’re pinning their hopes on, the Romero of Menomonee Falls who will put them all on the map. On the eve of Coven’s release, Mark sits for an interview at the Menomonee Falls Tribune where he’s asked about his influences. Earlier in the documentary, he answers this question quickly by rattling off a few of his favorite movies but, when asked by the journalist, he goes into full-on mythology mode, “When I was growing up and drinking, the people I was around, they were the Americans who were still fighting the West with a bottle of vodka in their hand. There was still territory out there in the mind or around the block or something like that.” When asked to expand on that answer, Mark gets no closer to an anticipated response and, instead, doubles down on his vision of Midwestern Manifest Destiny, “Okay, listen, man. There was no such thing about college or religion or anything. There was drinking. Drinking, drinking, drinking, drinking, drinking. And everything would revolve around that, the money, the time spent, everything. It was America at that point.” And that’s it. Or, at least, that’s all we see of it.* We never hear the reporter challenge Mark on his conception of America or properly scrutinize why, when asked what his artistic influences are, the only tangible response he gives is alcohol.

Booze plays a pretty compelling role in Mark’s would-be filmography. He describes Coven as a thriller about an alcoholic writer compelled to go to a group meeting, only to discover that the group isn’t that helpful. In 2005’s Horror Business, Mark is interviewed during production of a (still unfinished) feature called Scare Me which he describes as a horror movie about drinking and writing. When asked about his great white whale Northwestern, Mark says it’s about a writer drinking in a junkyard and having to get out of it and get his American Dream. It’s safe to say Mark is aware of his problems with alcohol. In the documentary’s opening monologue, he laments his squandered potential and says he’s “back to being Mark with a beer in his hand” who is “thinking about the great American script and the great American movie”. His words feel like a tacit admission of hopelessness, an embrace of his quixotic ambitions despite clearly seeing them for what they are, the romantic ramblings of an idealist who isn’t ready to wake up from his dreams. It’s like he can hear the alarm clock buzzing but has taught his brain to fold it into the texture of his dreamscapes the way reality sometimes does in those moments between sleeping and waking. Ever the romantic, he seems to see himself in the Hemingway mold; he’s no mere alcoholic, he’s a veteran whose work is a testament to his illness and his illness a testament to his work. He’s a drinker with a writing problem, a cliché that serves to prop up the myth of writer’s block which, itself, only exists to rebrand inactivity as a noble and necessary aspect of the war of art.

It’s not difficult to imagine how Mark became so complacent. He’s surrounded by enablers and convinced of his own self-mythology. He was an exceptional kid who slowly grew into an average adult and he’s still measuring his expectations against the seemingly boundless potential of youth. More than anything, his confidence is buoyed by a steadfast adherence to the American Dream, not as something to aspire to but as a virtual guarantee. And who can blame him? The American Dream is a brilliant sales pitch. The lie on which it’s founded, that every person in this country is born with the same advantages and opportunities, serves to convince rich and poor alike that whatever they have is exactly what they deserve. It absolves the wealthy of their avarice and serves to pacify the masses by implying that their ship is bound to come in as long as they just keep their hands on their bootstraps. In the late 90s, it’s possible that lie was more potent than anytime before or since. American Movie is peppered with scenes of Mark staring through the television into a world he believes is waiting for him. He and his girlfriend watch Billy Crystal monologuing about independent film on the Oscars. He goes on a drunken tirade while his home state’s working class hero Brett Favre celebrates a Super Bowl win. He sits in the living room, reviewing abandoned footage from his first attempt to make Northwestern, watching himself drink the same beer and dream the same dreams that he still harbors. In the DVD commentary Mark is quick to apply narrative subtext to his onscreen actions, frequently calling out certain moments of the film as tragic like he sees himself as a character in his own life. For all of his rhetoric during the series of production meetings at the beginning of the documentary, it almost seems like Mark expects the movie to manifest itself if he just communicates his vision adamantly enough. It’s tough not to draw the same conclusion about his relationship with the American Dream. He claims to know where he wants to be and what he wants to do but it’s unclear if he understands how that vision is his responsibility. After convincing his Uncle Bill to invest in Coven, Mark needles him for not being more assertive about the “opportunity”. He frequently insults his mother in between asking her for favors. In one of my favorite movie lines ever Mark lays his worldview bare while walking through a cemetery, saying, “There’s something cinematic about it. All these dead people too, it’s like they can’t bitch at ya, you don’t have to hear their opinions. They’re there though. They’re here as decent human beings, finally.” If Mark is the hero of his own story, it never seems to occur to him that anyone else could be more than a supporting role. In his life, you either do as he directs you to do or you at least have the decency to die.

Not much seems to have changed in the six years between American Movie and Horror Business. Mark says as much, citing “domestic shit, life, four kids, tremendous bills and tremendous debt” as some of the ever present thorns in his side. Still in the throes of alcoholism, it doesn’t seem like he’s gleaned as much from living his life as I have from observing it. Mark caps American Movie’s opening monologue with, “It’s important, now more than ever, not just to drink and dream but to create and complete” as though alcohol were as fundamental to the creative process as imagination. More recently, Borchardt has appeared on a handful of podcasts in which he has talked about getting sober, making a point of how easy it was once he decided to do it. It’s implied that many of his friendships with other people in those docs have evaporated. When pressed on his creative endeavors, he doesn’t seem to have gotten over his inability to follow through; When asked about Scare Me’s status, he gives contradictory answers in different interviews but he is consistent in his disavowal of the horror genre and all mainstream movies. He classifies Hollywood films as “populist, proletariat entertainment” and likens a visit to the theater to see Mad Max: Fury Road to “an anthropological study” akin to going to a zoo. It’s like he’s stuck in rewrites of his own life story, trying to change the audience’s perspective on why he never reached the heights he always seemed to strive for. Every time a podcast host asks if he’s still in Milwaukee, his response is “Take out the “still”” which plays to the questioners as Mark proudly, if passive-aggressively, embracing his roots but also implies that the mainstream film industry’s indifference towards him is actually a noble rejection on his part. If Mark Borchardt is a failure, he needs to believe that’s because he chose not to pursue success. To hear him tell it now, he could have had the American Dream if artistic integrity hadn’t won out. But American Movie will always paint a different picture, that of a man desperately trying to free himself from an unexceptional life, attempting to scrape together enough credit to buy in while accusing everyone else of selling out, a man whose ambitions far exceeded his work ethic and whose expectations were immune to that reality. While watching the old Northwestern footage, he claims, “I think, obviously, there’s gotta be some fear, like, if you actually go ahead and do it and complete it there’s more consequences to it.” As a creator, I know how scary it can be to embrace that vulnerability. It takes a lot to put so much of yourself out there on the page or up on the screen. To complete something is to open it up to criticism and that can be a difficult thing to reckon with but, as upsetting as that may be, it doesn’t seem like Mark has considered the consequences of living a life that is littered with abandoned projects and relationships. In American Movie, Mark describes his semi-autobiographical would-be opus Northwestern as a film in which the inhabitants of the movie’s junkyard setting are decaying just as the cars surrounding them have decayed. I don’t need to say anything further about his relationship to those themes. In the spirit of Mark Borchardt, I feel confident leaving that analogy unfinished.

*I’ve tried to find the full interview online but the now defunct Menomonee Falls Tribune isn’t digitally archived. I tracked down the issue in which it would have appeared to a microfiche archive at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library but it’s only accessible to students who are enrolled there.

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