It's too hard to make art when you don't have dough
One of the greatest '90s docs was all about this. R.I.P. Mike Schank.
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— Jonah & Erin
Since Blackbird Spyplane is a weird passion project that inspires & uplifts millions, it’s only natural that Erin and I (Jonah) have soft spots for other triumphs in the genre of “weird passion projects that have inspired & uplifted millions.”
Case in point: We love the 1999 Chris Smith documentary American Movie, which follows a thirtyish self-taught aspiring Milwaukee auteur named Mark Borchardt (below left) and his extremely kindvibed childhood buddy Mike Schank (below right) as they work to complete Borchardt’s nanobudget horror short COVEN.
Borchardt is, in the documentary, a charmingly loose cannon of ideas and ambitions, with a monumental love of the game vastly disproportionate to his resources. He cajoles his trailer-dwelling uncle into writing him checks from his nest egg and relies on a highly unreliable network of local volunteers for his cast and crew. Part time, he works at a cemetery doing groundskeeping and janitorial work to help pay his bills, which include child-support payments for his 3 kids. Schank, meanwhile, is a goodnatured metalhead / space cadet who used to drink vodka to the point of blackouts and once dropped so much acid he was hospitalized (he tried to do more acid in his hospital bed) before getting sober, focusing on making Sabbath-inspired music and, in American Movie, being a generous, beautiful, funny, and selfless friend to Borchardt…
One of the sweetest moments in the documentary is one of the smallest: Schank gets into Borchardt’s car to help him with some audio recording and, cradling a cooler, happily announces, “My mom made us lunch.” Schanks’s blissed-out LSD Buddha energy is a counterbalance to Borchardt’s revved-up intensity, his acoustic-guitar playing provides the documentary’s soundtrack, and the movie wouldn’t be nearly as lovely without him. We were heartbroken the other day to learn that Schank had died, at the age of 53, after posting about a “rare cancer” diagnosis on his F*cebook page. Horrible s**t.
(On a brighter note, we learned that the photographer, SpyFriend and Milwaukee native Daniel Arnold used to work at a record store where Schank was a regular: “He came in every Tuesday to check out the new releases,” Daniel told me the other day. Two Wisconsin GOATS linking & building over chunes, you gotta love it.)
Erin and I have both loved American Movie since it came out. Ages ago I found a signed VHS of Borchardt’s COVEN on Ebay — a cherished gem in the Spyplane HQ Film Archives:
Chris Smith has since gone on to enormous documentary success with Tiger King and Fyre, two projects we feel ambivalently toward, but American Movie is a masterpiece. The other night we tossed it on to commune with Schank’s luminous spirit and revisit this story of a passionate “small maker” rallying support from his family (including his mad chill Swedish mom) & community as he tries to bring his ungainly, idiosyncratic artistic visions to life…
Also?? The mid-’90s fits throughout are beautiful, and Borchardt in particular, among his other oddball gifts, is a strangely swaggy clothes-rocker:
Smith’s movie doesn’t inflate Borchardt’s talents, paper over his flaws or condescend to him. It carefully weaves in heavy themes (desolate de-industrialized Midwest winters, depression, addiction), deepening what would otherwise be a simpler documentary about “a lovable oddball with an irrepressible spirit.” (It is that, but it’s not only that.)
The documentary also illustrates how much of a constant, demoralizing struggle it can be to try & make ambitious, idiosyncratic art when you are short on economic and cultural capital. Borchardt is a guy in a “flyover state” with working-class parents, three kids from an estranged relationship, and cemetery-custodian wages … who nonetheless insists on honoring his burning desire to make movies. He shot stuff with friends in the neighborhood as a kid but, crucially and beautifully, now that he’s 30, he refuses to accept that “it’s time to grow up” and give up the dream. (The documentary implies the toll this stubbornness takes on those who love and depend on him, without lingering too long on that subject.)
I grew up in New York in a series of rent-controlled outerborough apartments, raised by freelancer bohemian parents who never made a lot of $$$. My mom designed knitwear and sold her ideas to big brands. My dad, augmenting what money he brought in as a photojournalist, once salvaged a bunch of charming antique light fixtures from various NYC schools undergoing renovation — walking in, chatting up the demo crew — and hawked them from a blanket on Broadway, just north of Canal. This was not so far removed from the era of NYC when you still heard about artists like Philip Glass making their Manhattan rents by driving taxis — unthinkable now.
My folks got priced out of Park Slope, where I was born, in 1986 (!) when their building went co-op. And yet they still hammered their belief into me that doing creative work that “nourished the soul” would always be more important, and make me feel more satisfied, than just trying to make bread for bread’s sake. It wasn’t until I got to college — a recipient of massive financial aid at Bard, surrounded by cool weirdos who tended to come from waaay richer backgrounds — that I realized the obvious truth they’d sheltered me from: Most people who devote their lives to creative work are able to do so because they come from dough, and if you don’t, s**t is more often than not a constant struggle.
Has it gotten easier or harder, since American Movie came out, to make art as a non-rich person? The prevailing narrative is that the internet helped “democratize” the distribution of creative work, that crowdsourcing helped niche artists find audiences, and that the availability of relatively cheap hardware (e.g. smartphone cameras) and software (e.g. Fruity Loops) lowered the barrier to entry for aspiring artists from “all walks of life.”
There are many cases where this narrative bears out. But you have to square them with the stubborn fact that making great things takes not just money but tons of time — and time feels more and more like a luxury good, available to a tiny few. Advancements in tech have also brought with them a state of hyper-connectivity, so that work demands and pressures can reach into and colonize what was once leisure time. The social safety net in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is in shreds and still under assault. Rents are going CUCKOO even in wack cities. Public arts funding is a joke. And real wages over the last several decades are stagnant. All of which would seem to make it tougher for society to produce and nurture beautiful eccentrics like Mark Borchardt — and life’s rich tapestry is impoverished as a result. This is true whether you’re trying to make art or just spend some sliver of your day chilling rather than grinding: s**t is looking rough!!
For Borchardt’s part, he seems to have kept busy, on the evidence of his IMDB page, which lists directing and acting gigs over the years, including a few appearances on the very blessed Adult Swim series Joe Pera Talks With You. Borchardt also hosts a Milwaukee radio show on WXRW (the eps are banked on Soundcloud) about movies, called Cinema Tonight. I didn’t know it existed until I started writing this post, but it sounds cool as h*ll.
Mike Schank, meanwhile, kept sober, kept making music, and did addiction-recovery volunteer work at the Milwaukee Alano Club, which is hosting a celebration of his life on Nov. 12. Rest in Peace to a kindvibed king.
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If there are any salt lake homies, I have some great news. Brewvies is having a free screening of American Movie this Monday 11/7 at 9pm!
I loved American Movie when it came out because it was an authentic portrayal of an artist who created not because he wanted to, but because he couldn't NOT do it. And on par with that passion, was the support of the people around him, especially (and unequivocally) Mike, despite the lack of resources and network. Thank you BBSP for recognizing this masterpiece!