Monday, July 19, 2010

day 34: i watched a movie on the roof

Before I turned 21, my friends and fellow tutors at the Johnson County Community College Writing Center and I used to plan "hooker nights."

Of course this didn't literally involve trawling the streets for "dates;" it more innocently involved squeezing ourselves into fishnet tights, short skirts and push-up bras and spackling our faces with black eyeliner and red lipstick before heading to the Wal-Mart photo booth for a group shot. For dinner we'd see how many bowls of free queso dip we could score at Ponak's before heading out to Stanford and Sons Comedy Club, where we discovered a group of 20-year-old women dressed like cheap-ass whores is an easy target for comedians.

view from the downtown library's rooftop terrace

And before we knew dressing up like skanks for Halloween was a thing, on our second official hooker night we ventured downtown with sleeping bags slung over our shoulders and plastic bags full of soda and candy to watch an outdoor screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I'm not gonna lie - I don't really get the appeal of the movie. Sure, it's fun to sing along and shout the lines, but like most other cults I suppose I was not indoctrinated early enough, because to get my Halloween thrills I would much rather go for an after-dark bike ride through the West Bottoms. Try it sometime; it's nearly impossible to imagine there aren't zombies chasing you.

But one thing the experience did teach me is that watching movies outdoors is fucking fabulous, and if you invite me to such an event my answer will unequivocally be yes.

Enter the Kansas City Public Library's EbertfestKC, for which movies are projected on the wall of the fifth floor rooftop terrace of the downtown Central Branch. Last Friday my boyfriend and I brought sushi, Lemonheads and Twizzlers and gathered on the terrace just after sunset with about 30 other people to watch American Movie, the 1999 documentary of hapless (and some might argue hopeless) Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt.

The movie is funny, sure - Borchardt's best friend and crewmember Mike Schank rocks a wannabe 80s hair metal 'do, another crewmember/friend is sporting a blonde skullet, and Borchardt himself is wearing the sort of glasses last seen on your best friend's dad circa 1987. As they work to complete the film Coven - pronounced as though there were an umlaut above the "o" because "otherwise it sounds like 'oven'"- they spout phrases such as:

"I always used to get pissed off inside because I would wanna party really heavy and no one else would. And then all of a sudden Mark came over... and we were drinkin' vodka and I was so happy that I found someone who would drink vodka with me, you know?"


"Man, I got so drunk last night I was trying to call Morocco. I was trying to get to the Hotel Hilton in Tangier. That's just pathetic, man. Is that what you want to do with your life, suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? That's just senseless."

But for all of the movie's inherent humor, it is also quietly heartbreaking. When Borchardt is helping his sickly, elderly Uncle Bill, the film's executive producer and mysterious possessor of a small fortune, to bathe before Thanksgiving dinner, he comments on his uncle's "gnarly science class toenail," and you realize for the first time you are laughing with him rather than at him.

Throughout most of the film, in fact, Borchardt is as much spectacle as protagonist. You find yourself rooting for him in an almost selfish way - you want him to complete Coven as much because it's his life's goal as you know it's going to be a particularly bizarre train wreck, and you want to rubber-neck at the smoldering dream-heap all the way down the street.

It's not that Borchardt is presented unsympathetically - the documentarians seem to be striving for objectivity, but seem also simultaneously aware that most audiences - particularly in large, metropolitan areas - will have a preconceived notion of Borchardt as out-of-date and perhaps misguided.

When it comes down to it, though, Borchardt is a dreamer. He sees bigger, better things for himself than cleaning up shit in the bathroom of the local cemetery, and he isn't afraid to voice his dreams, even though we all secretly suspect he will still be living with his mom and getting hammered on cheap beer during Packers games in five years.

But dreamers, misguided though they may be, are also inspiring, and there is ultimately something heartening about Borchardt's relentless pursuit of his own American dream.

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