Ten years ago, "American Movie," the first feature-length documentary by indie stalwart Chris Smith, introduced audiences to another indefatigable filmmaker: Wisconsin's Mark Borchardt, the would-be director of "Northwestern," was a long-haired part-timer, and a young-looking father of three with a love of beer and horror movies. A decade later, "American Movie" remains one of those 1990s art-house word-of-mouth hits that everyone seems to know. At the time, many treated the documentary, which followed Mr. Borchardt as he tried with all his being to craft his own slasher movie, as a virtual mockumentary. But watching it today reveals a compassionate portrait of a typical American who treats everyone decently and is just hustling for his dream.
It's Mr. Smith doing what he does best: approaching folks on their own terms and turf, with an eye for everyone's squelch-resistant kernel of independence. Beginning Friday, "American Movie" and the director's four other films will screen at the Museum of Modern Art in a retrospective titled Chris Smith: American Original. The series spans from Mr. Smith's 1996 debut, "American Job," to his latest, "The Pool," a fictional feature set in India that begins its premiere American run Wednesday at Film Forum.
For the 37-year-old Milwaukee native, the MoMA series brings his career full circle.
"The first public screening of any film I did was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1995," Mr. Smith recalled in an interview at Film Forum's offices. "'American Job' played as part of the Cineprobe series. So it felt like a nice bookending in that way."
The MoMA series will present the first screening of a lovely, seven-years-in-the-making restoration of "American Job," which was never released on video. Shot right after he left the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Smith's first film grew out of the menial jobs he and friends took. After discovering a zine that collected ridiculous work stories from people around the country, he set to work with the author, Randy Russell, on a script about their experiences. The name of Mr. Russell's zine: American Job.
Mr. Smith's deadpan fiction feature is packed with the hard-won, unfakeable detail and dialogue of experience — hilarious, bleak, absurd, numbing — from the front lines of minimum-wage monotony. Easily one of the decade's best indie debuts, "American Job" sticks by its lanky, slack-jawed protagonist (Mr. Russell) through a series of shuffling stints at a plastic-mold factory, a fast-food chicken joint, a telemarketing farm, and so on. Faithful to Mr. Russell's point of view with long-take scenes, and fleshed out with a lived-in cast of co-workers and bosses, "American Job" rivals comedies such as Mike Judge's "Office Space" as a workplace classic. It also effortlessly nails the vivid, ordinary-life-gothic vignettes that earned Terry Zwigoff's graphic-novel adaptation of "Ghost World" praise, without adopting a showy skewed view. It's funny but tinged with deep frustration.
Bolstered by the one-two punch of "American Job" and "American Movie," Mr. Smith was showered with offers. But he's tended to follow his passions rather than adhere to a preordained career arc.
"I've been really lucky," Mr. Smith, whose films have all shown at Sundance, said. "Since I've started making films, a lot of people have come to me and said they'd be interested in working with me or funding it. But I started in a very independent space and I've sort of stayed there. I've always been interested in working on whatever seems most interesting at the time."
In the two whirlwind years after "American Movie," what captured Mr. Smith's interest was not a new film — it was inventing YouTube. Well, almost.
"We had this idea of doing an Internet TV station, which doesn't sound that radical now," Mr. Smith said, recalling "ZeroTV" with some amusement. "The idea was to try to come together and do original content for the Internet. At the time, people were able to submit work to the site."
Technological limitations at the time eventually wore on Mr. Smith and his collaborators.
"People were taking videotapes and sending them to us and we would compress them and put them on the site," he said. "And most of the people were still using dial-up. I went on to a few other films and ended up doing 'The Pool,' coming back after being in India for five months, and I remember somebody said, 'Have you heard of this thing called YouTube?'"
One of the films he made after the ZeroTV experiment was "Home Movie," which began as a commission for a dot-com company. A 60-minute cabinet of curiosities, the film shuffles among six different outlandish dream houses across the country and their idiosyncratic inhabitants. With the colorfully dense detail of effortless reportage, Mr. Smith's camera follows a couple in an abandoned Kansas missile base, an ex-Japanese sitcom star in her Hawaiian-jungle "Swiss Family Robinson" retreat, and a guy with an automated house straight out of a Jacques Tati movie, among others.
After touring briefly with a band ("It was like a 10-piece band that did sort of jazz, sort of funk music," he said), in 2003 Mr. Smith made "The Yes Men," a straightforward documentary that tagged along with the anticorporate activists of the title as they posed as members of the World Trade Organization.
"The Pool," which is based on a short story, brings Mr. Smith back to the fiction territory of his debut, and touches on the interest in class that marks "American Job" and "American Movie." The tale of a hardworking teen who befriends an upper-class father and daughter won many admirers at Sundance in January, including MoMA curator Laurence Kardish, who organized this weekend's series. But the five-month stay for the 65-day shoot was no idle jaunt for the filmmaker.
"'The Pool' was the hardest thing I ever worked on in my life," Mr. Smith said. "The casting of the film was an odyssey. In the three days leading up to the film we lost [three of the main actors] for different reasons. One kid went up to Bombay to buy karate uniforms and said he would be back in 24 hours and we never heard from him again."
The cast ultimately exceeded all of his expectations, and spanned from the young lead, Venkatesh Chavan, essentially a newcomer, to the father, played by Bollywood star Nana Patekar. For Mr. Smith, who calls the endeavor an "experiment," his journey to India was a crucial clearing-out of creative space to work.
"No one knew we were going over and no one really cared in that sense," he said. "So it gave me the ability to try something."
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