Recently a friend was talking about the music that reminded her of the darkest days of her adult life and it got me to thinking about the mix cd I made to listen to on the plane ride down to my father's funeral. I normally spend a lot of time trying to calibrate a mix cd, but I was trying to take care of a lot of details at once and I was pressed for time, so I just threw a whole bunch of stuff that seemed appropriately dark together and then I filled up the leftover space with whatever random songs that were in my regular rotation at the time. A few years later I listened to the cd again, and it started out as I remembered - lots of Eels songs, like World of Shit - but I had forgotten that I had thrown on the Jungle Book song "I Wanna Be Like You" on the back half. It was such an incongruous addition that I did a double take, but then I remembered, oh yeah, I was listening to that song a lot in 2003 for some reason. It was a spur of the moment random decision to throw that song on there, but now whenever I hear that song (which is admittedly not often) I just think about funerals.
American Movie reminds me of that cd in an abstract way, because it's a documentary that's fundamentally bleak but which has these singularly odd moments which produce gut-busting laughs. It's about a man named Mark Borchardt who is a big dreamer living a hard life. He is trying to make a horror film that will hopefully be the first step towards becoming a professional filmmaker - a career change he desperately needs because he can't pay his child support on the money he makes by delivering newspapers. He's aided in his quest by a friend who he has to pick up from jail, a buddy whose brain is clearly fried from too many years of doing drugs, and it's all bankrolled by an elderly uncle who will tell anyone who will listen to him that he sees no reason to keep on living. (He died before the film was released.)
But in the middle of this clusterfuck of misery there are still some moments of deep laughter. At one point Borchardt is delivering a speech about his high minded goals while he's standing in a basement, then he stops for a second, produces a partially chewed turkey leg from off screen, bites into it deliberately, then begins speaking again. It's such an odd moment that the incongruity of it made me laugh. Moments like that are incredibly refreshing in the middle of a film that's often about poverty, alcoholism, and the burden of dreams.
Other people find the movie more uplifting than I did, and that's fair. If you are more comfortable laughing at Borchardt than I am then there's a lot to laugh at; he proves to be pretty inept at a lot of aspects of filmmaking. He also has a certain guilelessness which makes you want to root for him to get it together, and he does eventually finish the short film he was working so hard on, so I could even see it if someone thought of the movie as being sort of uplifting. But for me the really funny moments seem like brief diversions in a mostly dark time. He only had his mother be his cameraman once (a sequence which is legitimately funny), but his bills are there every day, his friend's brain is fried every day, his semi-rich uncle lives in isolated squalor every day. (Well, he does till he mercifully dies.) There's a lot more in this movie that makes me think "World of Shit" than "I Wanna Be Like You."