Chris Smith’s feature “The Pool” opened in New York yesterday, and today the Onion AV Club‘s Scott Tobias takes on his 1999 documentary “American Movie” as part of his “New Cult Canon” series, noting that “the main knock against the movie is that Smith is condescending to his subjects and carting them out exclusively so we can laugh at their ineptitude… At the risk of passing the blame, I’d say that any condescension brought to American Movie comes mostly from the viewer, not the filmmakers.”
I’d agree that Smith doesn’t seem to have made the film with mockery of his subjects in mind, but what made “American Movie” so worm its way into my brain is that the film’s a constant and uncomfortable reminder of one’s participation in its subject-filmmaker-audience set-up. Smith’s intentions don’t matter once the film is finished and put into the world — if mockery is what the average viewer draws from it, that is essentially what the film becomes. The second half of Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling” was a memorable reaction to that aspect of “American Movie” (one of the subjects, Mike Schank, had a small role), something Solondz discussed in an interview that also ran in the AV Club, back in 2001 when the film was hitting theaters.
I admire Chris Smith, I liked this film, and yet it raised certain troubling issues that connected to what I was doing. You couldn’t help bristling or feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the response this movie was soliciting. I mean, you have some hapless, somewhat naÃ¯ve guys from Wisconsin fumbling through their filmmaking ambitions, and you have a kind of laughter that’s being generated at this center of hip, so to speak, here. You have to question, exactly, the nature of that laughter, and what that really means, and to what extent this is really respecting or connecting to Chris Smith’s intentions.
Aaron Hillis interviewed Smith for IFC.com this week, and asked him in turn about his reactions to that section of “Storytelling.” He seemed unperturbed:
You’re right, I’ve never actually been asked that. I didn’t have a big opinion on it, to be honest. If that’s something he wanted to spend his time on, that seems fine. I wasn’t sure what exactly the point of the film was in regards to “American Movie,” but you could make assumptions. [Solondz] had written me a letter after “Storytelling” came out and said that he was frustrated with the reaction the audiences had towards [my] film. He felt that they misunderstood it, and I thought that was valid. I barely even remember “Storytelling,” but it wasn’t anything I spent a lot of time thinking about.
[Photo: “American Movie,” Sony Pictures Classics, 1999]