Cinema's Greatest Best Friend Mike Schank From American Movie Has Died

Mike Schank, a tremendously gifted guitarist who gained millions of admirers as the preternaturally unfazed friend of passionate low-budget filmmaker Mike Borchardt in Chris Smith's documentary "American Movie," has died at the age of 56.

Smith's film took art houses by storm in 1999, and its enthusiastic reception came freighted with more than a tinge of guilt. Schank and Borchardt were Milwaukee eccentrics trying to complete a handmade horror movie. I vividly remember watching the documentary at New York City's Film Forum and wincing at the uproarious laughter generated by Borchardt's pained direction of his elderly Uncle Bill (whose financial investment is the only reason he's anywhere close to completing the shoot). It was, undeniably, funny. But anyone who's ever tried to muscle through an underfunded shoot had to identify with Borchardt's frantic direction. He knew what he needed, and he fervently believed he could get it out of Bill.

As Borchardt fights to get his film in the can, Schank unwaveringly stands behind him, often hoisting a boom microphone, but, most importantly, showing up every day the director can set aside time to shoot. Schank is there. He is guaranteed. And why is that? Because Borchardt is his friend, and to stay at home would be a betrayal.

The Tao of Schank

When I watched "American Movie" on DVD, I didn't know what to make of Smith's decision to include Schank's home phone number. Over the years, I've talked to people who actually called Schank, and, in several cases, they had good, substantive conversations with him. He was one of those people who was open to the world. He was devoid of guile, and seemed baked most of the time in "American Movie," but there was so much mental activity masked by those seemingly glazed-over eyes.

Schank was taking it all in, and it came out in his music. He loved to riff on classical compositions. Was he a Hendrix-level guitarist? No, but he was attuned to something ineffable in the universe, and he brought it out every time he played the instrument that brought him joy. In doing so, he made others tremendously happy. He shared his bliss, and he mattered. Deeply.

Schank represented the very best of us. He lived by a code of kindness. When Smith asks him in "American Movie" why he sticks by Borchardt, he says, "I feel like Mark is like my best friend because, uh, he is." That answer just shatters my heart. We were so lucky to have him.