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Splendor in the Crabgrass


American Splendor

Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.6



Posted: September 2, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Longtime fans (including this one) of Harvey Pekar's irascible comic series American Splendor know that it's not for everyone. It's hard, after all, to imagine the public at large embracing a title full of autobiographical anecdotes -- many of them unflinching and unflattering -- written by a socially awkward nebbish slaving away as a file clerk in a VA hospital. It's even harder to imagine that public clamoring for a sporadically published black-and-white comic that might devote a full one-page story to the joys of making and enjoying a glass of lemonade.

But the public is embracing American Splendor, the movie, a beguiling character study presented in a grab bag of contrasting and conflicting narrative approaches. While it's foolhardy to attempt to explain the success of a film as idiosyncratic as Splendor, one can guess that one of the main reasons for its positive reception is that directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ground the proceedings in a more-or-less traditional narrative, employing an array of stylistic flourishes as garnish, building an underlying thematic Rubik's Cube of a puzzle concerning the nature of identity.

The meat of Splendor is wrapped in a standard-issue biopic, featuring the talented Paul Giamatti, a journeyman portrayer of awkward schlubs, re-enacting scenes from Pekar's life -- or at least, scenes from Pekar's life as told in the comic. In stylistic complement to the many different Pekars (rendered by a host of artists) in the comic, Giamatti's grouchy performance is offset by the real Harvey, who appears as both occasional interview subject (allowing the film to pretend to documentary status) and narrator.

This allows several flights of fancy, such as an early switch from Pekar's narration (delivered in a high-pitched croak-rasp hybrid that hints at his ever-simmering animus) to an abrupt Q&A with the narrator in a neutral landscape dotted with bookshelves and comic racks. The author of the comic on which the movie he's in is based is asked his feelings on the script he's reading from; that Pekar at first appears to us, in his own flesh, as a soft-voiced, gentle old man lends a disquieting air to the layered, metafictional proceedings. In another, similar scene, Giamatti and Judah Friedlander (playing Pekar's even more socially inept co-worker, über-nerd Toby Radloff) finish a scene and step out of the reality of the frame (off-panel, as it were) into the same neutral backdrop, where they relax in director's chairs as the real Pekar and Radloff engage in their own discussion.

The most effective use of this multi-perspective synchronicity, however, centers around Pekar's notorious stint as a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman. The bulk of these appearances are the actual events, seen on a television screen (usually by Pekar's wife Joyce, looking either appalled or bored, in the show's green room). But the last appearance, in which Harvey famously baits a frazzled Letterman about NBC's parent company General Electric, is staged, sharply contrasting the earlier, friendlier visits with the emotional and physical pain a pre-diagnosis Harvey suffers. The directors also shoot the battle from behind, sweeping across the backs of the combatants' heads, underlining the surreality of the moment, casting Letterman as nothing more than an ephemeral silhouette.

While such trickery can seem contrived if overdone, Springer and Pulcini apply such touches with a deft hand, keeping the focus on Pekar himself -- in whatever form he takes -- rather than the playground of possible perspectives their subject matter offers. Which is apt, in its way, because while American Splendor, the comic, in its heyday hinted at the possibilities of the comic book form, it has always been as much, if not more so, a blatant billboard for its creator. Pekar may shill for the rich narrative potential of comics, but he's first and foremost a tireless self-promoter. (That is an American Splendor T-shirt the real Pekar sports in his scenes.)

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Much of what we describe as (capital-A) Art is the product of a singular, self-aggrandizing personality. Most actors and musicians take up their craft out of a need to exhibit themselves; why should writers be any different? And a case can and should be made for Pekar's slice-of-life vignettes as capital-A Art. Single-page snippets of conversation with Pekar's stentorian co-worker Mr. Boats could be so concise as to make Raymond Carver seem like a florid hack by comparison. And his sprawling examinations of his own obsessive-compulsive foibles; the aching loneliness of his existence; his neurotic need to be recognized -- all of these he could delineate with an intimate, nerve-wracking poignancy.

American Splendor, the movie, doesn't quite accomplish this, but it does succeed admirably in one of Pekar's chief aims: Celebrating Harvey Pekar. To that end, we watch as his gruff outlook and numbing existence give birth to such comic scenes as the one in which Pekar agonizes over which grocery store checkout line to commit himself to (given added zing by the use of clever thought balloons). We watch as Pekar befriends a greeting-card artist named Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak, seen in too-brief sketches) and eventually is inspired to follow in his friend's footsteps and create his own comic. When Crumb, by this point enjoying some success as an underground comics artist, asks to illustrate some of the stories, Pekar's career -- such as it is -- as a comics creator is launched.

But the film isn't really interested in the comic from which it takes its name, except to the extent that both chronicle major events in Harvey's life. As such, it relies most heavily on two primary sources: American Splendor issue number 10 (1985), which recounts his meeting and marriage to Joyce Brabner (as well as Toby's infatuation with a life-affirming film called Revenge of the Nerds); and Our Cancer Year, the Pekar/Brabner collaboration (with artist Frank Stack) that maps Pekar's bout with the disease in excruciating detail. The former is given much more latitude here than the latter; Pekar's illness whizzes by so quickly that when he eventually beats the disease, the moment is frustratingly anticlimactic.

By contrast, the scenes in which Joyce (Hope Davis, in owlish glasses, skillfully subsuming herself into the role) strikes up a correspondence with Harvey, they meet and decide to get married (only after she throws up just seconds after their first kiss) are played for laughs, but they're not cheap shots. There's real tenderness in the coming together of these two kindred-spirit outsiders, and there's an unflinching clarity in the pathos of Pekar's dependency. The centrality of this unlikely love story is but one of the many surprising ways that American Splendor uncannily resembles another film about a hard-to-like outsider: Private Parts, the 1997 Howard Stern bio. (Both also feature Giamatti, so deliciously hissable as the one-note villain Pig Vomit, and incorporate real-life performances by the characters being portrayed alongside actors in key roles.)

Howard Stern comparisons aside, the all-too human connection of Harvey and Joyce is what ultimately gives American Splendor its heart, anchoring it in the terra firma of everyday life Pekar has so ably championed in his comic. This unlikely partnership gives meaning to a narrative so often distracted, in that way that life gets, by parlor tricks and its own chaotic, directionless flow.

American Beauties
Interested parties should definitely seek out American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, the first collection of Pekar's work, recently re-released with a new cover to coincide with the release of the film. Those truly intrigued can follow it up with the follow-up, The New American Splendor Anthology, which features more late-period comics and less one- and two-page stories than the original.
More Americana
Still want more? Our Cancer Year is a moving and brutal depiction of Pekar's struggle with cancer, balanced by Joyce's work on a political comic and the ordeal of buying a home. Lastly, American Splendor Presents Bob & Harv's Comics collects Pekar stories illustrated by Robert Crumb, including "The Harvey Pekar Name Story" and "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines," both of which are re-enacted in the film.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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