the Goliard

September 2003

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American Splendor

American Splendor, the story of the life of underground comic book author Harvey Pekar, is an excellent movie. In fact, and stick with me here, its as excellent a movie as it is hard to classify. You might call it something of a documentary, except for the fact that it employs actors to portray those being documented. And this even though the actual documentees are present throughout the film and provide some of the commentary and voice-overs, not to mention sometimes appearing in the film as themselves. At a few points along the way, actors playing members of the Pekar clan and the Pekars themselves interact on the set. There are comic panels weaved into the film and live action occasionally fades to become the pages of one of the American Splendor comic books that Harvey is famous/infamous/unknown for authoring. At other moments, panel drawings and stick figures are featured that will suddenly materialize into their real life counterparts and become part of the live action. Harvey, drawings of Harvey, actors playing Harvey, Harvey acting, Harvey's family and friends, the actors playing Harvey's family and friends - you get the idea. Despite the surreal feel, Robert Crumb (Harvey's friend, another comic book cult hero and the illustrator of the first and many subsequent American Splendor comics) does not make an appearance, although an actor who plays him wanders through periodically. David Letterman, upon whose show Pekar gained a cult-like following in the mid-eighties, can be seen via old footage until he gives way to an actor who plays him when things get controversial on the NBC set. We can see why NBC wouldn't want the old footage shown as Pekar goes on a tirade against them and parent company GE, effectively snuffing his fifteen minutes of fame. Other footage shows both the real Pekar and the actor Paul Giamatti interacting and bantering with the real and fake Lettermans.

Giamatti, as Pekar, does an inspired job capturing the man's idiosyncratic quirks and neuroses (not to mention his wild-eyed slouch and raspy voice), which must have been a daunting task considering that the object of the portrayal was present on the set. In a film this multifaceted, the obvious pitfalls of confusing overlaps in the fictitious and documentary formats might seem likely but the whole thing comes off flawlessly. The dialog and narrative is equally, sardonically brilliant and includes such gems of discourse as, “I was lonely during that period, at times feeling another presence in the bed like an amputee feels a phantom limb.” And when he asks his prospective wife Joyce “Will you have a problem moving to Cleveland? Not really" she says, "I find all American cities equally depressing.” In one scene, Pekar, his new wife Joyce, and his nerdy friend Toby go to see “Revenge of the Nerds.” While, on the drive home, his wife and Toby peer through their big-rimmed glasses and celebrate it as a brilliant story of “I have a dream” proportions, Harvey languishes in the back almost tortured by the conversation and dismisses it as “Hollywood Pap.”

It’s hard to tell ultimately how the real Harvey feels about being exploited (exploiting himself?) within his own Hollywood Pap and nerdiness and having his fifteen minutes of fame, and his rejection thereof, documented and dragged out on a national stage in ways that seem to be in danger of granting him some extra minutes in the spotlight. He seems bitter at the sell-outs but amused by the fact that he has been one himself. He is aware that Letterman and his audience may be laughing more at him than with him but goes along with it in hopes of selling more comic books, only to self-destruct months later by launching the obscenity laced goodbye after he arrives in a foul mood having seen no increase in sales, having found that he has “a lump” and has been having marital problems. He seems genuinely bitter at times towards traditional family life but once a child does enter the picture, he seems touchingly devoted to her. A great scene shows Giamatti walking the actress playing the Pekar's adopted daughter Danielle to the bus stop. She asks him to stop holding her hand and he says, “Ah, I remember when I was embarrassed about my old man too." “That’s not it,” she replies. “It’s just that you always squeeze it too hard.” 

The real Pekar seems to be enjoying himself and the notoriety at times and claims on his Web site that he hopes that the movie does well so he can reap some of the rewards and not become an "old man, scrambling for nickels and dimes." In its final scenes, the film documents Harvey's recent retirement from menial existence as a hospital file clerk in Cleveland and mentions that he continues to battle cancer. As the real Harvey observes toward the end of the film, “I’m going to lose the war eventually but maybe with the chunk of change I get from this film I can enjoy myself and win a few more battles along the way.” We hope so too.


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