PRINT Summer 2003


American Splendor

AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s tatty, tender, volatile, and, yes, splendid biopic of Harvey Pekar, takes its name from the series of underground comic books that Pekar began publishing in 1976. Issued just about annually, the comics are autobiographical. Their subject is the daily life of a working-class autodidact who supported himself for nearly four decades (even after he achieved underground fame) working as a file clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland.

A connoisseur of marginalia, Pekar homes in on quotidian details of social interaction as obsessively as he once collected obscure secondhand jazz records. Although defiantly grubby and painfully ill at ease, he exudes an underdog charm by virtue of his honesty and his willingness to be as hard on himself as on everyone else. His compulsion to flaunt the failures of the flesh and his own dirty laundry (literally) in his comics is balanced by his gallant belief in creativity as a means of redemption. As an artist, Pekar is kin to such avant-garde filmmakers as Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, and George and Mike Kuchar, whose work during the early ’60s found beauty and transcendence in social outcasts and urban detritus. Theirs was a Beat aesthetic despite their scorn for the studliness and glamour that the Beats idealized—a scorn tinged with envy and with an anxiety around masculinity, which is also a subtext of Pekar’s work.

Pekar was introduced to the world of underground comics by R. Crumb, a fellow record collector who lived in Cleveland for a time and became one of his collaborators. Although Pekar couldn’t draw, comics appealed to him as an expressive medium. He devised a method whereby he wrote the narration (the inner monologue of his central character, none other than Harvey Pekar) and the dialogue and diagrammed each frame using stick figures. Then he enlisted various comic-book artists to do the graphics. Thus, the subjectivity of the Pekar character was a constant throughout the series, but its image changed from story to story, depending on which graphic artist was involved.

Berman and Pulcini took the concept of multiple Harveys glued together by a single subjectivity as the basis for their film. Their American Splendor is a marvelous mongrel, the result of cross-breeding fiction with documentary, live action with animation, past with present. The real Harvey Pekar speaks the intermittent voice-over narration in his hoarse, croaking voice. He sounds as if a lifetime of yelling has permanently damaged his vocal chords, which, as an early scene in the film shows, is precisely the case. Set in a doctor’s office, the scene establishes the film’s wry comedic tone and its embrace of human fallibility—specifically Harvey’s hypochondria and his outbursts of anger, which always get the better of his shamefaced efforts at self-control.

In addition to being heard, the real Harvey Pekar is frequently seen on-screen, most often in what we might think of as a “behind the scenes” space—a white recording studio furnished with a couple of brightly colored plastic lawn chairs, a table, and some strategically placed microphones. Here, Harvey rehearses his voice-overs and chats with the filmmakers, who remain unseen behind the camera. In other words, behind the offscreen space is yet another offscreen space, suggesting that what appears on the screen—whether we call it fiction or documentary—is always mediated by and relative to the camera’s presence.

American Splendor is hardly the first film to deal with the conundrum of cinematic realism, but it does so with humor and a keen appreciation of paradox. Thus the recording studio (the “documentary” space) is designed to look like a big Pop-art painting or a comic-book frame—an effect heightened by touches of 2-D animation—while the so-called fictional space (where the story of Pekar’s life is enacted) borrows from the codes of Hollywood neorealist films of the ’70s. The boundaries between the fictional and the documentary spaces, however, are extremely porous. Pekar; his wife, Joyce Brabner; and his friend Toby Radloff hang out in the recording studio along with Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander, the actors who play them in the movie. (Giamatti’s invocation of Pekar seems all the more brilliant when you see them next to each other and realize how physically dissimilar they are.) In an early sequence, Pekar and Giamatti and various images of Harvey from the American Splendor comics are edited together to establish the concept of multiple Harvey Pekars—a concept that eventually induces an identity crisis as Harvey (in this case incarnated by Giamatti) wonders whether the many comic-book Harveys have an independent existence that might continue even after his death. “Who is Harvey Pekar?” he wails, in a delirium of existential angst. Like so much of the movie, the scene is at once funny and sad. Berman and Pulcini mix emotions as eloquently as they mix genres. American Splendor has an improvisational quality (in part, the result of the ingenious, low-tech special effects created by the Twinkle team of Gary Lieb and John Kuramoto) that belies the precision of its balancing act.

Its reflexive elements aside, the film spins an affecting inspirational yarn about a lonely guy who discovers himself and his connection to the world in making art. Through his comic books, he finds a wife who’s every bit as combative and neurotic as he is (a ridiculously perfect match) and eventually a foster daughter. He also finds a subculture that values him as an artist and even a dubious moment of mass-media fame with his appearances in the mid-’80s on Late Night with David Letterman. In one of the film’s most dazzlingly collaged sequences, Berman and Pulcini have seamlessly edited together clips from the actual Letterman shows, shots of the fictional Harvey and Joyce (Giamatti and Davis) waiting backstage at NBC, and a reenactment of Harvey’s defiant final Letterman appearance, where he attacked the sadistic host, the network, and its defense-industry parent company, GE, and dissed the lackey-like studio audience for good measure.

But just when Harvey’s creativity is at its peak, he’s betrayed by his body. The hypochondriac of the opening scenes winds up with a real life-threatening disease. Berman and Springer manage the shift from comedy to pathos in the last act of the film (adapted from Our Cancer Year [Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994], Pekar and Brabner’s illustrated account of Harvey’s battle with lymphoma) without a trace of sentimentality. American Splendor (which opens on August 15 in New York, Los Angeles, and, of course, Cleveland) has a heart-stopping ending that finds transcendence in imperfection. “Don’t get me wrong,” says Harvey. “My life is still chaos.” Nevertheless, it goes lurching on.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.