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'American Splendor' - Exploring the world of comic-book author Harvey Pekar

American Splendor

“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”
– Harvey Pekar

One thing can be said about this film: it is completely original. It references nothing, apart from the two comic book series it is based on, American Splendor and Our Cancer Year. American Splendor avoids most standard film conventions, but instead invents new ones to adapt to the story and characters, mixing realism with comic book imagery and associations. It was written and directed by the husband/wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and among other awards won Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – the first for a film adapted from a graphic novel.

It’s hard to say what American Splendor is about, apart from its characters. Harvey Pekar, the writer of the original stories, was a homely, angry, socially inept file clerk from a working-class neighbourhood of Cleveland, Ohio. He gained some notoriety in certain circles when portions of his diary-like writings were turned into a graphic novel series, illustrated by underground comic hero Robert Crumb. The film follows Pekar through the stages of his life, beginning just before his collaboration with Crumb.

Pekar, in spite of his minimal education, was a natural, if unconventional, writer. His cranky musings on mundane topics, observations of ordinary situations such as grocery checkout lines, workplace conversations, bus rides, and himself and his neighbours coping with poverty had a striking honesty and simplicity. They were also brief, scattered, and sometimes crude, however, and Pekar would never have had any real success without Robert Crumb’s artwork bringing the accounts and their many characters to life. Crumb’s cartoon illustrations, naturalistic and often gleefully ugly, were the perfect foil for Pekar’s text, and the series – eventually illustrated by other artists as well – was a surprising success. The American Splendor series was followed by a second series, Our Cancer Year, which tells the story of Pekar’s personal life, including details of his writing success, his marriage and foster child, and his bout with cancer.

Robert Crumb once remarked that Hervey Pekar was like no one he’d ever encountered; Pekar is certainly unique to film as well. Played to perfection by Paul Giamatti, Pekar defies the categories of hero, villain, or even anti-hero. He simply exists, an ordinary man trying to make the best of a largely disappointing life, commenting as he goes on the oddness of it all. The film follows the example of Pekar’s brutally honest writing, and presents the character of Harvey Pekar ‘warts and all.’ No effort is made to make Pekar’s clothing, apartment, speech, or manner better or more noble than they are. The level of gritty realism is rare outside a documentary.

The opening credits place Giamatti, as Harvey Pekar, along with the real Harvey Pekar and cartoon images of him, within the panels of a comic book, introducing both Pekar (as real person and as character) and the film’s source material. Harvey Pekar himself is introduced in a behind-the-camera clip, where he is recording voice-over narration for certain scenes, and griping at the film crew in his usual manner. Pekar’s narration is perfect for this particular film, as his voice is as far from a professional vocalist’s as his appearance is from that of a conventional film star; and the tone of the film is set.

The plot is a loosely woven mix of Pekar’s life (beginning with a fanciful scene of Pekar as a child, surly and anti-social as during his adult years) and his career as a writer, and dramatisations of some of his written observations. The film highlights odd bits of Harvey Pekar’s daily life, spending much time on his courtship and marriage to Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a colourful character in her own right. Their relationship is portrayed in true Pekar style, showing a great deal of intense awkwardness, suspect motives, shabby settings, and distinctly unromantic conversation, factors which even realistic films studiously avoid. We are challenged to react sympathetically to true-to-life characters whose very existence is at odds with anything the movies have presented as romance.

The conclusion is a happy ending of sorts: the release of the film itself, along with the release of Pekar’s and Joyce Brabner’s graphic novel about the making of the film, American Splendor: Our Movie Year. At this point, the real Harvey Pekar, accompanied by the real Joyce Brabner and their foster child, Danielle, take over as main characters, in an odd layering of documentary reality over reality-based fiction. The three are shown being ludicrously but unconcernedly out of place at the Cannes Film Festival, where American Splendor is being released, and eagerly interviewed and photographed by French media, a situation all but designed to be chronicled, and mocked, in a Harvey Pekar comic strip.

For further viewing:

Ghost World (2001) is also based on a graphic novel of the same name. Director Terry Zwigoff, who also directed a documentary on the life of Robert Crumb, brings this funny, poignant little comic to life. Enid (Thorah Birch) is about to graduate high school. She and her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johannsen) are making plans for their coming adult life. But Enid, a bright and creative but eccentric girl, has trouble relating to people, or accepting what she sees as the dull and unexamined existence most of her classmates settle for. She takes refuge in watching and cleverly ridiculing passers by. A friendship with a lonely middle-aged record collector (Steve Buscemi) helps her examine her motives and learn compassion.