dir: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
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A film about unremarkable people living lives of quietly desperate quiet desperation. It seems almost pointless by definition, doesn’t it? Films are about heroes, winners, the triumphant, usually. They’re not supposed to be about us mediocre types, are they? If these stories were going to genuinely be about people like us then they wouldn’t need to hire people with bleached teeth to play characters in every film and have wealthy screenwriters tell us how much better our simple lives are compared to the lives lived by the people that make these films.
American Splendor is not really based on the comic book of the same name, in that it’s not like Harvey Pekar is a superhero like Batman or She Hulk or Man Thing. But then again, since the comics were all based on Pekar’s life anyway, it kind of is. And maybe Pekar is a superhero in his own way.
The concept of so-called “outsider art” worries me. In an episode of The Simpsons where Homer accidentally becomes an artist when constructing a barbecue that goes horribly wrong, an art scene hag voiced by Isabella Rossellini explains that his work is outsider art. It is art that could have been created by hillbillies, mental patients or chimpanzees.
The essential element there is that outsider art is considered to be of lesser legitimacy because it is created by someone who is not a member of the artistic enclave, of the aesthetic and creative elite. To even have such a term implies this prejudice against the work of those not schooled in the formal arts and those who don’t suckle full time at the breast of pretentiousness.
I say that all that is balderdash and poppycock. Utter crap. Art's worth isn’t defined solely by the name on it, surely, but what you take from it. A great painting, song, film or sexual position is great regardless of whether the person who came up with it is called Picasso, Benny Hill or Chopper Reed. Of course, it's up to individuals to decide whether something reaches out and grabs them by their pink bits, above and beyond any commercial or critical achievement.
Individuals decide whether they are artists producing art or not. The only thing other people decide is whether it's good art or crap. The criterion there is whether it gets ideas or feelings across or not.
Harvey Pekar is as legitimate an artiste as any other hack that puts pen to paper in the service of comic books, cartoons, sitcom scripts or presidential speeches. Sure, he comes across as a bitter psychotic who lives only to complain about the crap hand that life keeps dealing him, but that's no different from all the other neurotic psychotics out there peddling their wares in the artistic market place. These days of course all they do is get livejournals or weblogs and unleash their self-absorption and narkiness in controlled, daily doses. These people didn't have a voice previously, a way to feel like even if just a few shmoes get to hear their rantings that their existence is somehow made more meaningful, more real, if even for a few moments. You know, like people that post movie reviews to usenet.
Pekar saw the work of Robert Crumb and thought, "Me too!" And why not? Though he clearly doesn't possess the drawing skills, that doesn't invalidate the right to express ones ideas through writing. So he wrote, and Crumb and a succession of other artists drew the slice of life depictions of Pekar’s life to accompany his writing.
His comics captured the essence of his mundane existence, his job, his love/hate of Cleveland, his thoughts, ideas, longings, aversions, and so does the film. He is not an extraordinary guy: it is the very ordinariness of his life that makes him special. He is like the rest of us schmucks who will work mundane office jobs and dream of one day achieving some measure of significance or notoriety.
As the film represents, Pekar (perfectly played by Paul Giamatti, who is cornering the market on playing sad losers), does achieve some measure of notoriety. By some fluke of circumstance Pekar winds up on The David Letterman Show, where Letterman roundly insults Pekar for the amusement of the audience and Pekar goes along with it, being the sad sack that he is, because he hopes it will generate more sales of his comics. They use actual footage from the show, which makes Pekar look insane and Letterman look like the evil geek that he is.
Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, appear in the film, and discuss both aspects of their lives and the making of the film itself. There aren’t any scenes where Harvey meets up with Paul Giamatti playing Harvey, or Joyce Brabner meeting Hope Davis, who plays her in the film, but Pekar does say that he doesn’t think Giamatti looks anything like him.
He’s right, but Pekar is pretty goddamn unpleasant to the eyes, so he shouldn’t look a gift actor in the mouth. Giamatti does a great job representing Pekar’s energy, his miserable view of the world, his wonderment at some of its more amazing aspects and his perplexed and unique perspective on everything both mundane and sublime that happens around him.
The film makers incorporate a lot of imagery from the comic, as well as a lot of design to place several scenes within the construct of a comic, so that Giamatti, walking around ranting in his Pekar way, has the scenery drawn for him as he progresses through the scene. It works really well.
Some of these choices obviously destroy the so called “fourth wall” betwixt us and the movie, so that we’re aware that it’s a construction, especially when they create scenes which look like interludes between shoots, which are shoots themselves. All I can say is that as distracting as it seems, it works. It never needed to be a straightforward biopic, and it benefits from this structure since it allows aspects of the story that otherwise could not have been included to be there.
Along with the central couple themselves, several other people in their lives also get to have a go as well. One particularly handsome individual is Toby, who comes to some strange 80s pop culture 15 minutes of fame as the quintessential nerd. The film spends a surprising amount of time on Toby and around the film Revenge of the Nerds, which Toby sees as a rallying cry for defective basement-dwellers everywhere. This sends Pekar into a rage whereby he rants at length as to how Revenge of the Nerds is simply perpetuating the oppression of nerds whilst giving them the illusion that it is elevating them.
Toby is hilarious, in a disturbing and change-seats-if-they-sit-next-to-you-on-public-transport kind of way. When the real Toby appears as well, we are privy to the fact that Judah Friedlander’s approximation of Toby is uncannily accurate.
Still, the film is about Harvey and Joyce, so the dynamic between Giamatti and Hope Davis is the most crucial. Davis does a good job not allowing her take on Joyce to be overly sympathetic. In fact, she comes across as something of a loon, but at least she’s the kind of loon that Harvey can live with, and hopefully vice versa. Her appreciation of Harvey and his work doesn’t stop her, in the same way it doesn’t stop any other women that I’ve ever heard of or been out with, from being a pain in his arse and a thorn in his side. As the classic quote goes, behind every great man is a great woman telling him how he could have done things better if he’d only listened to her.
Wow, that sounds awfully sexist. Ah, fuck it, I’m entitled to it if only as a joke. I’m usually so switched on and down with the sisters. Tell me I’m wrong. Any guy who’s ever tried cooking in the kitchen with their female partner present, tell me you can even add salt to the meal without being told a better way to do it.
Still, it’s an interesting, if slightly unsettling, dynamic. It makes a change from the usual representation of relationships that we get on the screen. That doesn’t mean that the relationship and the milestones in their lives are represented in an entirely believable manner. The general moments of our lives with our significant nuffers would, except for those moments that some people set up webcams and video cameras for, so that they can one day end up on the internet and bring us fame, adulation and wealth, be so goddamn boring to anyone but us. So I can forgive them for this.
As it follows a loosely linear chronology, the film also comes to cover a more overtly painful time in their lives, where Harvey is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes surgery and chemotherapy. Being the source material for the book Our Cancer Year that Harvey and Joyce collaborate on, the movie also covers this dreadful time. These days it seems like everyone is connected to someone that has cancer, or they have it themselves, and speaking as someone whose dad has fought the evil disease, these moments of the film were sweet but depressing. Still, it’s well handled, and doesn’t allow the film to turn into a weepy disease-of-the-week type of story. There’s more important mundanities to address, surely.
The use of jazz on the soundtrack is pretty well done, with some jazz chestnuts from Dizzie Gillespie and Coltrane included, as well as one from Robert Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Speaking of Crumb, James Urbaniak plays Crumb in the movie for a brief time, doing a scarily accurate job, down to the teeth and the hat.
Back at the Mahoney Mansions I have this DVD sprawling lazily on my DVD shelves. It sits next to Ghost World, the Zwigoff documentary Crumb, and a copy of Bukowski: Born Into This. These films share no thematic link so much as where they come from: they are about idiosyncratic people who never really fit in to mainstream society yet who still had something to say. They belong together. I don’t have any rhyme or reason generally to how I shelve my DVDs, but in this case it’s appropriate.
I very much like this film and what it says about ordinary folks and their yearning for meaning and significance. It’s a very well made film about a relative nobody, but in the grand scheme of things, aren’t we all?
8 no-life miserable shlubs who dream of a better life yet keep working in dead-end shitty jobs forever out of 10
“If you think reading comics about your life seems strange, try watching a play about it. God only knows how I'll feel when I see this movie” – Harvey Pekar, American Splendor