July 21, 2010

Immortal bird, imaginary iguana

BRIGHT STAR (Jane Campion, 2009): A mature and unforced masterpiece whose closest relative in the Campion canon might be An Angel at My Table, even if the mud and bonnets have naturally had some saying The Piano. The intimate, direct, non-period presence of Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw as Fanny Brawne and John Keats helps enormously in that assessment, as does what you can take as an essential no-bullshit Antipodean spirit, perhaps signalled by Kerry Fox's apparent unwillingness to adopt anything like an early 19th century English accent. Romantically alert to language and romantically alert to the moods and colours of the natural world -- you expected both. But it's even better if you forget -- as I did -- how the story ends.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog, 2009): Surely Herzog's best drama since Fitzcarraldo -- better certainly than Rescue Dawn, Cobra Verde (which it almost resembles) and no one saw Invincible -- if only because it gives us the Abel Ferrara depravity of the earlier Bad Lieutenant minus the overwrought sub-Scorsese anguish; in other words, Herzog wisely plays the berserk amorality and escalating drug addiction as lively comedy and doesn't seem too interested in the off-the-peg police procedural plot. As ever in Herzog, the non-human perspective matters: the snake, the iguana, the alligator, the fish. Cobra Verde was slavery-era West Africa; this is New Orleans, post-Katrina. The Kinskian force of nature is now Nicolas Cage, never more enjoyable than when he has a good reason to be manic (Vampire's Kiss, Lord of War, Face/Off, not Captain Corelli's Mandolin).

ME AND ORSON WELLES (Richard Linklater, 2008): Non-period presence? Zac Efron has nothing but. More than audience surrogate, his Richard is closer to time traveller in Linklater's affectionate rendering of a Robert Kaplow novel about a teenage observer/interloper in Orson Welles' famous pre-war staging of a fascist Julius Caesar. If little about Efron's character rings true, Christian McKay's well-honed Welles impersonation -- mercurial, impulsive, brilliant, boastful, bullying, etc -- carries the film and everything is that much quieter and dimmer when the great man disappears. Which means that no one will argue that the museum-set epilogue is not daft. But the Nuremberg-lit Caesar looks chilling and impressive in Linklater's careful re-enactments even if he skimps on telling you anything about its context or much about its reception.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009). The bravura, CGI-embellished camera stunt -- from high above a football stadium, into a crowd and then running -- about half-way in will wake anybody up. It even wakes up a slightly drowsy and overstuffed romantic thriller that, at its best, gives you some passing sense of the fearful mood of 1970s Argentina and, at its worst, runs like an endless Spanish-language episode of Law and Order. This beat The White Ribbon and A Prophet for a foreign-film Oscar? Maybe the dangers of vote-splitting.

July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar 1939-2010

This review of American Splendor ran in the Listener, August 2003. The highly appropriate headline was on the original. Around the same time, I interviewed Pekar by phone. I was in Auckland, he was in Cleveland. He was so difficult -- "curmudgeonly'' is such a euphemism -- that we opted not to run it. Which seems about right.
"Life seemed so sweet and so sad and so hard to let go of''

In the marvellous and unpredictable American Splendor, the pop-culture biopic (think Ed Wood) is spliced with the documentary-about-an-artist (think Crumb) to create a brave new form. The experimental subject is Harvey Pekar, a depressed file clerk and obsessive record collector from Cleveland, Ohio, who launched a new career in middle age as the author of a comic book about his life and downbeat times -- titled, with no small amount of irony, American Splendor. No illustrator, Pekar wrote the stories with stick figures while artist friends -- including Robert Crumb -- drew pictures to accompany Pekar’s lugubrious non-adventures and sarcastic reflections. See Harvey take the bus, do the dishes, complain into the mirror …

The first issue of American Splendor appeared in 1976, although Pekar and Crumb had been friends since they met over old 78s at a garage sale in 1962 -- a moment re-created for the movie (Paul Giamatti plays Pekar; James Urbaniak plays Crumb, and gets that voice, that nervy laugh, that stiff posture). Soon, Pekar was hailed as inaugurating a new age of wry comic-book realism and lauded with such hokey titles as "poet of the mundane" – a label that Pekar, suspicious of success and ever self-deprecating, would surely scoff at.

Artists other than Crumb also illustrated the books, creating a wealth of Harveys. How many are there in American Splendor? You may lose count. Giamatti plays Pekar as a cuddly grump, a sweet-natured misanthrope, more doleful than angry. The real Pekar is sharper, bitchier – we know this because the film cuts between fictional re-enactments of scenes from Pekar’s life (or his life as it appeared in the comics) and moments of the real Pekar commenting on the action from a soundstage, often accompanied by the real equivalents of characters – his workmates, his wife – that we have just witnessed. Of course, as the original non-joiner, the real Robert Crumb fails to appear.

The Pekars multiply: once the comic takes off, a play of American Splendor is staged in Los Angeles and Giamatti’s Pekar watches another actor re-create a domestic scene that we have already watched. If it was fiction the first time, what is it now? The meta stuff isn’t as heavy-going as it could be, thanks to the nimble negotiation of a maze of memory, fact, archival footage and re-enactment by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who have previously made documentaries, and to the effortlessly hilarious Pekar himself.

Initially, he seems like a familiar variety of movie loser -- the George Costanza of Cleveland. As his second wife leaves him and the record collection that threatens to swallow their apartment, Pekar begs her to stay -- but, in a sitcom moment, he has lost his voice, so he begs her in hoarse gasps and croaks that make his stand all the more pathetic. Inspired by Crumb, and the writer Theodore Dreiser, Pekar translates his daily suffering into comic art (there is also a glimpse of Pekar reading Katherine Mansfield). Despite cult success, he keeps the day job. Loneliness becomes unbearable -- "life seemed so sweet and so sad and so hard to let go of in the end", he says from a motorway overbridge at dusk -- until a fan named Joyce writes from Delaware. Joyce (played by Hope Davis) becomes Pekar’s next wife and the poignant bachelorhood of Splendor’s first half gives way to dysfunctional courtship and co-dependence. A health neurotic, Joyce claims that "I can spot a personality disorder a mile away" (how odd that no one snapped her up earlier ... ). "Harvey tends to push the negative and the sour," she says. As Crumb appears, grinning as he gets a piggy-back from a female admirer, Joyce has him diagnosed, too: "polymorphously perverse".

In their uncultivated anti-ness, both Crumb and Pekar must have influenced Daniel Clowes, author of the comic Ghost World -- itself adapted for the screen by Crumb's director Terry Zwigoff. With their overlapping concerns, these films form an unofficial trilogy. In all three, shopping for old records is an act of cultural authenticity that stands in for much more -- personal and individual tastes unmanipulated by mass media and the strip-mall homogeneity that Ghost World's protagonists railed against. American Splendor has some sharp observations of how genuine eccentrics get exploited by allegedly "maverick" media – Pekar has a stint with David Letterman ("Megalomaniac," diagnoses Joyce) that sees him mocked for his very ordinariness; his workmate Toby, a self-defined "nerd", gets similar treatment from MTV. But, in the end, there is a triumph that Ghost World couldn’t quite manage – that bittersweet result known as a happy ending. Despite everything, that’s sometimes how "real life" shapes itself.