"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.
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.