Tuesday, July 13, 2010
"Am I a guy who writes about himself in a comic book? Or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will that character keep going? Or will he just fade away?" - Harvey Pekar as played by Paul Giamatti.
Shortly after hearing the news that cult comic book writer Harvey Pekar passed away yesterday there was a flurry of R.I.P. tweets praising the man, his work, and the 2003 biopic AMERICAN SPLENDOR.
Since it's one of my favorite movies of the last decade and I've never written about it on this blog (Film Babble Blog started in 2004) I decided to take the DVD off the shelf and give it a tribute re-whirl.
Taking its name from Pekar's autobiographical comic book series which dates back to 1976, AMERICAN SPLENDOR was a unique biopic in that while the subject is depicted by ace actor Paul Giamatti, Pekar himself appears in documentary style breaks in the storyline.
Husband and wife film making duo Robert Pulcini and Sheri Springer Bergman constructed with care a comic book aesthetic in which both Pekar and his dramatic doppelganger shuffle through animations, recreations of cartoon panels, and old videotape clips mostly from Pekar's infamous appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.
In the comic Pekar would often break the 4th wall and talk directly to us. The film runs with this concept as Pekar's narration enhances the film by adding meta commentary on the movie we're watching like when he says of Giamatti: "Here's me, or the guying playing me anyway, though he don't look nothing like me. But whatever."
Pekar was a longtime file clerk and record collector who by chance befriended revolutionary cartoonist Robert Crumb at a yard sale in 1962. Crumb, meticulously portrayed by James Urbaniak, inspires Pekar to write his own comics.
A rarity in a world filled with super heroes, Pekar's "American Splendor" comics centered on Pekar's mundane yet amusingly relatable life and gained a cult following over the years. Crumb and other notable artists illustrated Pekar's writing which made for a pleasing mix up of styles - something the movie adaptation excels at. Though Pekar says Giamatti doesn't look like him - he's as valid an embodiment as any of the comic book depictions.
In one of the most striking scenes Pekar (Giamatti) is taunted by his cartoon alter ego in line behind an old chatty Jewish lady at the grocery store. "You gonna suffer in silence for the rest of your life, or are you gonna make a mark?" Pekar becomes a folk hero in the '80s largely because of his appearances on Letterman.
Over the course of a few years Pekar made 7 appearances on the popular program each time clashing more with the cranky sarcastic host. Pekar finally got kicked off the show because he bad mouthed GE (NBC's parent company) and said Letterman looked like a shill for them. Pekar was allowed back years later in the mid '90s but damage definitely had been done. Although the film shows real bits of Pekar's appearances, the most controversial one is dramatized with an actor (Todd Cummings) stepping in for Letterman. You can see the original clip here.
The film is packed with jazz, soul, and rock which keeps it bopping from frame to frame. Its musical sensibility contributes to the feeling that its simply a riff on the world according to Harvey Pekar. That can be a risky approach but it's not a loose riff; there's not a wasted scene and the well written weight in the non meta portions makes it all fly. The scenes with Davis as Harvey's 3rd wife Joyce Brabner offset the trickier Pekar monologue material nicely.
It's also a treat to see 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander do a pitch perfect impression of Pekar's friend Toby Radloff. Radloff also appears as himself along with the real Brabner - see what I mean about all the meta-ness? I've seen the movie several times so this latest re-watching wasn't necessarily revelatory, but it was very comforting like spending time with a good old friend again. Pekar was a hero to anyone who ever tried to make art on the side of a dreary existence in a soul deadening job.
The movie touchingly captures the begrudging spirit of a man who definitely did make a mark. In the booklet that comes with the DVD ("My Movie Year") Pekar says of the movie after seeing an early screening: "Wow, that was really innovative...the way they mixed acted portions and documentary footage and animation and cartoons. And double casting some roles. Great! They took a lot of chances and they all worked."
Completely agree with you there Harvey. R.I.P. Harvey Pekar.
Post note: I also highly recommend Pekar's comics. They are available in sweet anthologies that you can find at Amazon or wherever. "American Splendor: The Life And Times Of Harvey Pekar" and "Our Cancer Year" are essential reads in the world of autobiographical comic books.