Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 13, 2003 11:37 pm 
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A true voice of the quotidian

'Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,' Harvey Pekar says in American Splendor, a movie that does justice not only to the ordinary but also to the depressive and the gloomy and the unpromising. (Or are all these just variations on the same theme, if you live in Cleveland?) This wonderful and unexpected film gets at the complexity of Harvey's ordinariness by blending a variety of means. It combines dramatizations by actors with shots of the actual people in studio interviews. It overlaps the dramatizations with the real Harvey's voice. It interjects comic strip images of Harvey by various artists. It adds in video clips of Pekar on the letterman show in the Eighties. The real Harvey and his real cohorts appear onscreen back to back with the dramatized scenes that mimic them. We see various comic strip Harvey faces by different artists, while the after-images of the real Harvey, and the actor playing him, are still flickering across our retinas. These simulacra of Harvey seem to talk back and forth to each other on screen and in our heads. It’s a surprising mélange, but the downbeat clarity of Pekar himself makes the whole thing flow as unpretentiously as his reedy, crackling voice.

The drab Cleveland scenes are a delightfully tonic contrast to the usual glossy movie sets and overly pretty people and lives we normally get on the screen. They look like real places I knew growing up on the East Coast, and I felt at home from the first few minutes of this unforgettable portrait of a sage of working class poverty and low expectations. And the essential point is made: that Harvey Pekar, this ordinary man, became a famous underground comics character.

Harvey Pekar is a real person who, for thirty-odd years, till he recently retired (with a party the film documents), was a file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital, a dead-end job that went nowhere. How did he get to be the subject of this movie that won the jury prize at Sundance and made a splash at Cannes?

Back in the Seventies he met the great 'underground' cartoonist R. Crumb (himself fully documented in Terry Zwigoff's excellent film). They were drawn together by shared interests in old 78's and comics, and a collaboration began: Pekar began making stick-figure storyboards of scenes from his own life, his job, his coworkers, his everyday experiences that illustrated that remark: ordinary experiences that were pretty complex stuff -- and stuff that soon made Pekar famous, once Crumb (played by James Urbaniak as a wonderfully dry, oddball dandy), later aided by others, such as Gary Dunn and Mark Zingarelli, began to illustrate Harvey's stories.

Pekar was famous, in the comics world anyway, but never rich. He stayed a file clerk, which you could say kept him honest. He went on with his writing, doing not only the stories that were a running narrative of his uneventful life but also prolific book and record reviews. But unlike Crumb he didn't make a good living at any of that. And to signal the irony and the grandeur of his flat celebration of the quotidian, the comics about Harvey Pekar's life were called: American Splendor.

The movie slides seamlessly through the life from one disaster to another: loneliness, a loss of voice, a loss of wife, serious illness. A loss of hope, perhaps, if he ever had any: but being a failure and a schlub was Harvey Pekar's schtick, and it got him onto the Letterman show as a (surprisingly dynamic) regular for a while in the Eighties and it got him a faithful wife, and now it's made him the subject of one of the best American movies of the year.

But let's not get away from ourselves. This movie deals with small increments of life on life's very often humiliating terms. Deciding which line at the supermarket to wait in is, like the rest of ordinary life, a complex matter, Harvey says in one passage. For instance, getting in the shortest line if it means being behind an old Jewish lady is a very bad idea. And then the film proceeds to document that very bad idea in a scene with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar getting himself stuck in the shortest supermarket line behind an old Jewish lady. It's not so much that the scene is funny and very precise, but that we observe Pekar observing his own life and observe the real Pekar observing the movie Pekar. We see what it's like to observe the quotidian as Pekar does.

Giamatti is terrific in the role, his grumpy mobile face equal to every Pekar situation and Pekar mood, despite the real Pekar's onscreen complaint that he looks nothing like him. The Jewish lady scene is both very specific and very general. And again, it's completely natural and without an ounce of affectation. Harvey is a working class hero, plain spoken and a realist. And, of course, an ordinary man leading an ordinary and most unpromising life.

What's not ordinary about Harvey Pekar is a perspective that few people have. His 'gloom and doom' outlook and bitter realism allow him to confront his worst moments with a degree of absolute truthfulness that becomes a kind of eloquence as well as a coping mechanism. And though we see one wife walk out on him and his voice leave him and we see him battle cancer, we also see the voice come back and we see Joyce Brabner, (a hypochondriac and chronic depressive who diagnoses everybody else -- 'polymorphous perverse,' 'paranoid,' 'megalomaniac,' etc.) become a faithful and loving wife -- who co-authors the comic book for "Our Cancer Year," which documents his recovery. And we see him ruin a 'good thing' with Letterman by seeing through him and the corporate media monolith that owns him. But in fighting Letterman he has remained true to himself.

Giamatti may not look like Pekar but his voice is right, and so is the very strange diction of Judah Friedlander, who plays to perfection Toby Radloff, Pekar's self proclaimed nerd coworker and peculiar friend, whose role in the comics leads him to being exploited on MTV. Showing the real and make believe people back to back could be like showing off how well their schticks are done, if the movie weren't so offhand and seamless in its editing. (And Hope Davis is excellent, and a bit astonishing, if one's just seen her in The Secret Lives of Dentists, as Joyce Brabner: the switch from Hilary Clinton to Elvira was hardly a predictable one.)

Above all what binds American Splendor together and makes it valid – even if it's softer than the comic series – is Pekar's voice – not the real voice or the Giamatti voice but the words and the mind behind them, the voice that has articulated this life and made it worthy of the celluloid immortality this movie gives it. And to that American Splendor remains true.
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This review also appears on Filmleaf.

Ed Park has a nice background piece in the Village Voice about Harvey Pekar.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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