Thursday, April 30, 2015

Watch This: American Splendor

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

American Splendor (2003)
Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

We are living in a golden age of comic book movies.  With recent hits like Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and upcoming releases like this summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron and next year's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, not to mention small-screen hits like Arrow and Daredevil, comic book superheroes are everywhere these days.  These films and television series are highly entertaining and full of undeniably appealing spectacle, and it could certainly be argued that several of the comic book movies from the past decade represent the pinnacle of quality for the superhero genre.  However, one of the best and most unique of all cinematic comic book adaptations is American Splendor (2003), a film that focuses not on a superhero fighting an epic battle against evil, but rather on an ordinary guy living his miserable, ordinary life.  That may not sound like the stuff of comics, but as the film's tagline reminds us, "ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."

The film's "hero" is Harvey Pekar, a jazz fan and avid record collector who works as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital.  He is dour and pessimistic, unkempt-looking, and lives in a shabby apartment overflowing with LPs and books.  Look up the word "schlub" in a dictionary, and you'll find a picture of Harvey Pekar.

What makes this film even more unique and engaging is that, as we learn during the opening credit sequence, Harvey Pekar is a real person.  The film is based primarily on Pekar's comic book series "American Splendor," which he wrote based on his own life: the comic follows a character named Harvey Pekar, who works a dull, thankless job, and is frustrated with the travails of everyday existence.  Pekar is played in the film by the great Paul Giamatti, but the real Harvey Pekar appears onscreen as well, and also provides narration, commenting on the film's storyline ("if you're the kind of person lookin' for romance, or escapism, or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what: you got the wrong movie") and the casting of Giamatti ("he don't look nothin' like me, but whatever").

Early in the film, in what we are told is the year 1975, we learn that Harvey's second wife is divorcing him (she's tired of their "plebeian lifestyle"), and that he has lost his voice due to a nodule on his vocal cord, the result of constant shouting matches with his soon-to-be ex-wife.  We also learn that, back in the 1960s, Harvey befriended a young artist and fellow record collector named Robert Crumb, who would go on to become a leading underground comic artist.  Harvey decides to write his own comics, with stories about the real-life problems that the everyman must deal with (riding the bus, washing dishes, gluing his coat so it can last through another winter), and Crumb agrees to illustrate the first issue.  Suddenly, Harvey's voice comes back.

Harvey achieves some success with his American Splendor comics and his published jazz reviews, but remains desperately lonely.  That all changes when he meets Joyce Brabner (portrayed by Hope Davis), a fellow comic fan who, after a semi-disastrous first date, proposes that they "just skip the whole courtship thing and get married."  They are a perfect match (Harvey's hypochondria finds its equal in that of Joyce, who asks for aspirin on their first date, not because she has a headache, but because she wants to avoid one).  Joyce wants kids, but Harvey, who has had a vasectomy, is opposed.  Joyce becomes depressed, but later finds some meaning in her life by traveling overseas to help needy children.  After Harvey is diagnosed with cancer, she decides that they should write a comic about his experiences as a way to help him get through the treatment process (the resulting graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, provides the remaining source material for the film).  The illustrator they hire brings along his young daughter, Danielle, and Joyce forms an immediate connection with her.  After the comic is finished, she continues to live with Harvey and Joyce, who raise her as their own.

The film is a dazzling mix of narrative forms, blending fictional biopic and documentary elements together with comic-style visual schemes and animation to tell Pekar's story.  The opening credits appear in a sequence of shots housed within cells on a comic book page, as Giamatti's Harvey moves on foot along the streets of his Cleveland neighborhood, and we see the various ways different illustrators have drawn him over the course of the comic series.  Later in the film, Harvey's cancer ordeal is shown through a series of shots of Giamatti's Harvey intercut with images from Our Cancer Year.  These sequences not only lend the film a more dynamic narrative style, they also serve as a reminder of the film's comic origins.  The non-fiction sequences have the same effect, providing another layer to the storytelling without ever feeling intrusive, and illuminating just how well-cast the film is.  We see not only the real Harvey in the film, but also the real Joyce and Danielle, and Harvey's real-life co-workers (including the endearing, self-proclaimed "nerd" Toby Radloff, uncannily portrayed in the fictional sequences by 30 Rock standout Judah Friedlander).

The film ends with an unexpectedly touching scene from real life, and it is clear by the film's conclusion how remarkable this rendering of Harvey's story is.  Harvey, in all of his various incarnations, is a decidedly unpleasant curmudgeon.  It is no surprise that his first two wives found it so difficult to be with him.  And yet, he manages to overcome cancer and build a family with Joyce and Danielle, who love him despite his "gloom and doom" perspective on life.  It is far more affecting and relatable than any superhero story.

Two brief postscripts:

1. Sadly, the real Harvey Pekar passed away in 2010, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most celebrated and groundbreaking figures in Anerican comics.

2. I cannot recommend highly enough the great documentary Crumb (1994), a brilliant and fascinating look at the life and work of artist Robert Crumb.  It is also available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Something Griffin This Way Comes

Thankfully the first floor of the Reeves Learning Commons is not a quiet area because there is a lot of commotion today. Here are some pictures of what it taking place: the creation of a balloon sculpture as part of the inauguration ceremonies for Dr. Mary Finger, Seton Hill's new president.

Here are some teaser pictures of the progress being made. Keep checking back to see the final results.

Brian, the creator of what is coming.

And the final product...

Come check it out for yourself!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Reeves Library Undergraduate Research Award winners announced

Congratulations to both of our 2015 winners!

Toni Antonucci was selected as the award-winner for the Junior & Senior division. Her paper, "Effect of BPD Parents on Children: Do Attachment Styles Differ?" impressed the evaluation committee by exhibiting "the top levels of Bloom's Taxonomy in terms of what is created with the research and how it is evaluated." Another panelist wrote, "This well-written research submission begs continuation. I cannot wait to read the study." Ms. Antonucci's entry was sponsored by Dr. Jeff Bartel.

Jordan Penney received the award at the First-Year/Sophomore level for  "Miss-Representation: Exploring the Effects of Media on Body Image in American Girls." Her paper was praised by the evaluation panel for its "mix of source types, with appropriate incorporation of popular sources." Ms. Penney's entry was sponsored by Dr. Brittany Edge.

Thank you to all of the students who entered and to the faculty who sponsored them! We received a number of excellent projects, which made the judging quite a challenge. We hope that those of you who will be at SHU next year will consider entering!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Watch This: The Baron of Arizona

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Written and directed by Samuel Fuller

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and while there are obviously many, many great films that tell fictitious stories, it is undeniable that the words "Based on a true story" or "Based on actual events" have graced the opening credits of countless cinematic classics.  Some of the most acclaimed and popular films of recent years, from Argo (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) to Captain Phillips (2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), brought fact-based stories to the big screen, and in the case of Argo and The Wolf of Wall Street, had audiences in disbelief that such extraordinary or outlandish events could have taken place in real life.  One of the most remarkable true stories ever told by the movies is the little-known story of 19th-century con artist James Addison Reavis, which is depicted in the equally little-known 1950 film The Baron of Arizona, the sophomore directorial effort of revered American B-movie director Samuel Fuller.

The film stars Vincent Price as Reavis, a clerk in the Santa Fe land office who grew tired of seeing "ignorant" people inherit land in accordance with the U.S. government's policy of recognizing Spanish titles to land grants, and decided to stage an elaborate, fraudulent scheme that, if successful, would have allowed him to claim ownership of most of the Territory of Arizona.  Reavis's story is told in flashback by his former adversary, an Interior Department agent named John Griff (Reed Hadley), who recounts the tale of the scheme to a small group of big-wigs in 1912, just after Arizona has been admitted as the forty-eighth state in the Union.  We are told that Reavis spent years preparing for his scheme by learning languages, studying the art of forgery, and adopting the manners of a cultured person.

As the tale begins, we see Reavis visit the home of an aging Hispanic peasant named Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), who has been raising an orphaned girl named Sofia since the age of one.  Reavis claims Sofia is the only living descendant of an eighteenth-century Spanish baron named Miguel de Peralta (a fictitious figure created by Reavis), and he produces a forged document which states that Peralta was granted a massive piece of land in America by King Ferdinand VI of Spain, land which Sofia would therefore own as his sole heir.  Reavis then proceeds to put the remainder of his plan in motion.  He brings Pepito and Sofia to live with him in Santa Fe, where he hires a governess to mold her into a baroness.  We see him traveling throughout America and Spain, carving inscriptions into rocks, falsifying birth records for Sofia, and altering historical documents.

After several years, he returns home and marries the now-grown Sofia (Ellen Drew), thus becoming the baron to her baroness.  He then presents the forged documents and his petition to the government, and claims ownership of the "Peralta Grant," which encompasses nearly the entire Territory of Arizona.  It is at this point that John Griff, an expert on forgery, enters the story and begins to investigate Reavis's claim, which he is convinced is false.  Meanwhile, Reavis begins collecting thousands of dollars worth of revenues, rents, and royalties, even before the government has officially recognized his claim, making him a target of hatred and violence.  The tension mounts as the animosity of the local population grows and Griff pursues the truth behind Reavis's claims.

Reavis should not be a likable protagonist.  He is cold and calculating, a shrewd swindler who thinks nothing of feigning love or any other emotion in order to make his scheme a success.  However, Vincent Price is so charismatic and engaging, and his character's plans so audacious, it is difficult not to root for him.  Price would go on to become a horror icon after his later work for producer-directors William Castle and Roger Corman, and it is easy to forget about his earlier career outside of the horror genre.  His performance as Reavis in The Baron of Arizona ranks as one of his best, and serves as a reminder of his extensive talent.

Writer-director Samuel Fuller had a background as a crime reporter, and knew a good story when he saw it.  The true tale of an ambitious con artist was no doubt attractive to him.  The Baron of Arizona was only Fuller's second film, and while parts of it don't work as well (the frame story for the flashback is clunky and too full of expository dialogue), there are many glimpses of the edgy subject matter, humor, and pulpy genre flourishes that would mark his later masterpieces like The Steel Helmet (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), and The Big Red One (1980).

With Price's standout performance, solid black-and-white cinematography from the great James Wong Howe, and a fascinating storyline, The Baron of Arizona makes for an entertaining glimpse at one of American history's most ambitious crimes.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Watch This: The Gospel According to St. Matthew

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini

There have been numerous cinematic depictions of the life of Jesus Christ, dating all the way back to the very beginnings of feature-length filmmaking.  The silent French film The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, Our Savior (1905) was one of the earliest dramatizations of the life of Christ, using a series of elaborately-staged tableaux to tell the story of His crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Later Biblical epics from Hollywood such as King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) related the story of Jesus Christ on a grand scale, while Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ (2004), being a cinematic passion play as the title suggests, focused only on the last twelve hours of His life.  However, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) is a singularity among these works, and remains the most dynamic, and arguably the most inspiring, of the bunch.  It may be surprising, then, to learn that the film was conceived and directed by an atheist.

Like King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the acclaimed 1977 television mini-series Jesus of NazarethThe Gospel According to St. Matthew is a life-of-Jesus film, beginning with Mary revealing her pregnancy to Joseph and ending with Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection.  The Gospel According to St. Matthew avoids the grandiose glorification and overly sentimental flourishes that characterize most other Biblical films, yet it maintains a sincere reverence for its subject.

The director, the great Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, chose to follow the tenets of Italian neo-realism, shooting on location in rural Italy and using a cast of non-professionals to portray his characters, including his own mother as the aged Mary.  Most scenes in the film are shot in a documentary-like fashion, lending it a sense of matter-of-factness and authenticity.  This is especially effective in scenes of violence such as the Roman slaughter of the first-born and Jesus's crucifixion, where the acts of violence, though briefer and far less graphic than the detailed, visceral brutality of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, are nonetheless lent a greater power due to the realist aesthetic and more objective camerawork.  Even Christ's miracles, such as walking on water, are depicted in a very straightforward fashion, without sensationalism or spectacle.

What really sets The Gospel According to St. Matthew apart is its rigorous devotion to the text of the Book of Matthew as the source of the film's words and images.  All dialogue is taken directly from the Bible (Pasolini shot the film without a script, filming the scenes based solely on the Gospel text).  This is especially important considering that much of the film consists simply of Jesus Christ speaking and debating.  The film differentiates itself by placing the focus directly on Christ's teachings, rather than just depicting the events in His life.

As mentioned above, the film's director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was an atheist.  The story goes that he read the Gospels straight through while sitting in a hotel room in Assisi, Italy, and was consumed by a desire to make a film about the life of Christ.  His non-belief is no doubt what led to such an exceptional religious film, allowing him to focus on the source material while maintaining a more dispassionate relationship to it.

Pasolini was also a Marxist, and it is not surprising that one can find a mirror for his political views in Jesus's concern for the poor and the film's depictions of oppressive Roman rule.  Jesus can clearly be seen as a radical or revolutionary, a view supported by the work of numerous historians and theologians.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a unique viewing experience, a fascinating and thought-provoking work of interest to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April DVD Spotlight: Biographical Films

The biographical film, or biopic, is one of the film industry's most tried-and-true genres.  From historical figures and star athletes to artists and entertainers, cinematic depictions of the lives of real people have continued to move and inspire us for over a century.  With classics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Queen Christina (1933), and more recent efforts like The Aviator (2004) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), we've got something for everyone.  If documentaries are more to your taste, check out Crumb (1994), director Terry Zwigoff's superb portrait of underground artist Robert Crumb.  Interested in the story of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity?  Check out the dramatic retelling of her life story, A Time for Miracles (1980).

Other featured titles include:

Ali (2001)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Elizabeth (1998)
Frida (2002)
Malcolm X (1992)
October Sky (1999)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Sea Inside (2004)

Check one out today!