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.

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