Title: American Splendor (2003)
Directors: Shari Springer, Robert Pulcini
Actors: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner
Ever get that feeling that a particular film was made especially for you? I've had this sort of thing happen to me before, where I'm watching a film and I end up asking myself, "wait, do these people freaking know me?" For example while watching Francis Ford Coppola's TETRO (2009), I couldn't help being identified with the main characters artistic frustrations and struggles. The same thing happened to me with American Splendor, but on an even more personal level. You see, American Splendor tells the tale of real life comic book writer Harvey Pekar, he is primarily known for writing American Splendor, a comic book which was printed in one form or another from 1976 to 2008. Through its various publishers, the comic lasted for 39 issues; the last one was printed by Vertigo Comics in 2008. The difference between regular superhero comics and Harvey Pekar's stuff is that Pekar's comics were based on his own life and sometimes on the life of his own friends and co-workers. You were not going to see superheroes in underwear fighting super villains here, nope, on American Splendor you'd find everyday Joe's and the situations they'd confront in real life; which is really what attracts me to them. It's a change of attitude, these comics speak about the unfiltered frustrations of the working class, and comment in a brutally honest way on the way the world is; that's what set Pekar's comics apart.
But once upon a time, Mr. Pekar was not making a living as a comic book artist. He was simply a file clerk in a hospital; not the most glamorous of jobs, but hey, at least he had a job! Working all those years with a meager salary is what fueled Pekar's creativity. He never had much money, so his relationships would never last. For the longest time, it felt like Harvey's life was simply going nowhere. Dead End Job, shitty apartment, no lady in his life, and to top things off, he'd get cancer along the way. Things were grim for Harvey Pekar. But good things come to those who wait, and so one fine day Harvey met underground comics god Robert Crumb and boom, Harvey gets inspired to do his own comic book. Crumb's and Harvey's life stories are entwined because for a while, they both lived in the same neighborhood and they booth shared a huge amount of love for comic books and old jazz records. They became good friends and inspired each other. For Crumb's half of the story you should check out this amazing documentary produced by David Lynch called Crumb (1994), it's a very interesting look into Crumb's strange and unusual upbringing and life style. Want to see weird? Check out this documentary. But aside from weird, it's also strangely inspiring, Crumb never tires from drawing his own particular brand of Americana. Crumb's story was a bit different than Harvey's because Crumb became successful a lot quicker than Harvey, whose success came with much more of an effort, and much later in life; yes my friends, Pekar was the quintessential late bloomer.
The Real Harvey Pekar, a real 'Gloom and Doom' type of guy
American Splendor the film, is the story of the working class hero. The guy who works at a low paying job and has to struggle to survive; which is exactly what Harvey was in real life. Scraping by to survive is the way a lot of people live, and so, a lot of people can identify with this story. Often times, misery, pain and struggle gives birth to wonderful works of art. Truth is, the best art comes from just that: pain. You got nowhere left to go but to express yourself. I identify with this story because I am a working stiff myself, a blue collar worker so to speak. I got no troubles in admitting it: hey, I aint rich but at least I make an honest living. And here's another piece of my story you guys probably don't know but I illustrate my own comics, my work has yet to be published on a professional level. I write my own stuff. And same as Crumb, I don't do my comics for no one, I consider them "an exercise" that just might end up getting printed at some point in my life. I've yet to draw my masterpiece, but I'm working on it. Surely enough, it will get made, but in the mean time, a mans gotta survive, so I keep my 9 to 5 job. But inside? I'm really an artist and proud of it. Crumb is one of my own personal heroes, I love the guys artwork, his style is one I greatly admire. And I love Pekar's stuff because it's about everyday life, the struggle to survive. This theme is something I also express through my films. The one I'm currently working on (and will FINISH soon!) is about a cook who looses his job and has an identity crisis. So yeah, both of these great artists have influenced me immensely. Watching American Splendor the other night got me all fired up to continue with my art!
Paul Giamatti portrays Harvey Pekar
American Splendor, the film, was at one time attempted by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) only he had trouble getting it made because he wasnt an established filmmaker yet. It was the creative duo of Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini who would end up getting financial back to make the film, which as it turns out is half film, half documentary. I think it was brilliant that the film ended up being like this because Pekar's comics are metafiction; so it's only natural that the film ended up being metafilm as well. This is a film that references itself as a work of art, and exposes some truths about life and the nature of filmmaking and comic book illustration. It's wonderfully different. At times we will see Paul Giamatti portraying Harvey...and suddenly in steps the real Harvey, talking about his own life, or we'll simply see Harvey, as his own real life unfolds in front of the movie cameras. The film makes no efforts to hide the ugly parts of the story. These are things that any normal Hollywood film would make an effort to eliminate or shy away from, or change; but not Harvey Pekar's story. You see, Harvey was always about exposing truths. Telling it like it is. Now this is something that some people just can't take. You ever had a conversation with someone, and they simply can't take how real the conversation gets? The kind of conversation where people choose to walk away from because they just can't take reality? I know I've had my share of those, I find it hilarious how people react to the truth. And Harvey is one of these guys. He simply spits out 'gloom and doom' and he has no problems with admitting that this is the kind of guy that he is, he doesn't sell commercial phoniness, no siree, Harvey is all about how hard it is to live, the ugly truth of things. His attitude is, if you can't take the heat, then get out of that kitchen.
Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis both do an excellent job of bringing Harvey and Joyce's story to life. Giamatti was the perfect guy to bring Pekar to life, both actors received various awards for their portrayals. The film itself went on to win many awards for best screenplay. Pekar himself comes off as a guy who realizes he want's to leave something behind after he dies. He never really liked the idea of having kids, so his legacy was going to be his work, his stories. And fairly enough, he kept following his dream until they even made a film about his life! Now there's an underdog story if there ever was one! Harvey kept on struggling until he finally made it! Sadly, he passed away in 2010, but he left behind wonderful insights about real life, real struggles in his comics; inspirational stuff in deed. In Harvey's own words the theme of American Splendor was "staying alive, getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet. Life is a war of attrition, you have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe, and it's a loosing battle. I've tried to let go. But I can't" Words of wisdom and inspiration my friends, words of wisdom.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Harvey Pekar 1939-2010