Monday, June 25, 2012

American Splendor (2003)

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


Jack Thursby said...

Great film. Like you, I find it a very inspirational watch.

I picked up one of American Splendor collections. I've never been a massive fan of Crumb's art - always seems kind of sleazy - but Pekar's writing is spot on. It's great for reading after you've had a crappy or boring day. It makes you see the humour in life.

Franco Macabro said...

Crumb's art can get very sleazy, and very sexual, especially his Fritz the Cat stuff, but he's done all sorts of things, he even did one recently where he drew the first books of the bible, now that was pretty cool stuff because he drew exactly what the bible says...sometimes, the story gets really messed up, because the bible has some passages and stories that are really out there!

Crumb art can have a strange sexual angle, this is true, but on the other hand, it also captures, same as Pekar's stuff, a lot about real life. Which explains why many times Crumb actually brought to life a lot of Pekar's own stories through his art.

Unknown said...

Along with GHOST WORLD, AMERICAN SPLENDOR is among the best cinematic adaptations of a comic book. It also helps that the creators of both books were intimately involved in the production of both films as it gives each one an authenticity that is missing from, say, HOWARD THE DUCK.

SPLENDOR is a fascinating docudrama but I like how they not only have Paul Giamatti playing Harvey but at one point, Donal Logue plays Giamatti (the play version). How meta is that?

As you point out, the film doesn't pull any punches when it comes to Harvey's life and just shows him doing his thing day in and day out, just like the rest of us. I guess there is something kinda noble about that and instantly relatable, which is also one of the things that make his comic books so good.

I also thought Judah Friedlander was hilarious as self-professed nerd Toby Radloff. The argument he and Harvey has about the merits of REVENGE OF THE NERDS is one of the best bits in the film.

LLJ said...

I'd like to see a review of CRUMB sometime. It would make for a nice follow up. Without giving away too much--Crumb actually turned out a lot better than you would expect given his upbringing.

Just a note--I actually saw Pekar give a talk at a local film festival about 3-4 months before he died. He was still as sharp and curmudgeonly as ever.

Franco Macabro said...

@J.D.: Ghost World is an amazing film, and it is obviously inspired in the life of Crumb. The character of Seymour loves old jazz records and collects them obsessively, he is a quiet reclusive guy, he likes old art....basically, he's a lot like crumb.

Another film that is inspired on Crumbs life is Art School Confidential, a dark film that many people don't like because it starts out like your regular teen comedy and then evolves into this dark, dark film with a main character that does not come off as likable at all; I think I will be re-watching and reviewing that one soon; also, I will be reviewing CRUMB, I loved that doc.

Yeah, there's a lot of things like that on the movie, as you mentioned, Donald Logue plays Giamatti, also, there's this scene where a guy comes to get his American Splendor comic signed and the guy who brings his book is one of the many artists who actually illustrated the real life comic book. The movie is ultra meta like that.

True, that conversation about Revenge of the Nerds being a film that gives Nerds some respect was hilarious. I thought it was funny how that guy became famous on MTV during the 80's, they kind of made a real life cartoon out of that guy; actually MTV got real good at making fun of people, I seem to remember them doing the same thing with this JESSE VJ they had during the 90s.

@LLJ: True man, after seeing that documentary, and realizing the kind of family he had...its a miracle he turned out to be so successful and semi-normal, cause i cant really bring myself to say CRUMB is normal; however much I admire the guy, you know what I mean?

Yeah, I agree, he was very sharp, and kind of acid; but hey, what can you do, life IS grim and sad, he just loved to point the things that were wrong with this world, something I like to do myself, shine some light on all that evil thats out there.

Thanks for commenting!

Manuel Marrero said...

Giamatti did a great job portraying Harvey. Im glad Harvey let Letterman have it after years of making fun of him.Love the transcisions between the film with the real Harvey.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, that scene with Harvey in the David Letterman show was priceless, Im also glad that they showed part of the real thing, but not all of it because it was just too anti establishment, in the real video, Harvey was wearing this anti-nbc t-shirt, that was great, you could really tell he had had it with the whole celebrity thing.

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