American Splendor

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

8 October

Harvey Pekar born, 1939

On this day in 1939, Harvey Lawrence Pekar was born, in Cleveland, Ohio. And that’s where he died too, in Cleveland, Ohio. An underground comicbook artist, if not THE underground comicbook artist (fight that one out with Robert Crumb), he is credited with changing the way graphic novels were perceived. Largely responsible, in fact, for them being called graphic novels in the first place. That’s down to his subject matter. Staying away from fantasy and sci-fi, comedy and stoner musing, Pekar depicted the life he saw happening all around him. His works are autobiographical, downbeat, fatalistic, droll, reflecting his own temperament, which he described as “insecure, obsessive and paranoid.” Having been encouraged to create a graphic novel about his life by fellow Cleveland resident Robert Crumb, Pekar waited several years until the early 1970s before he set about producing “an autobiography written as it’s happening.” It’s the blog form, essentially, before home computers had been invented. Crumb illustrated his first attempt, Crazy Ed, along with fellow artist Robert Armstrong, and Crumb would collaborate with Pekar again on the project that was to make his name, American Splendor, which was published intermittently 39 times from 1976 until 2008, two years before Pekar’s death.

American Splendor (2003, dir: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)

As formally different as its subject matter, documentarian Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s film about Harvey Pekar is a mad mix of live action and line drawing, the real and the fantastical, and stars Paul Giamatti in one of his early breakout roles. Giamatti plays Pekar, but Harvey Pekar himself features too, also playing himself, a performance that’s definitely more energetic than Giamatti’s, which suggests either that Giamatti has got the guy slightly wrong, or more likely that the cranky Pekar was bridling at the representation of himself as being a bag of depressive tics and was trying to polish the image. At the simplest level it’s the story of how Pekar was inspired by Robert Crumb to start writing American Splendor. At another it’s a hymn to a man who took the road less travelled, who’d opted not to live in the fantasy most of us choose – of “getting on” (Pekar spent most of his working life as a file clerk and wouldn’t accept promotion). It’s got a clever script that toys with expectations. There’s a nice scene where Pekar is on the David Letterman show (he was a staple until he had a rant against General Electric, the sponsors) and Letterman is clearly taking him for a dupe. Cut to Pekar, “I realised I was being taken for a dupe by Letterman.” Hope Davis plays Pekar’s wife, Joyce, and she’s as bang perfect for the role as Giamatti is. As stripped back a film about existence and the existential burden as you’re likely to get. The pictures are pretty cool too.

Why Watch?

  • The American Film Institute’s Film of the Year
  • Better than Hulk and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that summer’s other two comicbook adaptations
  • Pekar himself narrates – “He’s the guy playing me,” he says of Giamatti
  • A companion piece to Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb

American Splendor – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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