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The International Writers Magazine
: DVD Review

American Splendor
Dan Schneider

American Splendor
is one of those films that gets overpraised not so much for what it is, but for what it is not- i.e.- another in the mind-numbingly dull pieces of pabulum spewed out by Hollywood. The film is part-surrealism, part-documentary, part biography. It follows the life of a retired career file clerk who, midway through his gray trek to oblivion, came up with an idea to bob himself above the obscurity of anonymity. He decided to do an annual comic book called American Splendor, wherein he chronicled what it was like to be a real person, not a superhero, soldier, nor cop/detective- the usual staples of the genre.

  He had the fortune of befriending Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak)- the notorious cartoonist who was featured a decade earlier in his own documentary- who took Harvey’s written words and illustrated them. While he never made a fortune off the comics (still he lives in a shitty apartment) they did become major cult items, buoyed by Crumb’s name value in the industry. Eventually, other artists illustrated issues and Pekar parlayed his cult status to a regular guest stint on the David Letterman show in the late 1980s. He had a weird assortment of co-workers in the file room at the VA hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, including Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander)- a mentally disturbed, proud nerd, and an anal retentive older black co-worker named Mr. Boats (Earl Billings), who make the eternally curmudgeonly Pekar (Paul Giamatti) seem normal by comparison.

  But, he’s not. As much as he (in cutaway segments to the real Harvey Pekar) and the film would like us to believe that Harvey Pekar is an ordinary guy he’s no more representative of your average American male than was the Al Bundy character from the tv show Married...With Children. For starters, he’s relentlessly morose, and self-pitying. Now, this does go on in life, but not nearly to the Pekarian degree. Most people lead lives of self-narcotized stupor, Pekar’s life is of hyper-aware masochism. There is also something obviously not right with Harvey mentally. As much as the film tries to gloss this over by conflating it with the tired madness = genius trope, it’s not, and the fact of Pekar’s misery is due chiefly to his own innate desire to wallow. In this sense, and this sense only, he is a typical American.

  As for the overall trope of the film, when it starts, Pekar is being left by his second wife, he has a mysterious throat problem which renders him unable to speak for months. After darting back and forth through various points in Pekar’s life, including his schlepful childhood, the film really kicks into gear (such as it does) when he meets his third and last wife Joyce Brabner- a nerdy woman from Delaware who runs a run-down comic book shop- writes a fan letter to Pekar. Soon, she visits him, and on their first trip they have sex and soon are married. Joyce is manifestly more intelligent than Pekar, in a cosmopolitan sense, but her physical unattractiveness and insecurities are what makes her pliable to Harvey’s courting.

  As the film intercuts between the real and fictive Pekars the film occasionally loses steam. That said, there is one brilliant, standout sequence where the fictive Pekar (Giamatti) is ruminating as he walks in and out of photos and cartoon landscapes, and is followed by a single horizon line. He breaks into a monologue about other Harvey Pekars he has noticed through the years in the Cleveland phone book. This existential line of thought is truly a masterstroke for the film and highlights what Pekar might have become as a writer and an artist were he not so masochistic. Unfortunately, neither Pekar nor the film is capable of such sustained brilliance.

  In short, there’s a reason that the Harvey Pekars of the world (and Cleveland) are not usually on film- either as subjects or actors. They are too average, their lives bore, and knowing that, most people do not really want to see people, events, and issues that they confront everyday. In short, to paraphrase Pogo- Pekar’s the enemy, and the enemy’s us. Despite the film’s flights of fancy there’s very little escapism. Toby Radloff, nerd extraordinaire, is funny- for a one time gag, but as a running joke he’s more pathetic. There’s something almost sadistic about how the film treats that character- not praising his eccentricities and ills, but glaring at them just a tad too long, like a child does the first time they encounter a retard or midget in public- a sadistic insistence on vision. Another failure of the film is the inability of the filmmakers (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) to distinguish between Pekar’s honesty, pessimism, and cynicism. The three things are distinct. While Pekar does bring a certain amount of honesty to his views on life about him, he is wholly dishonest (whether intentionally or not is debatable) about himself- he never truly recognizes he is the architect of his failure. He does lambaste himself, but more out of reflex and gloom, than real understanding. His cynicism is displayed in his need to try to make everyone about him as miserable as he is- his co-workers, his wife, and eventually his foster child Danielle.

  The film touches upon Pekar’s testicular cancer, which led to an award-winning comic book he and his wife wrote, 'Our Cancer Year'. Yet, once that is done Pekar goes back to being Pekar. He learns no real lessons, even though we suspect he should’ve learned something deeper than a tv-movie-of-the-week moral. Postmodernists would say that’s the point. I say it’s a cop out, because it obviously bore fruit in the comic book about his suffering. That the film glosses over this may have been a bow to Pekar’s wishes, but if so, it kyboshed the ending of an otherwise solid, if flawed, film. In a sense, this film is the antithesis of the Charlie Kaufman-type films, which use filmic tricks to distort flawed narrative. This film uses filmic tricks to parallax a banal narrative.

  As for the DVD- there are making of segments, film bios of Pekar out promoting the film, and commentaries featuring the filmmaker, actors, and the real Pekar, Joyce, and Toby Radloff. Perhaps the most enjoyable moments in the commentary are when the real Toby goes off on incredibly inane minutia, such as what the real flavor of certain colored jelly beans were in a particular scene. Other than that there really is no insight- the professionals tend to defer to the real Harvey who often seems very disinterested in the film.

  Harvey Pekar is not a hero, nor a villain, just a man who did one mildly interesting thing in his life- write about himself in a comic book. This is no great treatise on existential angst, but it occasionally details the possibilities that exist in the human, even if any individual human is incapable of those possibilities. Harvey is incapable, and the film’s acknowledgement of that fact is its best service. If the film makes you uncomfortable it’s because you see yourself in it. As for me, I smiled at its end, and went on to more important things.

© Dan Schneider -May 2005

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