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Thread: A True Voice of the Quotidian

  1. #1
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    Aug 2002
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    A True Voice of the Quotidian

    By Chris Knipp

    AMERICAN SPLENDOR - (Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) - `Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,' Harvey Pekar says in American Splendor, a movie that does justice not only to the ordinary but also to the depressive and the gloomy and the unpromising -- or are these all variations on the same theme, if you live in Cleveland?

    This wonderful and unexpected film gets at the complexity of Harvey's ordinariness by combining scenes of the real people it's about on the movie set talking, the actors the filmmakers have chosen to play the real people, comic strip images of them done to stories made up by Harvey, the real Harvey's voiceover on the actors' scenes, comic-strip style labels for transitions, and clips from the Eighties when Pekar appeared on the Letterman show. It's a pretty complex mix but the downbeat clarity of Pekar himself makes it all flow as unpretentiously as his reedy, crackling voice. The drab Cleveland scenes are a delightfully tonic contrast to the usual glossy movie sets and overly pretty people and lives we normally get on the screen. They look like real places I knew growing up on the East Coast, and I felt at home from the first few minutes of this unforgettable portrait of a sage of working class poverty and low expectations.

    Harvey Pekar is a real person who, for thirty-odd years, till he recently retired (with a party the film documents), was a file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital, a dead-end job that went nowhere. How did he get to be the subject of a movie that won the jury prize at Sundance and made a splash at Cannes? Back in the Seventies he met the great `underground' cartoonist R. Crumb (himself fully documented in Terry Zwigoff's excellent film). They were drawn together by shared interests in old 78's and comics, and a collaboration began: Pekar began making stick-figure storyboards of scenes from his own life, his job, his coworkers, his everyday experiences that illustrated that remark: ordinary experiences that were pretty complex stuff, and stuff that soon made Pekar famous, once Crumb (played by James Urbaniak as a wonderfully dry, oddball dandy), later aided by others, such as Gary Dunn and Mark Zingarelli, began to illustrate Harvey's stories.

    Pekar was famous, in the comics world anyway, but never rich. He stayed a file clerk, which you could say kept him honest. He went on with his writing, doing not only the stories that were a running narrative of his uneventful life but also prolific book and record reviews. But unlike Crumb he didn't make a good living at any of that. And to signal the irony and the grandeur of his flat celebration of the quotidian, the comics about Harvey Pekar's life were called: American Splendor.

    The movie slides seamlessly through the life from one disaster to another: loneliness, a loss of voice, a loss of wife, serious illness. A loss of hope, perhaps, if he ever had any: but being a failure and a schlub was Harvey Pekar's schtick, and it got him onto the Letterman show as a (surprisingly dynamic) regular for a while in the Eighties and it got him a faithful wife, and now it's made him the subject of one of the best American movies of the year.

    But let's not get away from ourselves. This movie deals with small increments of life on life's very often humiliating terms. Deciding which line at the supermarket to wait in is, like the rest of ordinary life, a complex matter, Harvey says in one passage. For instance, getting in the shortest line if it means being behind an old Jewish lady is a very bad idea. And then the film proceeds to document that very bad idea in a scene with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar getting himself stuck in the shortest supermarket line behind an old Jewish lady. It's not so much that the scene is funny and very precise, but that we observe Pekar observing his own life and observe the real Pekar observing the movie Pekar. We see what it's like to observe the quotidian as Pekar does.

    Giamatti is terrific in the role, his grumpy mobile face equal to every Pekar situation and Pekar mood, despite the real Pekar's onscreen complaint that he looks nothing like him. The Jewish lady scene is both very specific and very general. And again, it's completely natural and without an ounce of affectation. Harvey is a working class hero, plain spoken and a realist. And, of course, an ordinary man leading an ordinary and most unpromising life.

    What's not ordinary about Harvey Pekar is a perspective that few people have. His `gloom and doom' outlook and bitter realism allow him to confront his worst moments with a degree of absolute truthfulness that becomes a kind of eloquence as well as a coping mechanism. And though we see one wife walk out on him and his voice leave him and we see him battle cancer, we also see the voice come back and we see Joyce Brabner, (a hypochondriac and chronic depressive who diagnoses everybody else -- `polymorphous perverse,' `paranoid,' `megalomaniac,' etc.) become a faithful and loving wife -- who co-authors the comic book for "Our Cancer Year," which documents his recovery. And we see him ruin a `good thing' with Letterman by seeing through him and the corporate media monolith that owns him. But in fighting Letterman he has remained true to himself.

    Giamatti may not look like Pekar but his voice is right, and so is the very strange diction of Judah Friedlander, who plays to perfection Toby Radloff, Pekar's self proclaimed nerd coworker and peculiar friend, whose role in the comics leads him to being exploited on MTV. Showing the real and make believe people back to back could be like showing off how well their schticks are done, if the movie weren't so offhand and seamless in its editing. (And Hope Davis is excellent, and a bit astonishing, if one's just seen her in The Secret Lives of Dentists, as Joyce Brabner: the switch from Hilary Clinton to Elvira was hardly a predictable one.)

    Above all what binds American Splendor together and makes it valid - even if it's softer than the comic series - is Pekar's voice - not the real voice or the Giamatti voice but the words and the mind behind them, the voice that has articulated this life and made it worthy of the celluloid immortality this movie gives it. And to that American Splendor remains true.

  2. #2
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    Aug 2002
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    A Different Approach, A Different Perspective

    This intriguing mixture of real and acted, live and comic book fusion into a movie format of gritty, ordinary life brought to the screen has its appeal in its innovative and different approach to film-making. However, the focus and raw guts of the movie seems to miss the singular flavor of real drama, the teasing out of artriculate autographical intensity that allows us to lead us somewhere. This movie gives the audience as strong dose of reality in an intriguing, cute format sometimes funny, sometimes touching. Yet for all its flash and originally its doesn't really hit the high notes of a movie such as American Beauty.

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