Sean K. Cureton

American Spendor Offers Comic Book Sophistication

In My Favorite Movies on February 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm
American Splendor

Fine Line Features/HBO Films

American Splendor
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Commercial Release: August 15, 2003

Initially released at the Sundance film festival in January 2003, the HBO produced bio-picture American Splendor tells the story of the American underground comics scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s by way of the personal story of one of its major creative voices, Harvey Pekar. In the film, Pekar’s life story is told via a career defining performance from actor Paul Giamatti, juxtaposed against sequences wherein the dramatized portions of the film fall away to green screen scenes of the real life Harvey Pekar speaking openly to the viewer amid a backdrop reminiscent of the very comic book panels dramatized by the film’s artifice. This meta-fictional aspect of the film’s cinematic artistry is a large part of what makes American Splendor work so fantastically well, as it ingeniously mixes documentary and drama in order to more accurately represent the film’s subject and his art simultaneously. For Pekar, his comic book panels were a way of commenting on his life and the world around him through narrative and imagery, thus immortalizing his own anguish and gloom in a way that was accessible and literary. By using documentary footage of Pekar and his family and friends alongside dramatized sequences of Pekar’s life, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are able to visually analyze and interpret the real life Harvey Pekar’s singular worldview through the very same autobiographical, meta-narrative techniques that Pekar himself employed over the course of his life and career, marking American Splendor as one of the most sophisticated dramatizations of comic books from the past ten years.

Starting from the opening credits, and continuing through to the final sequence of the film, Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor is an intense study of American Gothic imagery that gives voice to the silenced underclass laborers of working class, rural, and semi-impoverished America. The figure that Harvey Pekar cuts for himself is the figure of the somewhat creepy loner, the kind of person who appears to be in a perpetually bad mood and infects the air of those around him with his own oppressive melancholia. In the film, actor Paul Giamatti inhabits that role to a tee, skulking around, shoulders hunched forward, and caustic to the bone, with a certain threatening menace not all that unfamiliar from the real Harvey Pekar. And yet watching such an oppressive character on screen is not depressing; on the contrary, the film feels inspired and filled to the brim with a genuine openness and sentimentality towards its loner anti-hero and the dreary world that he inhabits, bringing it to life without overstating anything to the point of an overtly fabricated fiction. Instead of draping the film’s Cleveland, Ohio in the apocalyptic overtones of a more Hollywoodian melodrama, Berman and Pulcini pull back, letting the actors and their live and breathing counterparts speak for themselves, just as Pekar’s comic book has done for years in its own plain spoken and unadorned illustrations and comic book panels.

Like the American Splendor comic book series from which the film is based and inspired, Berman and Pulcini’s film is defined by its deadpan style of both humor and drama, an atypical narrative structuring that inflects the film with a certain amount of levity simultaneously rooted in deep amounts of skepticism and despair, a la Harvey Pekar. In one moment, the viewer may be laughing along with the solipsistic and pseudo-absurdist landscaping of the world around Pekar. In the very next moment, and more often than not in the very same scene, the viewer is confronted with Pekar’s despair and anguish over a world that appears to treat him as an afterthought, worth a disparaging chuckle or two, but ultimately as disposable as any other modicum deigned worthy of popular culture and late night television. In more ways than one, Harvey Pekar appears to be the precursor to the better-known and wildly popular American comedy writer Mike Judge. Like Pekar, Judge specializes in giving voice to the tragically unhip and destitute, inflecting humor and humanity into the more mundane and unattractive characters of plebeian America, albeit without any of the more self-effacing and unremitting realism of Pekar’s unadorned honesty. If Judge is a mere satirist, working in clever but unoffending situational comedy, then Pekar is a premier social critic, dramatizing the world in which we live in all of its unappealing entirety.

And yet, while Pekar would seem at first glance to be an entirely unredeemable and unsympathetic protagonist, Berman and Pulcini’s direction, coupled with some of the very best performances from an all star cast of actors, ensure that the viewer cares for and relates to Harvey Pekar as a both a real person and a fictional character. Paul Giamatti has never been better as Bergman and Pulcini’s fictionalized Pekar, inhabiting the role of the film’s subject and walking the fine line between reality and fiction that defines the actual Harvey Pekar’s life and work. In addition, Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander are brilliant as Joyce Brabner and Toby Radloff, the real Harvey Pekar’s second wife and close friend respectively, breathing warmth and humanity into two roles that would have been undoubtedly lifeless and thoughtlessly looked over in a lesser film of the same type. Every character in the film, from Pekar’s prickly boss Mr. Boats (Earl Billings), to fellow underground comic book demigod Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), is brought to life through the collaborative effort between the actors and the directors, resulting in a representation of the film’s real life counterparts that holds up even when the actors sit side by side with their subjects in the film’s green screen documentary sequences. By the end of the film, Giamatti’s portrayal of Pekar begins to take on the tones and subtleties of the ways in which various artists have represented Pekar on the pages of his comic book for years, as if the film were yet another artist’s rendering of Pekar’s manic depressive dreamscape.

Ten years after its initial commercial release, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s bio-picture is still as intensely vital and unbelievably relevant as ever. Even after repeated viewings, American Splendor is still endlessly appealing in its eccentricities, outlasting the constrictions of its biographical narrative, and surviving on its own visual tenacity and sharp satiric edge. Watching Harvey Pekar on screen is still fascinating, as he is a character for the ages, intimately relatable despite himself and funny as hell. On July 2, 2010, the real Harvey Pekar died, which makes Berman and Pulcini’s film all the more significant, serving as the final word from one of America’s finest creative voices. Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor ranks among the best films of the past decade, outlasting most others due to its superior intelligence, intense depth of feeling, and unapologetic sincerity.

American Splendor is available to own on DVD, and is one of My Favorite Movies.

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