Revisiting AMERICAN SPLENDOR – R.I.P. Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

“Am I a guy who writes about himself in a comic book? Or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will that character keep going? Or will he just fade away?”
– Harvey Pekar as played by Paul Giamatti.

Shortly after hearing the news that cult comic book writer Harvey Pekar passed away yesterday there was a flurry of R.I.P. tweets praising the man, his work, and the 2003 biopic AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Since it’s one of my favorite movies of the last decade and I’ve never written about it on this blog (Film Babble Blog started in 2004) I decided to take the DVD off the shelf and give it a tribute re-whirl.

Taking its name from Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series which dates back to 1976, AMERICAN SPLENDOR was a unique biopic in that while the subject is depicted by ace actor Paul Giamatti, Pekar himself appears in documentary style breaks in the storyline.

Husband and wife film making duo Robert Pulcini and Sheri Springer Bergman constructed with care a comic book aesthetic in which both Pekar and his dramatic doppelganger shuffle through animations, recreations of cartoon panels, and old videotape clips mostly from Pekar’s infamous appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.

In the comic Pekar would often break the 4th wall and talk directly to us. The film runs with this concept as Pekar’s narration enhances the film by adding meta commentary on the movie we’re watching like when he says of Giamatti: “Here’s me, or the guying playing me anyway, though he don’t look nothing like me. But whatever.”

Pekar was a longtime file clerk and record collector who by chance befriended revolutionary cartoonist Robert Crumb at a yard sale in 1962. Crumb, meticulously portrayed by James Urbaniak, inspires Pekar to write his own comics. A rarity in a world filled with super heroes, Pekar’s “American Splendor” comics centered on Pekar’s mundane yet amusingly relatable life and gained a cult following over the years. Crumb and other notable artists illustrated Pekar’s writing which made for a pleasing mix up of styles – something the movie adaptation excels at. Though Pekar says Giamatti doesn’t look like him – he’s as valid an embodiment as any of the comic book depictions.

In one of the most striking scenes Pekar (Giamatti) is taunted by his cartoon alter ego in line behind an old chatty Jewish lady at the grocery store. “You gonna suffer in silence for the rest of your life, or are you gonna make a mark?”

Pekar becomes a folk hero in the ’80s largely because of his appearances on Letterman. Over the course of a few years Pekar made 7 appearances on the popular program each time clashing more with the cranky sarcastic host. Pekar finally got kicked off the show because he bad mouthed GE (NBC’s parent company) and said Letterman looked like a shill for them. Pekar was allowed back years later in the mid ’90s but damage definitely had been done. Although the film shows real bits of Pekar’s appearances, the most controversial one is dramatized with an actor (Todd Cummings) stepping in for Letterman. You can see the original clip here.

The film is packed with jazz, soul, and rock which keeps it bopping from frame to frame. Its musical sensibility contributes to the feeling that its simply a riff on the world according to Harvey Pekar. That can be a risky approach but it’s not a loose riff; there’s not a wasted scene and the well written weight in the non meta portions makes it all fly.

The scenes with Davis as Harvey’s 3rd wife Joyce Brabner offset the trickier Pekar monologue material nicely. It’s also a treat to see 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander do a pitch perfect impression of Pekar’s friend Toby Radloff. Radloff also appears as himself along with the real Brabner – see what I mean about all the meta-ness?

I’ve seen the movie several times so this latest re-watching wasn’t necessarily revelatory, but it was very comforting like spending time with a good old friend again. Pekar was a hero to anyone who ever tried to make art on the side of a dreary existence in a soul deadening job. The movie touchingly captures the begrudging spirit of a man who definitely did make a mark.

In the booklet that comes with the DVD (“My Movie Year”) Pekar says of the movie after seeing an early screening: “Wow, that was really innovative…the way they mixed acted portions and documentary footage and animation and cartoons. And double casting some roles. Great! They took a lot of chances and they all worked.”

Completely agree with you there Harvey.

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar.

Post note: I also highly recommend Pekar’s comics. They are available in sweet anthologies that you can find at Amazon or wherever. “American Splendor: The Life And Times Of Harvey Pekar” and “Our Cancer Year” are essential reads in the world of autobiographical comic books.

More later…

COLD SOULS: The Film Babble Blog Review

COLD SOULS (Dir. Sophie Barnes, 2009)

The set-up is straight from Charlie Kaufman 101 (or for you old schoolers – consult your Twilight Zone text books): Man walks into a Doctor’s office, not just any Doctor’s office mind you, for a fantastical existential service that he only just heard about. Skeptical but desperate, the man undergoes some sort of surgery on his psyche. In the aftermath, in episode after episode the man’s life goes more and more askew and he returns to the Doctor to get that extracted piece of him back.

I know, you’re saying “I’ve heard this one before…”, but what makes this particular mundane exercise in surrealism is that the man in question is Paul Giamatti playing himself. Well, a version of himself in which he is a tormented stage actor who relates too intensely with Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” character as he prepares for the role in an off Broadway play. Oh, and his wife (named Claire – Giamatti’s real life wife is named Elizabeth), is played by Emily Watson so there’s that too. When Giamatti’s agent points out an article in the New Yorker about soul storage, he can’t resist checking out the institute in the profile. A contrite Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) makes the process very appealing to our protagonist Paul who proclaims: “I don’t want to be happy; I just need to not suffer.”

I was surprised how little of this was played for laughs. For any of a number of film makers such material would be a launching pad for a bevy of comedic premises but Barnes’ film wants to keep a straight face and let the amusement come from a number of well played understated moments. Our hapless hero’s reaction to his bottled soul looking like a chick pea, his strained soul-less acting in rehearsals that trouble his director along with fellow cast members, and his exasperated eye bulging at the prospect of his soul being stolen (or “borrowed”) are all Giamatti gold.

However, there’s much more to COLD SOULS than just a Charlie Kaufman-mode Giamatti work-out. Nina Korzun as a “mule” for trafficking souls has a piercing presence that hints at a bigger back story. The eerie implications of left over residue built up from the many souls Korzun has transported aren’t underlined but felt nonetheless. Giamatti’s obsession with a soul he “rents” – that of a Russian poet is equally subtle and emotionally effective.

The second half of the film concerns Giamatti travelling to track down his soul to a scenic yet dreary St. Petersburg, Russia. Icy isolation torments Giamatti as he shuffles down the streets and in a pivotal scene, set inside his soul, reminiscent (in a good way) of his schlepping through a white soundstage backdrop in AMERICAN SPLENDOR. This cranky curmudgeon has to finally acknowledge that a tiny piece of suffering is worth weathering the elements in a foreign land. Even if it is just the size of a chick pea.

More later…