Saturday, August 23, 2003

American Splendor

Midway through American Splendor the movie’s subject, Harvey Pekar, runs into a woman he went to college with. He tells her about the book he’s reading and she says it’s one of her favorites. “It’s pretty truthful,” she says. “Which is rare these days.” She’s talking about something by Theodore Dreiser, but she could just as well be talking about Harvey’s own work.

Harvey — after reading his comics, it’s impossible to call him Mr. Pekar — introduced blue-collar realism to comics in the ’70s. His adult comic books come, as their tagline declares, “from off the streets of Cleveland,” and he’s not talking Shaker Heights.

A working-class Woody Allen, Harvey’s main subject is himself. He’s prickly and sardonic, whiny and defensive, obsessive-compulsive and congenitally unhappy. He often behaves badly. Yet he’s likeable in spite of himself, and he has a gift for turning his dyspeptic life into art. He’s funny, too.

His characters would barely make it into the background of most American stories, though they’re as typical as anyone can be (one thing this movie makes you think about is how there’s really no such thing as an “ordinary” person.) Like Harvey, who’s a file clerk at a VA hospital, they have dead-end, low-paying jobs, and they spend a lot of time just getting by: selling stuff for a few bucks, coaxing ailing cars back to life, waiting at bus stops.

Harvey may be easily annoyed, but he’s no misanthrope. He listens when people talk, and when he repeats their words they have a way of reverberating. He never condescends to anyone or writes anyone off, even people like Toby, a coworker who has an almost robotic way of speaking. Harvey’s wife may see Toby as “borderline autistic,” but Harvey just sees him as Toby, and their relationship — at least, as depicted in the movie — is a friendship between equals.

Harvey has been famous among the comic cognoscenti for years. He’s made a few inroads into the mainstream too, thanks to endorsements by what he calls “all the important media that tell people how to think,” but this movie will presumably introduce him to a much wider audience. He couldn’t have asked for a better calling card.

The format is as inventive as Pekar’s own work, shifting between scenes played by actors, panels from Harvey’s comics, and interviews with the real Harvey and his wife, Joyce Babner. Filmed action is often combined with comic-book techniques, like the hand-lettered descriptions in panels at the top of the screen that introduce many of the scenes. A voice-over read by the real Harvey has the same deadpan tone as his comics, though it was written by husband-wife writer/director team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

This is the ultimate meta movie. First we see something happen to Harvey, then we see him turn it into a comic strip, and then we see the comic strip made into the movie we’re watching. Every now and then, the real people show up in the same scene as the people who play them, behaving just like the actors only more so. At one point, the actors playing Harvey and Joyce even watch other actors playing Harvey and Joyce reenact a scene from a play adapted from Harvey’s comics.

If all that were just a gimmick it might get tiresome, but it’s an integral part of the story. The stories Harvey writes are illustrated by a series of comic artists, each of whom draws him and his regular characters differently, so seeing different versions of them in the movie makes a kind of sense. And seeing different versions of his stories makes you think — as Harvey often does in his comics — about how stories are told and what makes the good ones work.

The movie is as episodic as the comic book, but the writers fit their scenes together like dominoes, creating seamless transitions from one to the next. A lot happens: Harvey finds his soulmate in Joyce and his life work in his comics, gets cancer and goes through a year’s worth of grueling treatments, and he and Joyce adopt the daughter of a friend who’s unable to care for her. But this movie isn’t really about any of that.

American Splendor is about the sad sweetness of life, the importance of being true to yourself, and the difficulty of being an artist and a self-taught intellectual in a country that doesn’t have much use for either. It’s about what “family values” really means and about how tales get changed in the telling. And, as Berman says in the press kit, it’s about “a man who found his life through comic books.”

If that sounds like a lot to pack into the musings of “a nobody flunky selling records on the side for a buck,” it shouldn’t. After all, as Harvey says, “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

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