American Splendor

Cast
Harvey Pekar: Paul Giamatti
Real Harvey: Harvey Pekar
Joyce Brabner: Hope Davis
Real Joyce: Joyce Brabner
Mr. Boats: Earl Billings
Robert Crumb: James Urbaniak
Toby Radloff: Judah Friedlander

Fine Line Features presents a film written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Based on the American Splendor comic book series by Harvey Pekar and Our Cancer Year by Joyce Brabner. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for language).

Central Theme
Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff, and little things and unknown people matter.

Story
American Splendor immerses you in the life and worldview of Harvey Pekar, working-class Everyman, first-class curmudgeon, and unlikely family man. It’s a pretty ordinary life: a dead-end job as a file clerk at a local V.A. hospital; an apartment in the same Rust Belt city, Cleveland, where he was born and raised; two busted marriages; and various hobbies and interests that help pass the time. But Harvey’s take on that life, and how he deals with it, is anything but average. Innately pessimistic and hilariously expressive, Harvey opines, complains, confronts, and on those occasions when he sees or experiences something fine, appreciates. His humanity and curiosity are as intrinsic to his personality as his acerbic humor.

First published in 1976, Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” originated the autobiographical comic genre. A comic book about nothing more, and nothing less, than the everyday moments that comprise one man’s life, “American Splendor” is one of the most acclaimed comic books ever. It has influenced many leading contemporary comic book artists, including Gilbert Hernandez ( “Love & Rockets”) and Joe Sacco ( “Palestine”), who freely acknowledge their debt to Pekar’s naturalistic model. The series has also been recognized in general literary circles, and in 1987 “American Splendor” earned Pekar an American Book Award. In addition to his comic books, Pekar has written extensively about music and literature, frequently championing forgotten or overlooked artists. Meanwhile, he worked full-time at the Cleveland V.A. Hospital from 1966 until his retirement in 2001.

An issue of “American Splendor” will typically contain scenes from Pekar’s life: a search for a lost set of keys, say, or a conversation with his wife Joyce about his substandard dishwashing skills. And there’s more. There are vignettes about people Pekar has known in his life; street scenes he happened to witness; monologues about social, political and philosophical issues. Because he is not a cartoonist, Pekar has sought collaborators to illustrate his stories. Over the years, these illustrators have included such prominent artists as R. Crumb, Drew Friedman and Jim Woodring.

Pekar’s fans may not be legion, but they are passionate. One of them is producer Ted Hope, whose credits include such groundbreaking independent films as Happiness, The Brothers McMullen, The Wedding Banquet, The Ice Storm and In the Bedroom, along with recent films Lovely & Amazing and The Laramie Project.

Hope discovered Pekar’s work as a teenager, when he frequented the underground section of comic book stores. One day he picked up an issue of “American Splendor” that featured illustrations by the great R. Crumb and found a comic that was altogether different from any other he’d ever read. Recalls Hope, “It was immediately unique because it was an autobiography. And it was about the most mundane elements of life, and trying to find beauty and transcendence in the everyday.” Hope joined the loyal readership that devoured each new issue of “American Splendor” as it appeared on an approximately annual basis.

As far back as 1980, various attempts had been made to bring “American Splendor” to the screen. Hope had been approached about some of these projects, but never felt they captured the spirit of Pekar’s work. In 1998, the rights to “American Splendor” became available once again. Thanks to cartoonist/animator Dean Haspiel, who had worked with both Pekar and Hope, the necessary connection was forged. A deal soon followed.

But the right screenplay proved elusive. Hope found that the lifelike randomness that made “American Splendor” so special also made it a problematic prospect for adaptation. “There’s no real dramatic arc; it’s essentially small moments. What works as a six-panel, one or two-page comic in two dimensions, can’t sustain a whole movie.” A solution of sorts presented itself when Hope went to Cleveland to visit Pekar, his wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner, and their foster daughter Danielle. “It became clear that you couldn’t make a movie about Harvey without him being in it he is such a dynamic personality and so unique an individual, that he had to be part of it. The other thing that became clear was that it wasn’t just Harvey’s story; it was the story of him, Joyce and Danielle.”

Hope approached the filmmaking team of Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, known for their offbeat, perceptive documentaries Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s and The Young and the Dead. Berman & Pulcini had also written two much-admired screenplays about unusual real-life individuals, the Mexican composer and bandleader Esquivel and flamboyant Hollywood restaurateur Prince Michael Romanoff. And, like Pekar and Brabner, they were husband-and-wife collaborators. To Hope, the filmmakers seemed a perfect fit for a film about the life and work of Harvey Pekar, comic book realist. He sent them some issues of “American Splendor.”

As documentarians, Berman and Pulcini were impressed by the comic’s realistic representation of a working class life, an area they’d explored in their films. Moreover, those stories were filtered through Pekar’s acute, hilarious, and relentlessly candid sensibility. Comments Robert Pulcini, “There aren’t many great examples of an intensely real interior voice, where somebody’s documenting their life honestly. Harvey definitely does that. It’s so warts-and-all, and he’s so eager to express all of the negative aspects of his personality. He wears all his emotions on his sleeve; sometimes he’s horrible and sometimes he’s sentimental. I just loved that aspect of his character.”

Then there was the irresistible pull of Pekar himself unpolished, unpretentious, and defiantly unscripted as captured in a videotape of his appearances on David Letterman’s NBC television program. “That really cinched the deal for us,” Shari Berman reports of the Letterman footage. “We actually got to see Harvey Pekar, not just read about him in the comic book. We realized that he was an incredibly compelling individual, and we got hooked.”

Berman & Pulcini thoroughly familiarized themselves with Pekar and his work before starting the screenplay. They read and re-read 25 years of Pekar’s work and, after establishing a fluent phone relationship, the filmmakers spent a weekend with Pekar and Brabner in Cleveland. For their parts, Pekar and Brabner felt the filmmakers brought a specific and important understanding of the material. Comments Brabner, “We felt that we’d do really well with a husband-and-wife team, because this isn’t really just a story about this lone guy. It is a story about marriage and becoming a family.”

Returning to New York, Berman & Pulcini got to work on the screenplay. As they assembled their favorite vignettes from the comics, they began to hone in on a narrative framework. Explains Berman, “The thing we found as our guiding principle was the love story between a man and his art form, which was, in Harveys case, comic books. It’s about a man who found a life through comic books. He found a creative voice; he found some kind of fame; he found a purpose and a legacy, which was very important to him; he found a wife; he ended up finding a daughter and making a family; and he wound up beating a disease all through comic books.”

At the same time, Pekar and his comic books gave people something real and resonant, not to mention funny and entertaining. Pekar’s stories dealt with the simple things that cause most of us vexation, consternation or pleasure. His perspective spoke to anyone who ever felt like an outsider, or just plain stuck, says Pulcini. “To me, Harvey is kind of the patron saint of every creative person who’s been trapped in a dead-end job, but still finds a way to express themselves.”

American Splendor, the film, is as inventive and unbound as its subject. A formal hybrid, it combines adaptation, biopic, animation, and documentary elements. In integrating documentary footage and interviews, the film not only gives a glimpse of the real Harvey Pekar, it invokes the interest in typical day-to-day stuff that is so much a part of his work. ‚© New Line.

In a day of packaged artists and hi-tech special effects, there is something cathartic and refreshing about encountering a real human engaged in the stuff of real life. Authentic, eccentric characters are fading from the scene in today’s imitative, popular culture. Harvey Pekar is the real thing. Spending a couple of hours with him and his story is like spending time with my wife’s late step-father, Bob Kelley, a crusty but sweet LIFE magazine photographer with hundreds of stories to tell and time to tell them. Studs Terkel has spent a lifetime chronicling everyday people and being one himself. Amereican Splendor is like spedning a few hours with Studs at his house, surrounded by CD’s and books and half-read magazines, listening to non-stop colorful tales. This is the real deal.

HP’s worldview is cynical and outlook bleak, but he looks out for the less fortunate and is kind to the disenfranchised at the VA hospital where he worked. His selflessness is maddeningly mixed with a tunnel-visioned selfishness. A subtle pre-occupation with death and what happens when we die weaves itself through the storyline. In theological terms, being “saved” is less about being nice than being real and I couldn’t help but wondering why I meet so few “real” people among those who call themselves ‘saved.’ I like hanging with people like HP and I think Jesus would too.

Beliefs num
–Ordinary life is complicated.
–Being true to yourself and honest are the central virtues.
–Happiness is elusive and illusory.
–Each person has worth.
–Quirky, eccentrics are compelling and worth getting to know.
–Popular culture is a superficial, mond-numbing joke.

Questions Worth Discussing num
–What are the artistic merits of this film?
–What elements common to human experience did you resonate with in this film?
–What elements in word, deed, theme or behavior created a dissonance with who you are or want to be spiritually?
–What does this film tell us about who God is? Who humans are? What we are seeking in life?
–Would you rather conform or be yourself?
–Are you able to be true and honest in presenting yourself to other people or do you modify to fit in?
–Does knowing God and Jesus make ytou more real and authentic or more conformed?

Provocative Quotes byline
–ATTENTION: WE make every effort to assure the accuracy of provocative quotes. If you find an inaccurate quote please send corrections to culturewatch@dickstaub.com.
==CW EDITORS.
–That doesn’t sound like a super-hero to me.
==Lady at the door when HP trick-or-treats as himself.
–Why does everybody have to be so stupid?
==HP’s response to the lady.
–I’m not doin as good as you might think. My second wife divorced me, I work a dead-end job as a file clerk.
==HP.
–Don’t think I believe in any of this growth crap.
==HP’s resistance to being changed.
–Right now I’d be glad to change some growth for some happiness.
==HP on growing though hard times.
–I don’t have it any worse than a lot of people, but I pity myself more.
==HP.
–This could be more of an art form.
==HP sees potential of comics.
–Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.
==HP.
–This is really good. I dig it. This is great stuff¢â‚¬¦can I illustrate them?
==Crumb about HP’s stuff.
–Why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?
==Joyce when last copy of American Splendor sells out.
–Look. You might as well know right off the bat. I had a vasectomy.
==HP to Joyce at first meeting.
–I think we should just skip the whole courtship thing and just get married.
==Joyce to HP.
–I never felt more like a sell out hack in my life.
==HP before fateful Letterman meltdown.
–You should try believing in something bigger than yourself. It might cheer you up.
==Toby.
–Harvey’s also somebody who represents a real level of integrity. He never wanted to truly participate in mainstream culture; either by choice or force of personality, he often did not do that which might have helped him. He portrayed himself – and everyone in his life – with tremendous humanity and honesty. There’s no attempt to cover anything up, and no shame in saying who you are. I think that’s very inspiring.
==Ted Hope.
–Movies like this seem to come out of nowhere, like freestanding miracles. But “American Splendor” does have a source, and its source is Harvey Pekar himself–his life, and what he has made of it. The guy is the real thing. He found Joyce, who is also the real thing, and Danielle found them, and as I talked with her I could see she was the real thing, too.
==Roger Ebert.

Posted in Movies, Staublog in August 25, 2003 by | No Comments »

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