October 9, 2003

American Splendor

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It’s a little odd seeing a movie at Fall Creek Cinema by yourself on a Sunday afternoon. First, seeing a movie by yourself is always a little weird. Movies are usually such a social event that going by myself makes me feel a little bit like a loser with no friends (shut up). Fall Creek Cinema is a little bit odd just all by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I love it there, as walking down that hallway lined with movie posters is always entertaining. But if you’ve been there, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, well, go and tell me how you’d describe it. It’s the stale popcorn and Milk Duds, tickets used by old church ladies holding raffles, and movie theatres in the corner of the building, on an angle, that really do it for me. Though the oddest part was being a girl sitting all by myself, and a fairly young one at that. When I walked in, there were three older men just sitting there, each by themselves, a good 20 minutes early. I’m not sure if it’s a Saturday afternoon thing, something to do with the movie, or both that resulted in my being the minority of the audience. Well, no matter really, because once the lights went down, I completely stopped worrying about this phenomenon and was instead transported to the action-packed streets of Cleveland.

That’s right folks, this movie is about the dull and stultifying world of Harvey Pekar, comic book author, filing clerk, and Cleveland native. Played immaculately by Paul Giamatti and also by the real Harvey Pekar, we watch movie Pekar go through his life as a tired, cranky, and now that he’s famous, eccentric fellow. See, before we just called him crazy, but now, he’s eccentric.

The film is a hybrid of biography, documentary, memoir, comic book, and regular movie. The viewer is introduced to Harvey while he’s at his lowest: he has nodules on his vocal cords preventing him from speaking properly and his second wife has just left him. Not exactly your typical hero, but Harvey is not your typical guy. As a child, he couldn’t even conform to the societal norm of dressing up for Halloween. While his friends were decked out in Superman costumes, he just stood there in his regular clothes, marvelling at everyone else’s stupidity.

Harvey isn’t a mean guy, he just doesn’t get along all that well with most people, or, for that matter, get along all that well with life. All around him he sees the mediocrity of life and rages at it, especially at his own inability to overcome this mediocrity. This is a man who recognizes how plain and ugly and bizarre life is, and how utterly inept most people are at doing their little dance with it. Harvey is an intellectual who reads everything, collects a lot of junk, and doesn’t want to change with the times.

Enter comic books, something that Harvey can really get his head around. He meets Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) while they’re both shopping for records at a garage sale. From then on, Harvey and Crumb are lifelong friends, and eventually it’s Crumb who Harvey first shows his rough comic sketches to. Harvey can’t draw to save his life, so Crumb offers to illustrate Harvey’s stories, the stories that eventually become American Splendor, a must-have for all hip underground comic fiends. The stories in the comics are based on the mundane, peculiar days that constitute Harvey’s life. He is first struck by the inspiration fairy for his comic while standing in line behind an old Jewish woman at the grocery store. Hilarity ensues from there. No, really.

As mentioned above, this movie crosses boundaries, shifting from the fictional portrayal of Harvey’s life to the real Harvey providing the voice-over for the movie. This happens frequently: real Harvey blended into fake Harvey. An example of this is when Harvey appears on Late Night with David Letterman to pump his books, and for a few laughs. Backstage, fake Harvey is nervous and pacing and acting like the gruff humbug he is. Once he gets onstage, a clip from Letterman is played showing real Harvey sitting beside Letterman. At another point in the movie, a scene in the VA hospital where Harvey works ends only to have real Harvey start chatting with fake Harvey. Soon, a real friend of Harvey’s, Toby Radloff, enters, and has a conversation with real Harvey. Eventually we see real Harvey and real Toby having a conversation while fake Harvey and fake Toby (Judah Friedlander) watch with amusement.

This blending of fiction and reality is an interesting way to approach the film. It manages to parallel the process by which the bits and pieces of Harvey’s real life are converted into his comic book. Here, yet another layer is added by portraying the characters from his comic book as fictional characters in a movie.

See this movie if you want a searching and searing look at Harvey Pekar’s life. It is one of the most engrossing and stimulating movies that I’ve seen this year. And honestly, seeing this movie in the same theatre as a bunch of thirty-something single guys who had nothing better to do that afternoon was weirdly appropriate. They’re probably the next Harveys.

Archived article by Sue Karp

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