Hey folks, Harry here… Underground Comix are one of the great joys on this planet, one that unfortunately… many in the world have not experienced. Most folks that know of Harvey Pekar, probably know of him via either his Letterman appearances long ago or his radio show. However, they are missing the glory that is AMERICAN SPLENDOR. A comic with his brilliant narrative and the illustrative talents of gods like Robert Crumb (you know him), Paul Mavrides (co-artist with Gilbert Shelton on some of the genius that is THE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROS.) and Frank Stack (those wonderful NEW ADVENTURES OF JESUS!) While I’m dying to see this film, having been a reader of AMERICAN SPLENDOR – pretty much all my life… at least since STAR WARS entered the world, I have one thing that I’m dying to see more than this flick… Next year’s edition of AMERICAN SPLENDOR – which will deal with Pekar’s experiences at Sundance, Cannes and whatnot. Could be AMAZING stuff. His Blog at http://www.harveypekar.com has been pretty great through all of this. Here’s the trailers and VERN’s take on the film which has won awards at both Sundance and Cannes.
Vern here still at the Seattle International Film Festival which is a very good film festival to go to in my opinion, because you just have to take the bus to get there. If you live in Seattle.
Anyway here’s the deal, I know you guys are still arguing about “is the Incredible Hulk phoney looking or not” and etc. but I got another comic book movie that is gonna blow you fuckers through the back of the theater. You thought Huge Ackman was born to play Wolverine, you thought Wesley Snipes redefined comic book acting with his performance in Blade, well what about Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR? His super powers involve that he writes a comic book, he is a file clerk at a hospital, etc. This is a great performance and a good movie and why are you looking at me so blankly. It won sundance man come on. Did spider-man ever win sundance? Did snoopy ever win sundance? Not even once, in my opinion.
I don’t know if you kids are old enough to remember but this was the type of comic strips that adults were allowed to read before the invention of the internet changed all the social mores and what not and it was considered okay to be nostalgic for your spiderman underoos as long as you called it “graphic novels” instead of “children’s comic books about guys dressed up as animals flying around shooting laser beams”. Back then there were grown adults – usually sexually deviant obsessive compulsive weirdos who collected 78rpm records – who liked to draw but were sick of all that superman shit. So they invented what was called “underground comics” and you would buy the underground comics from the same hippie that you bought your bong from. The most famous was Robert Crumb of Fritz the Cat and “keep on truckin” bumper sticker fame. You know him from the documentary CRUMB and there’s an actor playing him in parts of this movie.
But the movie is about Harvey Pekar who based on my limited memory of the subject I would say was probaly the number two most famous from this period. To this day this guy writes a comic called American Splendor which is just about his life. He’s just a regular guy, like you or I, he can’t even draw. But he happens to know alot of individuals who can draw and they take turns illustrating the stories of his life. He kept his day job as a file clerk until retirement and he was real miserable but he was able to filter his frustrations and observations into writing this thing. If you heard of him before it might’ve been because he used to be on Letterman all the time which you will also see in this movie. But he was kind of embarassed to be on TV and said he was just doing it “for the extra bread.”
Well the movie is based on some of the stories from the comic strip which are based on his life and therefore what you got here is a biography. The story of how Harvey got started writing the underground comics, how he met his wife and how he found his place in life. It’s weird – things happened to him, he wrote them down, somebody else drew a comic based on it, now they made this movie based on the comic masquerading as the real things that happened to him that inspired the comic. The filmatists are aware of this strange problem with reality so they took an unusual approach to the movie by having the real Harvey narrate instead of Paul Giamatti, the actor who is playing Harvey. The real Harvey sometimes even comments on the actor Harvey not being him, and in fact the camera often cuts away to the real Harvey, or his wife, or his friend Tobey (from the KILLER NERD movies) in real interviews.
That might sound like a cheap gimmick but it works well because when you see the real people you realize how accurately the actors portray them. It’s especially helpful with Tobey who comes across as such a cartoon it’s hard to believe he’s a real guy. He talks alot like the comic book store owner from “the simpsons” cartoon but he looks more like the ’80s “revenge of the nerds” style nerd. In fact my favorite scene in the movie is where he goes to REVENGE OF THE NERDS and talks about how much it empowers him, inspiring Harvey to launch into a great rant about how phoney the movie is. Nothing like a passionate argument between people who take REVENGE OF THE NERDS way too seriously in two different ways.
Showing us the real people also helps to (mostly) avoid one of the big mistakes they always make in biography movies. Paul Giamatti was also in MAN ON THE MOON, that Milos Forman movie where Jim Carrey played the famous wrestler Andy Kaufman. That was an okay movie I guess but there were so many parts where they had to re-create tv appearances from Saturday Night Live or David Letterman. They had to have Letterman playing himself 20 years younger or have some famous person play some other famous person and of course have Jim Carrey try to re-enact what Andy Kaufman did or said on that show even though we’ve already seen it and know that it didn’t go down quite like that. It’s just distracting and makes you wish you were watching a documentary instead.
Well since AMERICAN SPLENDOR has already shown us the actor Harvey and the real Harvey (and since people always draw Harvey differently anyway) they can have actor Harvey walk into the NBC studios and then cut to real Harvey on the real footage of him on Letterman. Unfortunately the one you really want to see, where Harvey blows up on Letterman and starts talking about NBC being owned by weapons manufacturers, they must not have been given the rights to, because when they get to that one they have to do a flimsy re-creation with a fake Letterman, making you wonder how much of it was really said and how Letterman really reacted.
Oh well what can you do. Despite that I thought this was a real good movie. It doesn’t really get as deep into Harvey’s life and mind as his comic strips do, because it is trying to cover more ground in less time. But it’s a good understated story about a miserable pessimistic balding hairy lonely dude trying to find happiness and meaning and being semi-successful at it. And it’s a story about real people, people who are not attractive or hip in any way, and people who are not always nice. The relationship between Harvey and his wife Joyce (played by Hope Davis) is so real and not Hollywood. You definitely know somebody like Joyce the way she’s portrayed in this movie but you probaly haven’t seen anyone like her in a movie before. And it’s a sweet relationship without being too idealized. There definitely seem to be problems in their marriage but that makes it more touching when they do come through for each other.
Harvey is a real funny character. He’s not as perverted or racially screwy as Crumb, he’s more a regular schlub who walks around in an undershirt and scratches himself alot. He thinks of himself as a real loser and yet wins us over and becomes a success because of all those horrible things he thinks about himself. He’s a smart guy and he seems to have good taste in jazz which helps out for the soundtrack of the movie (lots of Dizzie Gillespie, a little John Coltrane).
I think alot of people can relate to this guy, the way he always says he hates his life and his job but then doesn’t ever quit his job when he could. And the way he finds an amazing level of success in comic books, but then thinks everything he’s done is worthless as soon as his wife starts going to Jerusalem to work on a serious political comic. I don’t think this dude is ever gonna be entirely happy, and that’s why we all love him.
I saw Richard Roeper review this movie on the Ebert & Jackass show this weekend and for some reason he compared it to “reality tv.” I don’t bring this up for any reason except to say that that fuckin guy is getting more and more random every week. Yes, Harvey Pekar did non-fiction before reality tv. They even had a word for it, “autobiography.” Also, there was a little girl who wrote a journal, and there was a non-fiction section at the library in my hometown. I’m talkin YEARS before they started doing “reality” shows about a gal trying to go on dates with guys in different colored rubber masks.
Anyway I thought AMERICAN SPLENDOR was a good one. I heard SIFF was gonna be weak this year but I’ve seen way more movies than before and I got a good score card going. Lots of real good ones and no complete duds.
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/15406