Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Review by Rich Watts
Posted on 03 December 2004
Source Optimum Home Entertainment DVD
American Splendor is a meta-reality film, by which I mean to suggest that it is neither fiction, reality nor anything identifiably in between. The real world—with real people and real places—meets the world of comic books—with representations of real people and real places—and takes it out for dinner in a fictional, make-believe world—where actors portray real people and sets recreate real places. It is an occasionally confusing though ultimately impressive film whose visual stylisation and amusing narrative wonderfully reflect the “in-betweeness” of every reality presented to the beguiled viewer.
The film introduces Harvey Pekar, a regular guy living in industrial Cleveland, Ohio. His mundane life, routine job and unsuccessful relationships all leave Pekar with an overwhelming sense of the ordinary: Harvey Pekar is the definition of the “everyman.” Growing tired of his life and wondering what his legacy will be, Pekar creates a comic, entitled “American Splendor,” which his friend and well-known animator Robert Crumb draws for him. After self-publishing it, the comic becomes a success and Pekar a cult figure, becoming the focus of media and cultish attention for the very reasons from which he wrote the comic to escape: his remarkable irritability, mundaneness, and the reality of his everyday life.
The challenge presented to writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini is one of the medium: how to present the bleak, dead-end industrialisation of Cleveland and Harvey Pekar and transform it into the inspiration for a comic book? Furthermore, how can they portray the central importance of the comic books and their style to Pekar’s life using the medium of film? And on top of that, how do they portray Pekar and his friends: as actors or as themselves?
The wonderful opening sequence answers many of these questions, blending comic book frames, drawing styles and captions with film sequences, clever camerawork and dialogue. Employing a template used elsewhere in comic book adaptations (see: Spider-Man, Hulk, etc.), a shot of Pekar walking down the street, for example, is frozen and a comic book frame imposed around it, with a small caption appearing as the frame becomes part of a (drawn) comic strip. The camera pans across this strip until it focuses on the next image, which then comes alive and shows the next slice of action—often in a different time and place. In such a way does the opening sequence tell us everything that it is required to do so and, more importantly, immediately marries the mediums of comic books and film in the mind of the viewer.
The success of this marriage, however, is soon subsumed by something of a masterstroke: having watched the excellent Paul Giamatti mope about the screen as Pekar for 20 minutes or so, hands firmly in pockets as he shuffles along the grainy streets during a moaning voiceover, the screen cuts to an old man sitting in a bright white room with headphones on, dictating the very same voiceover we are listening to: this is the real Harvey Pekar!
Furthermore, other real-life characters are revealed behind the scenes, amused and perplexed by the process of filmmaking going on in front of them, and so ensues a duality to American Splendor that reflects the relationship of Pekar and his chums to the comics—and now film—that represent their lives. In terms of narrative and point of view, this is the chief innovation of American Splendor.
This reality within a fiction within a reality is utilised throughout American Splendor to amuse and occasionally confuse the viewer, most notably on three occasions. First, Pekar and his wife fly to Los Angeles to watch a stage play based on the comic book of Harvey’s life. Second, we see Harvey’s appearance on the David Letterman show in which the actor Paul Giamatti prepares in the green room only for the real Harvey Pekar to walk out onto the Late Night set (using old archive footage). Finally, after the completion of a take, Giamatti and Judah Friedlander as Pekar’s borderline autistic friend Toby repair to their on-set seats, only to spy on and be amused by the real Pekar and Toby discussing the very same subject they have just finished discussing on film.
Thus, the white background of “behind the scenes” is important because it not only presents a blank canvas on which anything can be projected but also a strange allusion to The Matrix, whose realities are as unreal as anything you care to consider. The effect of all this is one of stepping into a hall of mirrors at a fairground: all around are the images of the same people, though we are never sure who the real ones are.
Thus the boundary between fact and fiction is effectively blurred beyond recognition, creating a meta-reality that the viewer must attempt to reconcile. But such a clever, multi-layered framework provides for the exploration of the theme that Pekar and his comics represent: that of the individual who is unhappy with his lot, disenchanted with his job, his life and everything that surrounds him.
Pekar’s brief discussion of Theodore Dreiser’s book “Jenny Gerhardt” has a sad resonance to it: in Pekar’s words, it is a book about “someone getting crushed to earth by forces he cannot control.” This is Pekar talking at the end of the 1970s, a time when America was questioning itself over Vietnam and moving into the “greed is good” era of the 1980s. But just as the factory workers of Pennsylvania in The Deer Hunter were seemingly disenchanted and felt like they were left behind something, so Pekar, in industrial Cleveland, finds himself left behind as the rest of America embraced ambition and all its rewards. All are individuals imposed upon by forces they cannot control.
This theme finds its expression and climax in Toby’s 260 mile round-trip to see his favourite film, Revenge of the Nerds. Whilst Toby sees the film as a victory for the nerds of which he obviously identifies with, Pekar rants that these on-screen representatives of nerds are not representative at all—but merely the successful once again exploiting the weak for their own amusement. When Pekar appears on David Letterman, or Toby performs his geek-routine on the fledgling MTV, people aren’t laughing with them—they are laughing at them. It is this feeling that motivates Pekar in his creation of “American Splendor” and, ironically, brings him to the attention of the successful.
The directors Berman and Pulcini are better known for their documentary work, though in American Splendor have created a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction that defies categorisation. With the real Harvey Pekar never far away, Paul Giamatti offers a study in comb-over grumpiness and loserdom, which delights in its accuracy. Always about its own star, though, American Splendor has seen Harvey Pekar turn himself into a comic book hero; but whereas The Incredibles are heroes that have forgotten how to use their superpowers, Pekar never had any special qualities in the first place, except for his ordinary life and his ordinary thoughts. It is these qualities that have made him a hero to so many and provided a way of life, of which American Splendor is an amusing celebration.