I’m not entirely sure what the "dog days of summer" are, but if they
exist, then surely these are they. The papers are already running summer-movie
post-mortems, but the big, serious autumn films have yet to be released:
in the middle, around this Labor Day weekend, lies a dreadful doldrums where
nothing of interest seems to be showing at all.
Still, especially on hot, wet and dreary weekend evenings, a lot of people
still want to go to the movies. Thus did Michelle and I find ourselves at the
almost-sold-out 5:30 showing of American
Splendor at the Sunshine. This is a film which is gathering
a lot of steam and looks set to do very well: it’s already showing in no
fewer than seven places in Manhattan alone. Whether that’s because it’s very
good or because everything else is very bad is not clear, however.
Michelle wasn’t easily sold on the idea: we wound up basically going by default,
our only other option being Northfork
at the Screening Room. "I’m not sure I want to see a comic book movie,"
said Michelle, instantly creating a genre which would probably include The
Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and might or might not include Terry
Zwigoff’s Ghost World
The main nod of the head in American Splendor, however, is to Zwigoff’s
Crumb, the documentary
about the doyen of the underground comics scene. It’s fitting, since American
Splendor, true to its source material, is just as much documentary as it
is feature film.
Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar,
the author of American Splendor, the comic book which brought real,
working-class life in Cleveland to a world previously characterised by superheroes
and adolescent fantasies. Since Pekar is the main character in all of his comics,
he’s necessarily the main character in the film, as well. And since Pekar-the-comic-book-character
is drawn by all manner of different artists, looking very different every time,
it’s perfectly fine for us to see Pekar-the-actual-man up on screen, once even
sharing the frame with Giamatti.
American Splendor (the comic book) purports to tell true stories about
real life, but it does so through the curmudgeonly eyes of Pekar. Pekar’s wife,
Joyce (played in the movie by Hope Davis) is interviewed in the film, and talks
of episodes which make it into print only after being shorn of all their upbeat
characteristics: the comic strip has a decidedly pessimistic view of life. Pekar
is a glass-half-empty kinda guy; he even takes some kind of wry pleasure in
Joyce’s misapprehension, when they got engaged after knowing each other for
barely a week, that he had a sense of humour.
The problem with American Splendor (the film) is that it’s constantly
torn between being a portrait of Pekar the man and being a representation of
Pekar as Pekar sees himself, both in real life and in the comic book. Some of
that conflict turns up in the subject matter: while the minutiae of working-class
Cleveland existence can make for great material in a comic book devoted to detailed
observations, they are much less compelling when they appear on screen. So in
the movie, we get a lot of emphasis on Pekar’s career as a comic book artist
– something which is ultimately peripheral to the comic book itself.
More importantly, the filmmakers clearly don’t have faith in the audience to
be able to see through an unreliable narrator. For all that Pekar is a miserable
old grouch, they want to show us that he actually has a loving wife and adopted
daughter, as well as appreciative friends: the film ends with footage of his
retirement bash at work, and a horribly saccharine hug with his family. Even
if this is a genuine slice of real life and not something created mainly for
the cameras, it still violates the spirit of the comic book and of Pekar’s outlook
on life – which must be the driving force behind creating the film in
the first place.
The film uses a lot of comic-book devices, especially in framing its scenes.
Sometimes, drawn characters interact with the people on screen; often, comic-book-style
headers will announce where we are in the action. Giamatti is shown in profile
a lot, with a hangdog expression, looking for all the world like a drawn character
as opposed to a three-dimensional person. But the similarities between the original
and the adaptation seem to stop at the surface level: deeper down, the filmmakers
clearly felt that it would be in some sense helpful if they could provide the
objectivity which Pekar’s work never even aspired to.
Filming reality, however, means losing a vital part of why the movie was made
in the first place. The eureka moment – the point at which Pekar becomes
a comic-book writer – is straight out of the pages of cliché: he’s
standing behind a little old lady at the supermarket who insists on paying with
a pile of coupons. It’s the kind of observation which was stale back in the
1950s, and it gives us no idea about what it is that really made Pekar’s work
so popular. And although there are a couple of episodes with Pekar’s colleagues
which do touch on the appeal of the work, they’re rare, crowded out of the picture
by the demands of a narrative. Pekar takes up comic-book writing, gains a wife,
gets cancer, gains a daughter: the kind of beginning-middle-end which is really
To be fair, a lot of the narrative part of the film is in fact based on a comic
Cancer Year, which was written by Pekar and his wife, thereby getting both
of them writing credits on the movie. The book even performs some narrative
heavy-lifting of its own: rather than us seeing Pekar at his low point during
the treatment, we cut from scenes of Giamatti and see instead the way the book
portrays Pekar feeling as though he’s got ants crawling under his skin.
But all of the parallel story of the book – which has to do with the
1991 Gulf War – is lost, and in general it seems that the appeal of Pekar
and his comics is exactly the thing which has been jettisoned by filmmakers
desperate to inject some structure into what is basically unstructured source
material. Pekar’s a trees man, while the filmmakers are more about forests,
and the result is a slightly unhappy neither-one-thing-nor-the-other.
That said, the performances are excellent, and the film is surely infinitely
at adapting comic book material for the screen. In those cases, however, you
could see how the source material would lend itself to Hollywood. In the case
of American Splendor, one exits the cinema wondering why, exactly,
anybody thought this film was a good idea in the first place.