American Splendor

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

as well.

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

pretty dull.

To be fair, a lot of the narrative part of the film is in fact based on a comic

book: Our

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

better than other recent attempts

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.

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2 Responses to American Splendor

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