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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - American Splendor

eclectic reviews and opinions

American Splendor

2003, D & S: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

American Splendor the movie is a weird duck. Harvey Pekar's comic book of the same name, under the banners "From Off the Streets of Cleveland" and "Ordinary Life is Pretty Complex Stuff" inspired a whole generation of what became known as confessional comics. It had no spandex and or superpowers like the Marvel and DC offerings, and no surreal id-fests like the underground comix. It just had Harvey, the weirdly winning curmudgeonly file clerk, living a carefully examined life of quiet desperation. Unlike almost anyone else in comics in the '70s, Pekar became famous as a writer, not an artist. American Splendor could be drawn by anybody; the authorial voice was the constant. But not even comics are immune to the laws of quantum physics: the act of observing changes that which is observed. Pekar continued to write about his life, but his life began to include producing issues of American Splendor. By degrees, as with rock musicians who write songs about the touring lifestyle, American Splendor became less what it set out to be. It made Pekar's complex life less ordinary. He goes to some pains to show that he is still a regular schmoe on his blog right now you can read him grumbling about needing to bug arts and entertainment editors to assign him $25 record reviews but eventually he became the sort of regular schmoe who flies to New York to be on the David Letterman show, which is not all that regular. Pekar even wrote about his eventual tiff with Letterman in the comic, which offers a very different sort of appeal, at one level, than writing about his co-workers or his love life.

The film is keenly aware of this duality. It's not primarily the story of Harvey Pekar; it's the story of Harvey Pekar's comic book American Splendor (which is about Harvey Pekar, but which is also itself about the comic book American Splendor). It's layered like Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. The most significant figures Pekar, his wife Joyce, his uber-nerd friend Toby, his adopted daughter Danielle both appear in the film themselves and are portrayed by actors, and even drawings, in the film. In one of the most telling scenes, Pekar grumbles that actor Paul Giamatti doesn't look like him, but not only is Giamatti's physical resemblance striking, his voice slightly wheezy, a little petulant is so dead-on that when the speaking voice isn't on-camera, you're not always completely sure which is the real Harvey. The camera will pull back from a tight shot on something a Jelly Belly, say in a dramatization and all of a sudden you will realize that the camera is on an undressed sound stage, on which the real Toby Radloff is looking right at the actor playing him or is that vice versa?

Although the way the story is told is itself interesting and unusual, it doesn't detract from the fact that it is an interesting and unusual story. Through all of its twists, it's always informed by the voice of Pekar grumpy, sometimes uncomfortably candid, trenchant, mythologizing himself without idealization. And it's the voice that, no matter how self-referential it may become, continues to make American Splendor (comic, stage play, movie, Web log, Nintendo game, whatever) an entertaining and compelling experience, and recommended even for folks who aren't necessarily comics fans.

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