'American Splendor' makes a splendid movie

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Aug. 14, 2003 at 12:18 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Studios prefer movies like "Bad Boys II" that require few words to describe ("Things go Boom!"), while we critics favor films like "American Splendor" that need lots of words to explain, especially when one of those words is "postmodern." The irony is that "American Splendor" is a much more enjoyable film to watch than to read about.

So, what is "American Splendor?" It's not, as I had feared, the sequel to "American Beauty." Instead, it's an interwoven combination of documentary, biopic and animation about a prickly, semi-employable Cleveland hipster named Harvey Pekar.

Born in 1939, Pekar bounced from crummy job to crummy job while writing jazz reviews in his spare time. Finally, he got himself a lifetime civil service sinecure as a file clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital. He decided in 1976 that his daily life deserved to be immortalized in a series of underground comic books he called "American Splendor."

That Pekar can't draw anything besides stick figures didn't slow him down. He simply got his old pal R. Crumb, the "Keep on Truckin'" cartoonist, to illustrate what Crumb accurately calls Pekar's "staggeringly mundane" life. A marginal celebrityhood ensued, capped by numerous appearances on the Letterman Show and now this film.

In the movie, the real Pekar is shown commenting on Paul Giammati's fine performance as Pekar as he writes his comic books commenting on his life. And now I'm commenting on all that commentary. Whee! Ain't we postmodern?

Actually, this contemporary tendency toward commentaries piled upon commentaries seems more like a medieval throwback. Thirteenth Century churchmen and Talmudic scholars would have understood the 21st Century filmmakers' urge to say rather than show.

Over the past few years, voiceovers and other techniques borrowed from documentaries have become ever more common in feature films, such as the grating pseudo-Ken Burns interludes in "Seabiscuit." Fortunately, the husband-wife team of documentarists behind "American Splendor," Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, know how to use their bag of non-fiction tricks to keep this film lively without distracting the audience with their cleverness.

Giamatti, the dumpy-looking character actor whom you'll undoubtedly recognize from his many supporting roles, isn't particularly well-cast as Pekar -- he's too hangdog Italian to fully capture Pekar's leftwing Jewish intellectual's edginess -- but he gives Berman and Pulcini exactly what they want.

Interestingly, in real life Giamatti isn't at all the blue-collar schlub he usually portrays. A graduate of Choate Hall and Yale, he's a prince of the new American meritocracy. His father, the Renaissance literature scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti, was president of Yale and the commissioner of baseball who banned Pete Rose.

After admiring the film, I bought Pekar's own 1985 anthology of his comic books, figuring those would be even better. I was wrong.

It turns out that Berman and Pulcini are far more gifted than their subject. They've extracted the few moments of interest from Pekar's life and made them vivid.

As subject matter for dozens of comic books, however, Pekar's life story lacks only one element: incident. As a writer, he lacks only wit, insight, concision and timing. His stories are like a phone call from a self-absorbed acquaintance who insists on methodically telling you every single thing he did today.

They're comic books, but there's none of the usual humor or heroism, just a grumpy fellow riding the bus and having banal "How was your weekend?" conversations with the folks at work, often winding up with some little life lesson like, "As long as you got your health, things can't be all bad."

The joke is that there are no jokes. That wasn't a bad little joke back in 1976, but it got old in about 1977.

The filmmakers shied away from showing what's most striking about Pekar -- his bulletproof fascination with himself -- in favor of a mildly bogus populist portrayal of him as a working class hero.

"In the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes," said Andy Warhol, who has been famous for saying that for 35 years now. In reality, we live in an age of laboriously created brand names, which can then be exploited for decades. Pekar, for example, has been slaving for 27 years to make himself famous.

In his introduction to Pekar's book, Crumb wrote, "Yeah, Harvey is an egomaniac, a classic case ... But how else could he have gotten all those comics published? ... Only an egomaniac would persist in the face of such odds. Believe me, I know from whence I speak, having been nagged and bullied plenty by him to get the work in."

The truly interesting thing about Pekar is that he's representative of so many talentless avant-gardists who somehow convince themselves that they have something upon which lots of other people ought to spend their precious time.

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