Home / Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor: Stick Figure Finds His Voice

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor: Stick Figure Finds His Voice

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Harvey Pekar is an exceptional sort of blue-collar hipster. He’s a college dropout with a highly developed interest in classic jazz recordings, literature, and comic books, and one who’s suspicious of anything “co-opted” by Establishment institutions, but unlike the Counterculture generation which followed his, he didn’t develop a lifestyle to match his interests. Instead, he began working as a file clerk in a V.A. Hospital in his home town of Cleveland in 1966 and stayed at the job until his retirement in 2001. Unlike his friend the artist Robert Crumb, who was also born before the Baby Boom and whom he met while buying old records at a garage sale, he did not remove himself to a youth culture hub and become an icon to a younger set. He never even developed a personal style to express his unusual tastes and thoughts. In the ’80s David Letterman told him on camera that he looks like a man you’d see sleeping on the bus.

Pekar is not, however, a contentedly little man. He’s a grouser whose mind fixates on irritations (forgetting his keys; getting stuck behind an argumentative, bargain-hunting old Jewish lady in a grocery store line) but he’s also an observer with an ear for intriguing oddities (the distinctive conversation of two of his loquacious co-workers; a random exchange he overhears between two guys hauling a mattress to a dumpster). He nets details like a standup who constructs routines from all the little things that go wrong in a day, all the weird little things that people do, but without the slickness. Life never feels normal or very satisfying to him, and though he’s all wound up about it he has a connoisseur’s appreciation of its weirdness.

In American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini‘s terrific movie about him, Paul Giamatti playing Pekar rattles his grocery cart when the old lady argues with the cashier at the grocery store, but he stomps out without having interfered effectively, vented adequately, or bought anything. Generally his sense of powerlessness attacks his voice; when life is very stressful it gets fainter and scratchier until he has no way to communicate at all. The funniest scene shows him trying to keep his second wife from leaving him when he sounds like an emphysemic doggie squeak toy.

As Pekar explains in this Time Online Edition interview with Andrew D. Arnold, he loved comic books, like most American boys of his generation. In the movie, when he gets really frustrated in the early ’70s he begins to illustrate his life in cartoon frames. His concept is so basic–putting into his narrative all the details that other writers leave out and taking out of his narrative all the superheroics of most comic books–that he can convey his idea in pencilled stick figures. Although such a comic book might have been amusing to read, it’s not a loss that Crumb offered to illustrate the stories. At that instant in the movie Pekar’s voice returns to normal. The stories, illustrated in turn by Crumb and other artists, have been published annually since 1976 as American Splendor.

In silhouette Pekar is a schlub, a comic sadsack. But the movie doesn’t make him loveably harmless, the way Woody Allen presents himself in Take the Money and Run (1969) and Play It Again, Sam (1972). Pekar is too prickly for that, and though he’s Jewish he doesn’t have the runt’s paranoia about goyim and bigger, more successful men. Nor does the movie make him pitiably loveable, like Ernest Borgnine in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty (1955), or Pruitt Taylor Vince in James Mangold’s Heavy (1995), a more sophisticated version of the same approach. The point is that the movie isn’t emotional, thank God for once. Berman and Pulcini aren’t trying to get you to feel a particular way about their protagonist but to get you to see his story they way he sees it.

The squeaky response to his wife’s departure, the stick figures, and the sequence in which Pekar and his wife heatedly argue about whether Revenge of the Nerds (1984) is just another Hollywoodization of marginal experience or whether it will be the equivalent for nerds of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, might suggest that American Splendor is a work of irony, but it isn’t, really. Pekar’s aesthetic doesn’t have the necessary detachment. Some of the characters, especially Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), the nerdy co-worker the Pekars see Revenge with, are as loopy as in a Christopher Guest comedy, but they’re presented straight-on, without implied held-in laughter (or the alienated iciness of hipper forms of irony). One of the best qualities of American Splendor is that it doesn’t assume that “we” are of a different species from the dysfunctional people on screen. They’re not so passively “seen” as that.

The movie’s Pekar has a discussion about Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and like Dreiser he becomes committed to representing exactly what his life is like, which makes him straightforwardly heroic in a way true to his unvarnished idea of representation and impossible for an ironic protagonist. Pekar has cited Henry Miller as an inspiration but though he’s a truth-teller, he isn’t a flagrant wallower like Miller, or a Whitmanesque visionary. He doesn’t seek an elevation above the mundane. It thus makes sense that Pekar keeps a weblog. His webpage features a cartoon of him with a dialogue bubble reading, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff!”

The movie begins, in fact, with young Harvey trick-or-treating as himself alongside little boys dressed as comic book superheroes. When a woman is confused by what he’s supposed to “be,” Harvey gives up in disgust and kicks his way down the street alone. This opening doesn’t have the practiced-comic punch of the young Alvy Singer’s Coney Island childhood scenes in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), but it has a much bigger payoff in the conception of the movie. The point of Pekar’s comic books, and of Berman and Pulcini’s movie, is that there should be a niche for artists simply to tell you what life is really like, without superhuman heroes, inflated rhetoric, florid symbolism, and pumped-up battles over polarized values.

Of course, Pekar’s attitude isn’t a reasoned proposal that there be such a niche, it’s an outburst of depressive disgust that you even have to tell people there ought to be such a niche. This also means that the comics and the movie aren’t just examples of naturalism; the subject of both is in part the choice of narrative genre, of naturalism over romance and melodrama. Pekar is a natural-born naturalist and this movie, at once a tribute to him, a documentary about him, and an illustration of his life and work, serves as a reprieve from the mass-marketed heroic conventions of big-movie entertainment.

Pekar does compact his observations in comic book frames, but he doesn’t package them in the way we’re used to. That’s why his appearances on Letterman were so buggy and heated. The moviemakers generally don’t recreate the Letterman appearances but show the actual footage, and Pekar is not like the usual talk show guest, desperate to seem in on the joke in order to peddle his wares more effectively. Pekar is (rightly) suspicious of Letterman’s attitude toward him and hence combative. He picks a fight before Letterman has even begun to smarm him. The “magic” is that Pekar’s combativeness makes him an even better butt for Letterman. He’s so serious he can’t sell himself at all. His prickliness is inseparable from his integrity, and he can’t sell that, either, though it is a Hollywood trope. Selling it requires an assumption of dignity not in Pekar’s repertoire. He’s a permanent, rumpled drop-out, and it’s fascinating to watch a movie catch a quality that isn’t catchable by movies, or by what Pekar means by “Hollywood.”

Pekar and Crumb are much less comfortable with their success, and the media distribution networks that have made it possible, than most Counterculture icons. It always feels compromising to them, as if they must have sold out if a lot of people like them. (They don’t distinguish between selling and selling out.) James Urbaniak, who impersonates Crumb, is especially good at embodying this without “putting it over.” He keeps his head down over his sketch pad to indicate that the main relationship is always with his work and that the audience and institutions of distribution are a baneful necessity to be tolerated. Even his slight drawl suggests his total skepticism about anything outside his work.

American Splendor treads tactfully around this, innovatively combining animation, documentary techniques (both period footage and current interviews with the real Pekar), and dramatic reenactments, but without losing the feel of entertainment. (Berman and Pulcini are a married couple whose previous works include such documentaries about Hollywood culture as Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s (1997) and The Young and the Dead (2002), which is about the transformation of the bankrupt Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, where such celebrities as Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Paul Muni, Bugsy Siegel, and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer are buried, into the interactive, “sexy,” and profitable (which is the sexiest thing of all in Southern California) Hollywood Forever.) American Splendor is a good time without being coarse or obvious and the casual handling of Pekar’s relationship with Crumb is especially good. Crumb’s disappearance from Pekar’s Cleveland life and Pekar’s resultant loneliness is conveyed in a beautifully simple fade.

I have to say, however, that while American Splendor is entertaining, the subject has escaped the makers a bit. The key is in the Letterman appearances featuring the real Harvey Pekar. The movie honors Pekar by not going in for suspense: we aren’t made to feel he’s blowing his big chance by being so hostile, or to feel like he’s won the lottery when his hostility pays off with an invitation to return to the show. But it also makes you aware that there’s something in Pekar that the movie can’t get at any other way than by showing the man himself.

Paul Giamatti does inspired work as the cartoon version of Pekar. With his fried-egg eyes and his schlumpy carriage, Giamatti looks as if he’s got one of those individual-portion black clouds that depressed cartoon characters walk under. The moviemakers haven’t brightened up Pekar’s character or life and yet Giamatti rounds the contours, dampens Pekar’s aggression. (He’s recognizably Pekar, but he’s also Charlie Brown.) It’s surely the fullest performance ever given by an American cartoon character, but it doesn’t have the resistance-to-capture that the real Pekar shows on Letterman. Giamatti as Pekar is more representation than man, which is a bit of a failure when naturalism is your ideal.

This is just to say that the movie doesn’t go beyond the comic books, it merely animates them. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot. But the movie seems a little meandering, especially toward the end, and I’m certainly not someone who gets antsy when there isn’t a gun battle every twenty minutes. Part of the problem is the introduction of Pekar’s third wife Joyce Brabner, played by Hope Davis. Davis always has an air of defensiveness and is a bit remote–sometimes she looks like a burrowing rodent just come up into the sunlight for the first time this season. Her role as Joyce uses this quality better than any other movie has. Joyce has as many peculiarities as Pekar, maybe more, but luckily for her she’s combative enough to avoid being drawn entirely into his story. This means that she gets depressed until she comes up with projects of her own, which involve getting children in her life.

The movie mostly resists the impulse to present the Pekars’ story as a journey to wholeness (it gets soft, understandably, only when it introduces the child for whom they serve as guardians), but there’s another, subtler, problem. The movie never gets “behind” Harvey Pekar. It dramatizes his view of life and even more his view of what comic book narratives should be. It does much less with the semi-fictional Joyce–she is just a character in Pekar’s comic book (a perception the actual Joyce seems less than enchanted with in her documentary-interview appearance in the movie).

This presents the same problem for Davis that it does in Alan Rudolph’s Secret Lives of Dentists. In that movie, Campbell Scott as her husband suspects her of cheating but does not want to find out whether he’s right. He’s a slightly frightening control freak and when control doesn’t accomplish what he wants he begins hallucinating a Doppelgänger, played by Denis Leary, who can express anger (which actually takes the husband to a new, more purely masculine, form of control, making him even scarier). It’s bad enough for Scott that Leary gets to play all the recesses of his character and gets all the good lines. But it’s worse for Davis that the script doesn’t tell us any more about the wife than her husband glimpses
or guesses.

While you may often wonder what makes the willowy Davis so mopey, she is not a fascinating creature. She’s not openly sensual enough for that. Neither is she a waif, at least, but then she lacks the man’s-woman directness that makes Helen Hunt appealing. (Hunt is among the least girlish American movie stars ever; she makes even Cameron Diaz seem coy.) Davis is there and not there, but not in a way that makes audiences wonder where she might be instead. Because it doesn’t develop the wife’s side of the marriage, The Secret Lives of Dentists seems protracted by an hour; it would have made a wonderful short.

Joyce wouldn’t have to be fascinating but she’s in the movie too much not to have more dimensions. She needed either to be a cartoon or a woman. It would have given the movie depth to suggest what it is about her that Pekar can’t reach or comprehend–what gave her that stony look of forbearance in the documentary footage. It’s odd that a movie co-directed by a woman wouldn’t have got past the comic-book-loving boys’ view of girls as appendages. Davis is very good, but the assignment raises more expectations than it allows her to fulfill.

All that said, the experience of naturalism at an American movie is so rare that the movie almost feels like a cleansing. In that respect it couldn’t be truer to Pekar’s beliefs as a narrative artist. And though the setting is grungy and it may seem balky to a lot of people not to be prompted for movie-ish emotions, Berman and Pulcini also shape American Splendor enough that it’s enjoyable right on the surface. Packaging observations isn’t the only way to make them entertaining.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in
Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies
.

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