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« Parking Lots and Downtowns | Main | Genetics, Environment and IQ »

September 02, 2003

American Splendor

Friedrich --

The Wife and I weren't wild about the much-praised American Splendor, an indie biopic about the underground-comix phenom Harvey Pekar. Brownie points galore for unusualness -- the movie mixes up acted-and-scripted scenes with shots of the actual Harvey and his family and friends, and it uses comic-book graphics to frame and define things visually. And hats off too to a game cast, led by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis -- although the wanly pretty, gallantly hopeful Davis struck me as a very peculiar choice to play Harvey's neurotic, depressive wife Joyce.

But I didn't find the movie's view of Harvey and Joyce very compelling. This is a lovable, even cute, Harvey Pekar -- Harvey Lite. He's "compulsive," but in a winningly eccentric way; really, he's just a working-class Cleveland Everyguy (with, perhaps, some unusual interests). The real Harvey is something else entirely -- a man with old-time lefty politics, a defiant intellectuality and an insistent anger. He writes jazz and lit crit, and his graphic novels are ambitious, warts-and-all autobiographical things meant to revive a kind of proletarian, Dreiserian realism. (Sample title: "Our Cancer Year.") They're meant to be rueful slices of salt-of-the-earth Americana, and they present as edited a version of Harvey as the movie does. But I've never found them very appealing; I find "Harvey Pekar" about as winning an Everyguy as I do "Michael Moore."

I guess the film is OK on its own lightweight, NPR-ish terms; I got a few laughs out of it, at least. But, for me, what's missing overshadowed what was there. Why does Harvey go to the trouble of writing his comic books? Where's the self-centeredness? Where's the craving for attention? Where's the political anger? I've put in my time among fringe people and they're often really maddening -- stubbornly impossible, full of resentment, even frightening.

What's missing from the film is any sense of what drives Harvey; and without it the film is left with no motor, just its po-mo tricks, its goodwill, and its spunky performers. But the film doesn't want to be a character study. It's really an attempt to build a sentimental shrine to what it wants "Harvey" to represent, which is marginal America. And so the narrative it delivers is nothing but the Harvey landmarks, organized around a Harvey-finds-redemption theme. OK, fine, sure, I guess .... Yawn.

Here's a taste of the real Harvey, from an Amazon reviewer who claims to know Pekar: "I don't know if any movie, no matter who stars in it, could actually capture Harvey as he really is. The movie left out Harvey's studdered [sic] anger, and his depressed gaze. When Harvey ate at a restaraunt with me before this movie opened, someone came up to him and asked for his autograph. Right when he was asked that, he stood up, shook the hand of the person asking for his autograph, signed the piece of paper, and then tore it in two. 'There, I wasted some money.' He laughed and I didn't truly know what to do."

I suspect that I'd tell Harvey to quit acting like such an asshole, and I also suspect that I'd quickly wind up as a former friend.

David Edelstein writes a wonderful appreciative review of the film here. Terry Teachout noticed the same omissions I did but loved the movie anyway, here. Harvey, Joyce, and their daughter Danielle can be found blogging here.

What I spent most of my time at "American Splendor" thinking about was the 1970s. (A number of the film's scenes are set in the '70s.) Have you ever understood the retro-fondness many people have for that miserable decade? It seems to have to do with a camp love of bad taste, and a feeling that people just must have been having a mighty good pre-AIDs time. Those certainly weren't my '70s. Were they yours? I had some undergrad and post-grad good times, god knows, but to me, the '70s were the shell-shocked aftermath of the '60s; it was as though a bomb had gone off and we were picking our way admidst the post-explosion dust, hoping against hope that what remained of the house wouldn't also collapse around us.

The '70s-set movie whose look-and-feel most resembles my sense of the era is a movie I didn't otherwise like much -- Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder. Did you ever catch it? Tim Robbins gets wounded in 'Nam and returns to find the country falling apart ... Dramatically speaking, the film is baloney, but it's also a brilliant visual recreation of the Army-surplus, cities-falling-apart, big-ugly-cars, hopeless/aimless, good-christ-where'd-we-go-wrong '70s that I remember.

Has there been a movie that put on screen how FvB remembers the '70s?



posted by Michael at September 2, 2003


The one that comes to mind is "The Warriors" in which the social disintegration of the era is portrayed in the nightmarish settings the boys have to fight their way through. That pretty well sums up the 1970s to me.

(Actually, I remember somewhere in the late 1970s turning off my radio while driving on a freeway because it dawned on me that I preferred to listen to traffic noise rather than what was being peddled as music. I think I actually remarked, out loud: "Damn I hate the Seventies.")

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2003 07:46 PM

Isn't Warriors based on an ancient Greek play? Or do I think that because of all the crack I've smoked?

American Splendor is yet another "text" which seems to be popular because an awful lot of people like the idea that there's something noble about being a a selfish, bitter ass (trapped in a world you, yourself made). It started with Chick Lit and is drifting into the mainstream.

Posted by: j.c. on September 3, 2003 12:55 AM


"The Warriors" was based on the Anabasis of Xenephon, also known as "The March of the Ten Thousand." It tells the story of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who are hired to help topple the Persian emperor by an ambitious pretender to the throne. After trekking into the heart of the Persian Empire (a long, long way from home)the Greeks barely arrive before their "sponsor" is suddenly killed, and they are surrounded by extremely hostile forces. They work their way out of one nasty situation after another on their way back to Greece. Basing a contemporary action movie on a piece of Classic literature served to highlight the decadent environment of late 1970s Manhattan (which I can attest to, as I was living and driving a cab there when I saw the movie.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 3, 2003 01:23 AM

Although a big fan of Xenephon (except for his crazy idea that stallions rear up to show their genitals and thereby terrify other horses he pretty much put down all you need to know about horse training) but haven't read the Anabasis of Xenephon. Does the movie really have anything to do with the original text (like Clueless), or was this whoel AofX association just a ploy and back patting on the part of the film makers?

Posted by: j.c. on September 3, 2003 03:49 PM

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