Here’s our man, starring in a movie about himself. Notice the clumping, simian gait; the aggrieved set of the lower jaw; the habit of rubbing the back of the skull, either to quiet a nagging idea or else, more likely, nudge it into more aggressive life. Alone, eyes downcast, our man strides in medium shot and long shot through the cold Cleveland streets. He no longer needs to look at these surroundings; he knows them so well that he can watch them anytime on his eyelids’ screen. Rarely, though, is the screen of American cinema touched by anything like these rows of brown brick apartment buildings, all breathing their perpetual cabbage steam; the plots of frozen weeds, carefully secured behind chain link; the factory yards, empty in the afternoon light of winter, or maybe just empty nowadays; the long prospect, around the corner of a one-story commercial block, up the level street toward Canada. Similar views of the real Detroit figured in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile; the authentic Omaha has been a player in Alexander Payne’s movies. Few similar examples come to mind from recent cinema, though, and none where the city and its son are fused so thoroughly to the hard bop tenor of Joe Maneri’s “Paniots Nine.”
Anyone with ears can understand how Maneri’s music fits the scene. His sound is biting, asymmetrical, lyrical, propulsive and right. But you have to be like our man himself–a scholar of the bypassed, an arguer out of the obscure, for the obscure–to know that Maneri recorded this cut in 1963 and then waited thirty-five years for its release. In fact it was our man, Harvey Pekar, who in his role as a jazz critic helped bring this music out of absolute darkness, into the penumbral repute it now enjoys.
Speaking of penumbral repute: From off the streets of Cleveland comes the movie about Harvey Pekar–the man who has shown how great it is, and how frustrating, to remain on the streets of Cleveland. From off the streets of Cleveland (as he says in his comic books) comes American Splendor.
In equal measures a biopic, a drama and an elaboration of Pekaresque themes, the American Splendor movie will first of all satisfy those who (like me) have avidly followed the comic since it began appearing during the Ford Administration. Like the best of the Conceptual artists who flourished in those years (no doubt to our man’s disgust), Pekar created something brilliantly new by using the old, Modernist trick of putting an object into an alien context. Duchamp, early in the century, had collaged a bicycle wheel onto a wooden stool, implicitly substituting these mundane things for a sculpture on a pedestal. On the same principle, Cindy Sherman in the mid-1970s began to collage her own image, in various get-ups, into film-still settings; and Pekar inserted his T-shirted, clumping, skull-rubbing self into that environment of superheroes, the comic book. (The gesture was all the more Conceptualist for requiring no traditional artistic skill. Pekar wrote the American Splendor stories and left the drawing to others, beginning with his old friend Robert Crumb.) Granted, earlier writers had created autobiographical comics–I think, for example, of Justin Green, with his Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary–but they hadn’t achieved Pekar’s wonderfully bracing results. In American Splendor, reality looked more real than ever–grimier, odder, funnier, more melancholy–for having erupted inside a comic book.
In that sense, we fans don’t even need to see the American Splendor movie to love it. Conceptually, it’s enough for us to scan the cast list and see that the magnificent character of Mr. Boats has come to the screen–Mr. Boats, the righteous and gnomic head of file clerks at the VA hospital in Cleveland, where Pekar worked for virtually all his adult life (he retired in 2001). We’re at last going to see that chubby, bow-tied figure in the flesh (here embodied by Earl Billings); we’re going to listen to him hold forth against today’s music–“Trash!”–while pounding his fist into his palm and ignoring all other lines of dialogue. A Möbius twist: In place of the real human figure we had intuited through the cartoon, we now have a fictional (though human) equivalent to the drawing.