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.
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But there’s more, and better. Pekar’s file-clerk buddy at the VA hospital, Toby Radloff, the drawling, bachelor prince of Cleveland’s nerds, appears in the American Splendor movie in dual form, as both an actor (Judah Friedlander) and himself–sometimes within the same frame. And more: Pekar and his long-suffering, long-simmering wife, Joyce Brabner, come onto the screen in at least three incarnations, as actors (Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis), cartoon images and the real Joyce and Harvey.
The writer-director pair who have realized the movie, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, understand that this multiplicity is part of both the appeal and the unstated meaning of American Splendor comics. Different artists draw Pekar, so his looks keep changing, even while his character remains true to its disgruntled, stuck-in-Cleveland self. Thematically, these variations help to convey Pekar’s message that “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Dramatically, they provide the movie’s Joyce with an opportunity to comment nervously on Pekar’s apparent mutability when she is about to meet him for the first time, having spent the previous months as his pen pal. At his invitation, Joyce has come to visit from Wilmington, Delaware, and is looking around the Amtrak station for her host. What to expect? Some artists, she thinks, make Harvey look like a young Brando (and there’s an example of such a drawing, collaged into a shot of the waiting room). Others depict him as a hairy ape (another collage effect); and Crumb has these wavy lines coming off him, like a bad smell. “Those are motion lines,” Harvey explains in voiceover. “I’m a fast-moving guy.” Then he appears to Joyce in the flesh–that is, in Paul Giamatti’s flesh–to hold out his hand and offer the world’s all-time champion blind-date opener: “I want to make one thing clear up front. I’ve had a vasectomy.”
Berman and Pulcini have found the heart of their movie in this first, impossibly funny meeting of Joyce and Harvey, and also in the later episode (which Joyce and Harvey turned into a comic book) of Our Cancer Year, when he was undergoing chemotherapy and she was keeping him going. You don’t ordinarily think of delicacy and emotional nuance in scenes involving people who collapse before toilets (as they do in both these sections of the movie); but the interplay here between Joyce and Harvey is as touching as it is hilarious, thanks to the acute honesty of the movie’s source material, the filmmakers’ deadpan direction and (above all) the virtuosity of Giamatti and Davis. Both actors perform precise imitations of their real-life models (as you can see easily enough through on-screen comparisons), and both go far beyond mimicry, to suggest that beneath the surface of each lives a world of experience, much of it either disappointing or infuriating. As soon as Davis-Joyce and Giamatti-Harvey meet, you can see they were made for each other, God help them. They’re so quick to read one another’s minds, and often so bad at it, that the simple exercise of choosing a restaurant not only leads them to someplace they both loathe but compels them to stay there. Neither of them can laugh off the mistake and offer to leave; so you do the laughing for them. Later that same evening, when it turns out that Harvey had read something correctly in Joyce and cared enough about her to act on it, you’re also moved for them.
These are the scenes I most admire, where Berman and Pulcini have been true to Pekar’s comic and their own movie alike. Sometimes, though, they’ve made a choice, retaining their movieness at the expense of Pekar’s peculiar achievement.
He did not just collage himself into comic books; he also collaged in the ordinary passage of time. The locus classicus of this effect: the uproarious one-page “story” titled “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines.” The point of this page (drawn by Crumb) was the very pointlessness of the time that Harvey was wasting, since he could do nothing, nothing at all, to speed the picayune transaction holding him up, or to alter the centuries-old culture of the co-religionist he wanted to strangle. Like so much of American Splendor, this page is a triumph of observation, which is achieved as if for its own sake, leading nowhere.
Berman and Pulcini recreated this scene in their movie–and against the spirit of the original, they turned it into a plot point. Harvey becomes exasperated, as the old Jewish lady kills his time; Harvey realizes his life is slipping away; Harvey goes home and writes the first stories of American Splendor. I hasten to say this moment plays just as well as the filmmakers intended; so do all the moments that have been added up into a narrative, with learning and growth and a big hug at the end. But playing well isn’t necessarily Pekar’s intent. As an artist, he resists the satisfying wrap-up, in a way that’s closer to the filmmaking of Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismaki, or for that matter the music of Joe Maneri, who is, tellingly, the only hard bopper on the soundtrack.
This isn’t to say that Berman and Pulcini have betrayed Pekar, or made the kind of movie he would deride as Hollywood bullshit. But they’ve been more accommodating to convention than he would be, a bit more commercial–which is intriguing, since they also understand the hipster ethos to which Pekar is loyal.
They know it’s not a cult of failure, though nonhipsters often misunderstand it as such; they show us that Pekar has in fact burned for success all his life. But he has demanded that it come to him; he will not change his clothes, floss his teeth and go out to meet success at a bar where chardonnay costs twelve bucks a glass. Give in to phoniness even that much, and the next thing you know you’re making excuses for big corporations and feeling superior to guys like Toby Radloff. Of course, most people, including Toby himself, don’t worry about such compromises; they would gladly take success on the world’s terms. But Pekar is one of those hotheaded, old-fashioned people who won’t give up their politics, their vinyl or their faded plaid shirts. They want to keep everything real–even in their comic books.
We’ve met some of these people in earlier movies: notably Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb and Ghost World. Now, in the wretched summer of The Hulk, a new comic-book movie reintroduces us to them, just when we need it most.