Sunday, September 10, 2006

Movie Log: American Splendor

How appropriate is it that, in a movie with Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar, and Harvey Pekar playing "Real Harvey" (giving asides on the action of the movie, and explaining various scenes) and someone else playing "Stage Harvey" (in the stage-play based on American Splendor shown in the movie) -- and with the drawings of at least four artists also showing various versions of Harvey Pekar -- that the Production Supervisor is someone named Andy Wheeler? (Not me, of course.)

I've never been a huge fan of American Splendor the comic book (though I have read it, on and off -- mostly off, come to think of it), but the movie got great reviews, and Harvey Pekar is a fascinating character, so I stuck it on the Netflix queue, and I felt like watching it this last week.

American Splendor the movie is a bit diffuse; it seems to be trying to hit thirty years of the comic's high points (and to play with levels of discourse, to drag an English Lit major term out of long-term storage in my skull). So it starts with a brief scene of Harvey Pekar (our hero, a writer of autobiographical comics and long-time Cleveland VA Hospital file clerk) as a kid in about 1950, and then jumps ahead to the end of his second marriage in 1975 and his subsequent comics "career." He meets weird with Joyce Brabner, and marries her almost immediately. He goes on Letterman's show, then feuds with Letterman (for no clearly articulated reason -- I just got the feeling that Harvey was too cranky too tolerate Letterman's jibes any more). He gets cancer, and lives through it. The bits of his life the movie shows are interesting, but I'm already familiar with this time in Pekar's life -- what I really want to know is how he got there.

Pekar's narration at the beginning describes him as an "intellectual," but he works in a mindless job for decades (and never seems to even try to do anything else) and he talks in an aggressively lower-class way (though that is probably deliberate). He makes no effort to present himself as an intellectual, or to do intellectual things (until after his comic book makes him a minor celebrity, and he starts writing reviews of jazz records). So how and why is he an intellectual? Did he ever try to have a more demanding career? What was he like as a young man?

All in all, this is a movie that could have really benefited from more structure -- the real-Harvey parts are great, but they should have been organized to structure the movie, and the interviewer should have pushed Pekar to explain himself more. As always with autobiographical cartoonists, what looks like pure soul-bearing honesty is usually hiding something; this movie was an opportunity to explore what Pekar has been hiding about himself, and I missed that.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and a very engaging movie. The metafictional conceits are sly and well-handled, and it actually does have something like a storyline (basically: Harvey finds fame, Harvey finds love, Harvey gets cancer). It just could have been so much more. (But I seem to say that about every movie; I may just be a tough audience.)

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