OVER UNDER SIDEWAYS DOWN
Wednesday night I went and saw the film version of American Splendor, the creative adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s seminal autobiographical comic.
I enjoyed it quite a lot. I wouldn’t have much to complain about, really. Just the standard complaint I have with the biopic genre. You often feel a little shortchanged when someone tries to encapsulate a life in somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes. In this case, by the time we get to the early ‘90s, and the time chronicled in the Our Cancer Year graphic novel (which I just read last week), the film has been going on for some time, and though a very important and dramatic time in Pekar’s life, it rockets right by on the screen.
Where the film triumphs is with style. The filmmakers approached the American Splendor source material with a relatively reverential eye and put a lot of thought into how to transfer this unique book to the cinema. Pekar doesn’t offer conventional narratives in American Splendor. He isn’t a plot-driven writer. His focus is on the mundane, on the minutiae of his life. In the pivotal scene in the film, where Pekar is realizing that the comic books he likes so much can actually be a viable mode of expression for him, he is in a typically American Splendor situation—in a supermarket trying to decide which checkout line will be the fastest. In a stroke of genius, the moments freeze, and Harvey (played by Paul Giamatti) has his thoughts materialize in thought balloons. In the very next scene, he sits down and begins to script his first comic—and it’s about choosing a line in a supermarket. It’s a visual representation in the shift in his life, and is probably the most important scene in the film. Not only does it set the course of the rest of Pekar’s life, but firmly establishes that this film isn’t so much about a man who writes a comic, but about a man who decides that his life is a story, and in the end, about story itself and the layers of narrative that naturally form in this kind of situation.
Really, American Splendor is a logical extension of Adaptation. It’s what Charlie Kaufman was striving for—taking something that reflects real life and making it into a viable film without destroying the things that make it work in the first place. The credits sequence establishes it all. Shifting from your standard movie frame, the screen becomes a page of a comic book. There are live action panels (featuring Giamatti and shots of Cleveland, as well as substituting captions with the participant’s names) alternating with drawn panels (featuring Pekar explaining who he is, entirely in word balloons, and often, as he explains, by different artists). Thus we are introduced to two of three of our narrative threads: the film version of Pekar and the comic version of Pekar. As the real Harvey takes over the narration for the drawn Harvey, speaking in voice over, we are ushered into the third thread—quickly revealed as the man himself working on a movie set. We literally cut to him sitting in front of a microphone, reading from a script.
Throughout the film, the three threads will develop on their own, but intertwine endlessly until they begin to blur. Movie Pekar is creating the life of Comic Book Pekar, but Real Life Pekar is actually creating Movie Pekar. Comic Book Pekar intrudes on Movie Pekar, such as in the grocery store scene, or the ever present captions that establish new settings. Real Life Pekar also intrudes on Movie Pekar. Beyond getting his own scenes, when comic book captions aren’t narrating Movie Pekar’s life, the Real Life Pekar is. He also shows up as his real self when Movie Pekar goes on David Letterman’s show. We don’t see recreated footage, we see the real footage from the ‘80s.
Though, actually, we do get one recreation, when Harvey has his last appearance on the show and thrusts his own agenda onto it, tossing the program into chaos. I imagine one of the reasons for this choice was so that the camera could go behind the participants and see the bewildered audience. But one also has to wonder if they were barred from using this footage, and I wish that they would have addressed it, had Real Life Pekar actually comment on what’s going down. (Similarly, one can’t help but wonder how Frank Stack, artist for Our Cancer Year, became a guy named Fred.)
Perhaps the most effective head-on collision of two of the threads comes when, following a scene between Movie Pekar and his friend Movie Toby, the action stops and the two actors step off the set where the Real Life Pekar and Real Life Toby are waiting. Both actors sit in the background while the two people they are playing have a seemingly unscripted conversation in the foreground.
Toby is a fairly unbelievable character (in a pure character sense). This “genuine nerd,” who I remember as a TV celebrity from when I was a teenager, is one of those people that proves truth is stranger than fiction. A lot of the people Pekar gravitates to are. If they had tried to just portray Toby and not show us the real person, we as an audience may have rejected him as an exaggeration. He would seem over-the-top as a work of fiction, so the documentary element adds an air of credibility to the film. It also proves important for when one of the film’s themes emerges. Ultimately, the riddle of the film is what is the truth, which story dominates. Movie Harvey is confronted by a fan who knows him from Letterman, who only sees him as a performing monkey on TV. Similarly, when Harvey is courting his future wife on the phone, she asks which artist’s rendition of him is most truly him. And in an added Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead-level layer, Harvey and his wife, Joyce, relive their first date by watching a stage version of it. (Too bad the film didn’t get Dan Castellaneta in to reprise his role as Pekar, but then they seem to be belittling the play, and that might have turned him off.) Things come to a head in a scene straight out of Our Cancer Year, when Pekar enters a delusional state while undergoing chemotherapy, and asks aloud if he is a man who writes a comic book about his life, or merely a character in that comic book—the added irony being that Paul Giamatti is neither.
The penultimate section of the film is a monologue delivered by Movie Harvey, on a completely abstracted set, discussing how there have been other Harvey Pekar’s in the Cleveland phone book, and asking, “Who are these Harvey Pekars?” It’s from here that we go into the closing of the film—Harvey’s life post-Cancer, with an adopted daughter (whom he encourages to writer about her own life) and his wife (who already is writing about her own life, as well as journalistic comics (comics about other people’s lives)), ready to keep chipping away at existence. The last bits are with Real Life Harvey. He is the answer to his own question. He is a man chronicling his being while being hopelessly entangled in story.
For me, though, there is even another layer. I was an assistant editor on several American Splendor projects when I worked at Dark Horse. I spoke to Pekar on the phone quite often and had dinner with him once. In a late scene where the real Harvey and Joyce are signing their book, many of the comics I worked on are on display behind them, their covers staring out at me (they’re terrible covers…ugh, hate those). The story is much wider for me, encompassing the things I know. I can’t help but view things with my own impressions, extrapolate, add to the narrative. Again, if we take it back to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, I remember in the movie of that there being a scene where the characters sit behind an actor watching puppets perform a play starring them all. There are four levels of performance, three of them audience, one of them us, sitting in the theatre.
Current Soundtrack: Destiny’s Child, World Tour DVD