American Splendor

by | May 9, 2007 | Movies

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Posts by: Brian

As a result of my recent fixation with Sideways I looked up the actors and director to see what else they’d done, and ended up watching two more films. The first, About Schmidt, was by the same director, Alexander Payne. Shot only two years before Sideways, which is nothing short of a masterpiece, About Schmidt is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a long time. The main character (played by a somnambulant Jack Nicholson) is boring, the scenes are clumsy, the story is predictable, the pace is glacial, and, in the second half, when we meet the new in-laws, these new characters, who ought to liven up the show, are utterly one-dimensional caricatures. I felt terrible for the actors. What dreck. Bleah.

Then I watched American Splendor, with Paul Giamatti (Miles in Sideways) as Harvey Pekar. An odd film, more like a documentary than a traditional movie, it was great fun to watch. As in the dog mentioned in the previous paragraph, whose name I refuse to type out again, very little happens. Fortunately, Paul Giamatti has a great deal of fun creating the character at the center of that very little, which means that the audience gets to have a great deal of fun watching him do it. With so little going on, you can really focus on the acting, and fortunately, everyone in the film does a wonderful job.

For any of you who may be even less attuned to popular culture than your humble narrator, Harvey Pekar is a sort of an intellectual everyday Joe from Cleveland who writes an underground adult comic book called American Splendor. In it, he tells stories about things that happen to him. Sometimes he gets kind of philosophical. That’s it.

In a way, he anticipated the phenomenon of blogs, which are also, often, little more than chronicles of daily life. Except that when Pekar started doing this, in those dark ages before the internet, publishing a public diary was a relatively expensive undertaking. He got people (including such luminaries as Robert Crumb) to illustrate his stories, lost a fair amount of money, at least in the early years, and eventually gained a certain amount of notoriety as a commentator on the American scene.

I’ve been working my way through some of his comics for the past few days. Adjectives such as fascinating, or gripping, or compelling do not come to mind, and yet there is something about his work that makes it worth reading. Allow me, for a moment, to backtrack.

What an artist does, as I understand it, is to start with the experiences of the individual, with history, with the world as it is, with whatever raw material comes to hand, to identify the universal that lies behind the particular, and to heighten that particular (with structure, symbolism, metaphor, what have you) in such a way that the universal behind it becomes available to the audience. Roughly speaking. Now, what Pekar does is simply give you the particular. He basically tells the reader, ‘This is what happened; you figure out the meaning.’ There is probably some fictionalization going on, but his primary tool is selection. He shows you this. He tells you that. He’s sort of like a more honest Kerouac. His writing is truly immediate, and he is by no means afraid to show himself being a jerk. I wouldn’t call it art, but whatever it is, it can be pretty amusing.