"American Splendor"
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Elizabeth Block

Everywhere I go to find a good read some smarty-pants has a wildly ecstatic report on the movie adaptation of the underground anti-hero of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series. So it’s my turn to weigh in on the already dubbed smash, American Splendor. Encountering a sunny interlude in a long series of fog creeps in on little pig feet San Francisco days, I head downtown to catch the film, thinking to myself: "oh man, on the one nice day in weeks, I’m going into a movie theater to watch a show that everyone adores." How could so much joy come from a movie about an underground nobody-special comic book author? I know the graphic novel has been planted in mainstream culture, but we are not talking about a surround sound-super-digital Spiderman. We are speaking of analogue hound, Cleveland bound, chronicler of testicular cancer, Harvey Pekar. As I enter the dark movie theater space, I persist every bit a Pekarian curmudgeon, contrary to the mainstream presses adulation, panting with un-expectation.

Within minutes, my skepticism transformed. Initially, the film’s color saturation beckoned my attention. So unabashedly retro in the film stock’s texture, I forgot I wasn’t watching a 1970s flick made with the grainier film stocks now obsolete. I immediately fell in love.

The smart male working class protagonist who belatedly emerges from gray sky—and gets the girl—is an old storytelling staple. To be sure, not every talented working stiff leaves behind the daily grind with spots on the Johnny Carson Show, an American Book Award, and an autobiographical movie. The anti-action that the movie celebrates is dependent, unlike the Pekar comic series, on transcending a humdrum non-success to make itself a success. Though ironic that Harvey Pekar’s least mundane moment explodes in an autobiographical film rather than through his work, the writer/director pair, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, honor Pekar’s innovations. They validate the existence of comic book anti-hero-as-himself carving out his work, even against all art market fad or literary trend. Given contemporary times, such a plea for integrity remains rare. Too often, the good guys (and gals) really do finish last, and finally, a man of rare commitment and perseverance gets everything he deserves and more.

The comic book form adapts rather easily to film. For one thing, the minimalism of comic book writing and screenplay dialogue go hand in hand. The character Harvey mentions the significance of sparse language in comic book writing. Dialogue in screenwriting often depends on the same paired-down writing form. Berman and Pulcini, savvy dialogue writers and blenders of the documentary and fiction storytelling forms, offer a refreshing take on the struggling artist biography genre. Familiar with the now common use of meta-narrative in storytelling, Berman and Pulcini employ the real Harvey Pekar and his wife and collaborator, Joyce Brabner, as first person meta-narrative observers of an omniscient story about them. Such first person commentary on a third person narrative point of view proves a compelling approach to blurring documentary and fiction. Not since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line has the feature docu-fiction been so naturally integrated.

The film crosscuts between interviews with the real Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, the story of their life, and illustrated monochromatic comic images. Scenes often begin with a comic book grid, mirroring the spatial relationship between words and images that the comic book idealizes. Often an illustrated comic book grid forms establishing shots of film scenes that ultimately zoom in to the film scene as its paper border dissolves.

Harvey Pekar as struggling artist is also worth promoting. I liken his life to San Francisco artist Evri Kwong, who works in painting and drawing. Though not a comic book artist, Kwong uses a storyboard or grid form with painting and sharpie pen. Demonstrating formal mastery of drawn and painted surfaces, Kwong’s canvas grid becomes an anti-narrative structure on which caricature-esque figures struggle with everyday violence. Kwong, with almost two decades of solo and group shows under his belt, still humbly paints without the explosive fame he so deserves. Kwong, like Pekar, possesses a rare vision outside of market trend. While blessed with a subcultural following, he has eluded box-office fame. Kwong, the offspring of the only Chinese American Zen Master in America, shares Pekar’s flair for the nothing-special day. He is the kind of artist that, if Berman and Pulcini were to do the biographical tale once again, would offer great substance.

Speaking of unsung heroes, what is up with the familiar story of the wife behind the successful man? The Character Harvey Pekar could not move the same mountains without his Joyce Brabner. Their un-romantic love story leaves me all smiles. I would like it if the film followed up on her real world research trip to Israel/Palestine.

-- Elizabeth Block

Elizabeth Block is a writer/filmmaker who recently completed her first novel, A Gesture Through Time. She has received numerous awards for her writing, and recently exhibited her 16 mm film at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco. She is currently writing a screenplay.

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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