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‘American Splendor’ a look at life as we know it

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

At the opening of “American Splendor,” protagonist Harvey Pekar ” comic-book artist, depressive, cancer survivor ” issues a warning about the film. “If you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escape or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie,” Pekar advises in a voice that manages to be both whiny and gravelly.

Is he telling the truth, or is there some warm irony to Pekar’s words? “American Splendor” treads a fine line between bringing you down and lifting you up.

In fact, there is romance, skewed and unsteady as it may be, between the obsessive, angry Pekar and his hypochondriac wife Joyce.



There is escapism, though not in the ordinary sense. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “American Splendor” uses an innovative storytelling technique to marvelous effect. The tale of Pekar, a Cleveland file clerk who becomes a significant writer of underground comics, is told through a combination of dramatic narrative, documentary elements and animated comic strips. This last technique becomes a form of escape from the frustration of Pekar’s existence: the real-life Pekar ” who appears frequently in the film ” found some release in his writing. The film, then, which traces his success in underground comics, is largely about escape.

And sure enough, there is a quasi-fantasy figure who saves not only the day, but Harvey’s and Joyce’s relationships, even their lives. The savior is Danielle, a preadolescent quasi-adopted by the couple. “American Splendor” concludes on two scenes, both irrepressibly upbeat. In one, the characters of Harvey and Joyce, played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, are at an ice rink. Joyce is happily skating with Danielle ” to the sounds of “My Favorite Things,” as played by John Coltrane; Harvey is enjoying a slice of pizza in the stands, watching his makeshift family.



The other finale captures the real-life Pekar family during Harvey’s retirement party. The environment ” the file room where Harvey has worked for decades ” is dingy. Harvey’s co-workers are beyond bizarre. And yet Harvey is having the most ecstatic moment of his life, engaging in a group hug with Joyce and Danielle.

This is what passes for happiness for Harvey and Joyce. Danielle is at the center of both scenes, and the point is made that even for disturbed outsiders struggling with their relationship, their internal turmoil and the bigger world, a child represents true hope.

On the film’s final note, Harvey tempers such sentimentality. He complains about Danielle and her attention deficit disorder, and informs us that he and Joyce still fight like cats and dogs. So we shouldn’t worry that Harvey is fully content.

What happens in between Harvey’s dire warning about the film and the movie’s life-affirming conclusion, is Pekar’s life. That improbable, actual existence ” from frustrated file clerk to frustrated semi-regular on “Late Night with David Letterman” ” is observed with a perfect balance of humor and agitation.

In the early 1960s, as the world was about to change, Harvey Pekar lived outside the mainstream. Obsessed with jazz and comics, Harvey lives in a dark Cleveland apartment stuffed with his collections. When he meets Bob Crumb, who was about to revolutionize the underground-comics world with such creations as “Mr. Natural” and “Fritz the Cat,” Harvey begins to think about a comic book based on his existential struggles.

For example, Harvey frets over picking a checkout line at the supermarket: “There are a lot of things you have to consider,” thinks the comic-book Harvey. “Old Jewish ladies will argue forever with a cashier about anything. You get behind them in line, you’re gonna wait forever, man.” When Crumb, now a noted figure in the San Francisco counterculture, swings through Cleveland, Harvey shows him his stick-figure comics, and Crumb agrees to illustrate Harvey’s “American Splendor.”

The comic is a hit but, as Harvey tells most everyone, not enough of a hit to elevate his life. Harvey still lives in a dump, still works as a file clerk, still has as his best friend Toby (Judah Friedlander), a borderline autistic. Even meeting and quickly marrying Joyce provides only momentary pleasure. Joyce has barely settled into Harvey’s apartment when the two start exacerbating each other’s psychological maladies. Harvey’s cancer episode seems almost inevitable, given the unhealthy environment.

“Are you gonna suffer in silence the rest of your life or are you gonna make a mark? Huh? HUH? Huh?!!” the comic-book Harvey asks himself. Much to his own surprise, Harvey Pekar has made his mark, first in comic books, and now with one of the finest films to detail the anxieties of a regular schlub.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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