American Splendor

American Splendor is a 2003 American biographical comedy-drama film about Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor comic book series. The film is also in part an adaptation of the comics, which dramatize Pekar’s life. The film was written and directed by documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.[1]

Starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner, it also features appearances from Pekar and Brabner themselves (along with Toby Radloff) who discuss their lives, the comic books, and how it feels to be depicted onscreen by actors. It was filmed entirely on location in Cleveland and Lakewood in Ohio.[1]

Though Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini had directed documentaries before, American Splendor was their first narrative feature. Of the film’s alternating of fictional portrayals with real-life appearances by Pekar and his friends and family, co-writer/co-director Pulcini recalled, “It really was the only way that made sense to tell that story because we were handed this stack of comic strips where the main character never really looks the same because he’s drawn by so many different artists. We wondered how to stay true to the material, and that’s the concept we came up with. The structure came out of that very naturally. It wasn’t something that we labored over.” Berman added that upon meeting Pekar they felt compelled to include him in the film. “We also got to know Harvey even before we wrote the screenplay. We actually went to Cleveland and spent time with Harvey and Joyce, and spoke to them on the phone a lot. Once we spent some time with both of them, we were like, “Oh my God, we have to put them in the movie!” That was a case where we were still using our documentary instincts and had to figure out a way to include him in it that was a natural fit for the material.” At one point, Pekar meta-references the structure of the film by doing a voice-over for a one-shot of Paul Giamatti playing him by saying “There’s our guy. Well, it’s me. Or the guy playing me. Though he don’t look nothing like me, but whatever.” David Letterman refused to appear in the film or allow the filmmakers to use footage of Pekar’s disastrous final appearance on this show (though he had no problems with the earlier Pekar “Late Night” appearances that are shown), so that final appearance was done using oblique camera angles and a voiced-over audio of the incident.[1]

Harvey Pekar is file clerk at the local VA hospital. His interactions with his co-workers offer some relief from the monotony, and their discussions encompass everything from music to the decline of American culture to new flavors of jellybeans and life itself. At home, Harvey fills his days with reading, writing and listening to jazz. His apartment is filled with thousands of books and LPs, and he regularly scours Cleveland’s thrift stores and garage sales for more, savoring the rare joy of a 25-cent find. It is at one of these junk sales that Harvey meets Robert Crumb, a greeting card artist and music enthusiast. When, years later, Crumb finds international success for his underground comics, the idea that comic books can be a valid art form for adults inspires Harvey to write his own brand of comic book. An admirer of naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser, Harvey makes his American Splendor a truthful, unsentimental record of his working-class life, a warts-and-all self portrait…

Written by Sujit R. Varma[2]

The success of this film was most evident in the reviews: not a single one of them manages not to put a gloss on the story. The film does, of course, by necessity add a few coats but the grit is always mixed in, and the story has real-life like hesitations that obstruct a narrative sweep.

One of the reasons it worked for me was that I went in cold. If anyone had tried to sell this film to me, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it.

What I found most interesting was that nobody seemed to object to his portrayal of them.

[1] American Splendor (film). Retrieved 04 December 2017.
[2] American Splendor (2003). Retrieved 04 December 2017.

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