Tuesday, 13 July 2010

American Splendor

Year: 2003
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Screenplay: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on the comic series American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner
Running Time: 100 minutes
Genre: Drama, comedy, biography

Summary: In 1970s Cleveland, Ohio, Harvey Pekar (Giamatti) works a dull job as a file clerk in a hospital and spends his time collecting jazz records while searching for some kind of purpose to life. After befriending underground comic-book writer and artist Robert Crumb (Urbaniak), Pekar decides to write a comic-book series based on the ins and outs of his own daily life. The resulting comic, American Splendor, makes Pekar something of a celebrity including appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman in the 1980s. The comic also brings romance to Pekar's life in the shape of comic store worker and sometime prison teacher Joyce Brabner (Davis).

Opinions: This film is possibly one of the strangest and most original comic-book movies of recent years. The film essentially works as a biography of Pekar but it also adapts several of the stories from the American Splendor comics (which was in itself something of an autobiography). The drama is also frequently interspersed with interviews from the character's real-life counterparts and their comments on the action (in one scene Pekar states that Giamatti looks nothing like him), and the look of the comics themselves are brought to life by animated sequences. The film is funny, moving and often dark with a succession of memorable supporting characters including Robert Crumb, who created comics such as Fritz the Cat and Keep on Truckin' and who was himself the subject of a documentary film called Crumb (1994), and also Pekar's co-worker Toby Radloff (played by Judah Friedlander), who appeared on MTV during the '80s as "The Genuine Nerd From Cleveland" and starred in the slasher movie spoof Killer Nerd (1991). This film really encapsulates the best of American independent cinema, it may be episodic and lacking in a strong narrative thrust but it is memorable and entertaining.
By the way, the American Splendor comics themselves are a must read. Pekar was a genuinely talented writer and they were well illustrated by a diverse selection of comic artists, including Crumb, Chester Brown, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. The comics managed to make poetry and art out of simple things such as riding the bus and going shopping. They were published between 1976 and 2008 and are available in a number of graphic novel collections.

This post is written as a tribute to Harvey Pekar who died on July 12 2010.

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