Reviews

The Strange and Wonderful World of "American Splendor"

From American Splendor’s first shots, you know you are watching something unusual: It’s Halloween, 1950, and the neighborhood runts are trick-or-treating, all done up as their favorite superheroes—except for one rebellious runt, who has stubbornly donned his street clothes. “I’m Harvey Pekar,” he tells a curious neighbor. “I ain’t no superhero, lady. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood. Why does everyone have to be so stupid?” And with that, he stamps a foot and turns his angry, prepubescent back on the festivities.

Marching away, the pint-sized rebel morphs into his adult self—played to slouching perfection by Paul Giamatti—as the drab Cleveland street takes on a cartoon-like frame, the image transformed into a moving comic book. For the moment, it resembles a scene from other comic book-inspired movies like Ghost World or any of the superhero genre that use such techniques as the thought bubble-—but not for long. “My name is Harvey Pekar,” a cartoon character tells us, as credits appear over drawings of residential streets. “Different artists draw me. But I’m also a real guy.”

Giamatti walks through the cartoon version of the scene, and the narration continues: “And now this guy is playing me in a movie.” Cut to a stylized, but live-action, sound stage. The guy’s still talking, only now he’s real and sitting in a chair answering questions. He’s the real Harvey Pekar, author of the comic book series American Splendor, and he’s being interviewed as part of the movie. And Giamatti (Happiness, Confidence) is playing him in the dramatized bits. Cut to a scene in a doctor’s office that has comic book-style titles, and there’s Pekar’s voice again. “Here’s our man. Or, alright, here’s me—or the guy playing me, anyway. Only he doesn’t look anything like me.”

For the audience, the fun has just begun. Right off it’s funny and it’s self-referential, but beyond that, this documentary-meets-narrative-meets-comic-book flick isn’t exactly like anything we’ve seen before. Then again, it’s a biographical film about a comic book writer made by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team best known for their documentaries, so what the hell? “We knew we wanted to include Harvey in the movie, because he was such an overwhelming character,” says co-writer and co-director Berman, at the Yarrow Hotel’s coffee shop in Park City, just hours before winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. “Being that we’d worked in both documentaries and narratives, we felt a weird comfort moving between the two.”

The resulting film—about the life and work of a file clerk who finds love, family, and a creative life by documenting his everyday existence in a series of comic books—moves seamlessly between biopic, documentary, and animated comic book to create a new form. But what exactly is it? Pulcini says that in a Variety article written during Sundance, it was called “phantasmagorical.” “Phantasmagoria,” Berman corrects him, “which I think is the best word I’ve ever heard. We didn’t realize we were doing something that required a new name, so we didn’t think about it.”

In one sense, it’s a biopic—a biographical picture with actors playing out a real person’s life. “I love the biopic,” Berman says. “But one of their big problems is that they tend to be about people who are really famous, so you bring all these conceptions into it. You see an actor that doesn’t really look like the person, for example, and the story is very straightforward, informational. Bob and I are much more interested in stories about people whose names aren’t household words, sort of fringe characters. You have more freedom in doing the movie because people won’t go, ‘Wait! What about the time when Frank Sinatra was married to Ava Gardner? They left that out.’”

Berman and Pulcini originally came to the project through producer Ted Hope, then at Good Machine, who owned the rights to Pekar’s comics. “Ted Hope called us one day and said, ‘I have this project that’s very close to my heart and I think you guys are perfect for it,’” explains Pulcini, who also edited the film. “He started sending us comic books. He also had this tape of Harvey’s appearances on Letterman, and once we saw it, we thought this is something we could wrap our heads around.” After spending a weekend with Pekar, his wife, Joyce, and daughter Danielle—hanging out, cruising around Cleveland, listening to records—the writer/directors were hooked.

As filmmakers responsible for such documentaries as Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s and The Young and the Dead, Berman and Pulcini know about going into a film with no clue what they’ll end up with. “That’s part of what’s great about the documentary process,” says Berman. “You start to ask questions, and you allow the subject to lead you in a direction. We were open-minded.”

That seems like a great plan, but narrative features tend to require a script, and they tend to require financial backing, which is often easier to achieve with a solid game plan. When they originally went around to potential producers pitching the project, Berman and Pulcini had no script and a fairly unusual concept. “Most places thought it was a little off-the-wall,” Berman recalls. Then they pitched it to Maud Nadler, vice president of HBO Films, the division responsible for such recent HBO original productions as Real Women Have Curves and If These Walls Could Talk. “We walked out of the room, and about fifteen minutes later Ted called on the cell phone and said, ‘I don’t know what you guys said, but Maud wants to do this movie,’” says Berman. “It was remarkable. A huge risk and a remarkable leap of faith that HBO made.”

“I had seen their documentaries and was a big fan,” says Nadler. “And they understood Harvey like I thought I understood Harvey. I thought it was worth a shot. We live for strange mixes at HBO. I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be, but I figured we would figure that out in the process.”

The next step toward figuring out what the film would be was writing a script, which Berman and Pulcini pulled off in three weeks. A first draft got the project greenlit by HBO and they were off and running, but they still weren’t sure in which direction. “We wrote the script to give us a road map, but it didn’t mean we were tied to what was on the page,” says Berman. “The film was conceived and scripted to include natural breaks in the narrative, and we would write a documentary sequence and a wish list of what we would try to get from Harvey, and sometimes it was fairly close, and sometimes it was completely off.”

According to the filmmakers, part of what drew them to the project was the idea of a man documenting his unremarkable daily life, before the existence of home video or reality-TV, in a medium once reserved for the remarkable. “I always wonder,” says Pulcini. “With all the media and all these cameras everywhere, what really is an authentic document of what life is like? Where do you find it? Obviously not reality-TV shows, not movies. I think there’s a case to be made for American Splendor being a really authentic document of one person’s interior voice and his struggles and his daily existence.”

If the popularity of reality-TV is any barometer, audiences are interested in entering the lives of ordinary people, and Pekar is exactly that: an ordinary guy—a cranky, cynical, ordinary guy with an unglamorous job and a permanent scowl on his face—whose unlikely artistic achievement managed to bring him an extraordinary amount of attention. And American Splendor the movie elevates this particular ordinary guy to something of an Everyman hero. “I saw Harvey as a patron saint of every creative soul who’s stuck in a dead-end job,” says Pulcini. “And the fact that he found a medium in which to express himself is kind of heroic. He found a way to make his life special in a very unlikely way.”

“He’s a great example of these invisible Americans who are out there,” Berman adds. “Many of them are self-educated, not working, working blue-collar jobs, but they’re bright and have so much to offer. Harvey’s one of the most well-read people I know. He can speak ad nauseum about literature, his knowledge of music is encyclopedic, but he’s a working-class guy through and through. Harvey is the ultimate working-class intellectual, and we don’t usually see people like that in the movies.”

Judging from the response to the film at Sundance, as well as at Cannes and other regional festivals, audiences are ready to embrace Pekar’s story, as unconventional as it may be. Everyone involved with the film—from the filmmakers to executives at HBO and Fine Line Pictures, the company distributing the film—is counting on it. “The audience for American Splendor is out there,” says Nadler. “And we’re going to place it in enough theaters so hopefully they will discover it. I’m banking on word-of-mouth. All I had to worry about was making a good film and then hoping it would get into a festival, and it got into the best one in the US—Sundance. As soon as we saw how people responded there, I figured we were on a pretty good road.”

Festivals have been an essential part of marketing the film. “You have an audience that’s interested in cinema. Oftentimes, you have the filmmakers and the talent at the festival, so you get to do a lot of interviews. To have a Q&A with the filmmakers after a screening makes you like it so much more,” says Marian Koltai-Levine, executive vice president of marketing at Fine Line, explaining the decision to screen the film at regional festivals all summer. “It’s something that most arthouse distributors employ as a tool, because it’s not only cost-effective, but you get your talent out into the local areas. That makes a huge difference and creates a lot of good will because a lot of these markets don’t travel their journalists.”

Gearing up for theatrical release, the marketing of the film has shifted. For example, the trailer began to appear in theaters in New York and Los Angeles in early June 2003. It notably does not include any of the documentary segments. “Structurally and cinematically it’s a very unusual film, given that there is some documentary and some narrative information,” Koltai-Levine says. “In a trailer, it’s extremely difficult to convey two messages. The most important message is that it’s a narrative film, and number two, that it’s entertaining. We’re starting on a platform release and we roll out. You have to give it that breathing time to let it start the word-of-mouth. We believe very strongly in the reviews and in the word-of-mouth. And as everything keeps going, I think it will get better and better.”

Nadler also believes that word-of-mouth is the driving force behind the marketing of this unconventional yet extremely likeable film. She also feels that Pekar’s involvement has become an unexpected bonus in building enthusiasm. “Everywhere we show it, it seems to really resonate,” she says. “I don’t know what other word explains what happens with audiences when they see this movie. They totally get Harvey. It’s mind-boggling how much everyone wants to talk to him, press specifically. We had to pull people away.”

Pekar is an unusual character whose story has led to an unusual film. His life resonates with audiences because he has had the ability to transform a seemingly ordinary existence into something transcendent. “Harvey’s world is drab,” says Berman. “It rains, it snows, forgotten warehouses, urban landscape, and yet his life is full of all these colorful characters. And Harvey has this artist’s soul. He can observe it. He can look around and see the beauty in his co-workers in the file room. That’s his artistry.”

How do the filmmakers define Pekar’s worldview? “He’s a sentimental pessimist,” says Berman. “It’s complicated,” Pulcini adds. “At times he can be so sentimental. You can get a lump in your throat reading some of his stories, and then he can be really cruel, yelling at people. And he can be completely impossible to be around. But that’s what’s wonderful. He has a whole world of emotions that are represented in his comics.”

What is perhaps most endearing about Pekar’s story is that his comics brought him not only creative satisfaction and a fan base, but it was also through them that he met his wife, Joyce, and his adoptive daughter, Danielle. “Comic books saved his life,” says Pulcini. “It was through comics that he found a life. There’s something amazing about someone who expresses his entire interior life, and then through that manages to pull a family together. It’s amazing.”

Just as Pekar’s life amazes, there seems to be something amazing about the movie of his life. “This is the weirdest thing—most surreal thing,” Berman says. “Our call time on the first day of the shoot was 4:30 in the morning, and it was the height of these meteor showers that happen once every hundred years or thousand years.”

“On the news they were saying, if you can get up at 4:30 in the morning, you’ll see the meteor showers,” Pulcini explains. “And it was our call time, so we were all outside watching these incredible meteor showers.”

“You see it in movies sometime,” says Berman. “The sky is twinkling and it was like, ‘Okay, let’s start making the movie.’” Did they consider it an auspicious sign? “Either that or just something bizarre,” she says. “It was like, We’re about to start doing something very unusual.”

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