Reality and Fiction Meet in Brilliant “American Splendor”
by Peter Brunette
“American Splendor,” which already made a big splash at Sundance earlier this year, winning the grand jury prize, has taken Cannes by storm. This brilliant mélange of documentary and fiction film, in which 70-year-old Brechtian self-reflexive techniques have been made relevant for a new day, is clearly one of the most fascinating and challenging films to appear among this year’s crop of American indie production. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, best known previously for their engrossing documentary on a beloved Hollywood institution, “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s,” have risked all on this curious hybrid and come up winners.
The subject-matter will already be well-known to those familiar with the real-life comics of the misanthropic, terminably depressed Harvey Pekar, a friend of master comic bookman Robert Crumb, whose example first led Pekar to success (of a very qualified sort, which is perfectly appropriate in his case). Pekar, in real-life a dyspeptic flunky stuck in an unfulfilling filing clerk’s job in a VA hospital, one day decides to commit his pathetic life to the comic book format, even though he’s incapable, drawing-wise, of little more than stick figures. As he so eloquently puts it, in self-justification, “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Even more unhappiness and frustration follows, plus, thank god, a modicum of contentment and even triumph by the end.
Berman and Pulcini have opted to dramatize this star-crossed life in the person of the supremely talented Paul Giamatti (who takes to these loser roles so easily — for example, in Todd Solondz’s recent “Storytelling” — that he’s in danger of becoming typecast) and Hope Davis, a solid indie regular, who plays his wife Joyce. On a sheer narrative level, their bizarre courtship and subsequent life together represent something never before dramatized. Truth, it turns, is indeed a great deal stranger than fiction. Later episodes detailing Pekar’s bout with cancer and the couple’s ultimate adoption of a young girl who’s been left in their care are moving, in a subdued but entirely (and appropriately) conventional way.
What’s supremely fascinating about this film, however, is that Berman and Pulcini weren’t content merely to dramatize this frustrated life, but also decided to include the real-life Harvey Pekar throughout the film as a commentator on his own actions. Even better, since most of Pekar’s friends and co-workers ended up in his comics anyway, they’re also here, in person, commenting upon the actors playing them in the movie we’re watching. The constant comparisons we make between the real people and the actors become fascinating exercises in their own right. Especially noteworthy is the directors’ welcome penchant for letting contradictory statements stand side by side, without telling us which one we are really supposed to believe.
The question that comes to mind is the following: Why couldn’t Berman and Pulcini just stick to dramatically rendering Pekar’s life in the usual manner, through actors? After a moment’s reflection, though, the answer is clear. Since the very raison d’etre of the “American Splendor” comics is their proximity to Pekar’s real life, a film without the real Harvey Pekar would be unthinkable. (On a more practical level, when we see video tape of celebrated appearances by Pekar on the Letterman show, the NBC footage of the real Pekar, whom we’ve gotten thoroughly used to, blends imperceptibly.) Obviously, this aesthetic decision could have led to a lot of heavy intellectual lifting but Berman and Pulcini, ever intent (and quite properly so) on entertaining their audience, have kept everything at a very accessible level, which nevertheless contains a great many hidden depths. The one objection that might be made concerning “American Splendor” is that it contains little in the way of psychological development. Pekar is depressed in the beginning, middle, and end of the film, and there is virtually no trace of anything resembling that Holy Grail of Hollywood, the traditional character arc. That of course, is the very truth of Pekar’s life, and here it’s rendered with perfect fidelity.
Berman and Pulcini, not content to let reality and fiction lie on opposite sides of the river, mutely glaring at one another, have also freely mixed them. Thus there are scenes,in what is obviously a studio, in which Giamatti watches Pekar talk about Giamatti’s performance, and other scenes in which the empty white set that surrounds Giamatti becomes quickly filled in with comic-book sketching, confounding our too-easy distinctions between reality and fiction.
This is a movie that demonstrates some real filmmaking prowess. Even better, and even more rarely, some deep thought as well.