Cinophile: AMERICAN SPLENDOR

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Not all comic book movies are about explosions, alien invaders and Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Pratt’s smirk. In a sense modern comic book films have regressed the culture. For many years comic fans have been pushing for the medium to be recognised beyond its obsession of spandex-covered muscle men and unattainable femme fatales.

Comics can be so much more than a juvenile fixation on superheroes. Sadly Marvel’s movies have turned that cart over: anyone who disagrees should explain how ComicCon is mainly a marketing fiasco for summer blockbusters, which are nearly all aping the big M’s style. Comics are back to being nostalgic throwbacks to our childhood instead of growing our culture.

This would not have pleased Harvey Pekar, an outlier in the comic book world who never had time for its superficial side. He saw a much bigger opportunity in the medium: to tell real stories about real people. Most often these tales were about him, a man with a personal temperament and outlook that at times made Larry David look like a blind optimist. But it was that very glib and unflinching view of the world that also made Pekar a cult star.

This journey and philosophy is captured, more or less, in American Splendor – the HBO movie named after Pekar’s long-running comic series. Starring a pre-Sideways fame Paul Giamatti as Pekar, it’s a broad biographical cut through the man’s life. Pekar’s life was actually very ordinary, even dull and depressing. He’s the antithesis of the superhero: a reminder that none of us are special or destined for anything great. Life is what you make of it and often life dishes out lemons with more in the back.

This did not make Pekar many friends, but still resonated with a large audience. His early collaboration with close-friend and indie comic godfather Robert Crumb started a comic series that still stands on its own today.

As a biography American Splendor reflects this, using a lot of stories from the comics. It even shows this off, at times displaying the same frames from the comics as they are copied in the film. It also includes several brief interviews with the late Pekar and has a certain fourth-wall breaking charm that works nicely with the material. In a way American Splendor wanted to make it clear that it is not simply another comic book movie adaptation, but a respectful look at Pekar’s world.

Sadly only fans of Pekar’s work have really seen this movie, but any comic book fan worth their salt should give it a go. In a time when comic-culture has been co-opted by legions of adult children, American Splendor is a reminder of the medium’s wider and deeper reaches. Sadly a Harvey Pekar story will never gross a billion, which just goes to show how unfair the world is.

Then again, if the world was a fair place, Pekar would never have had anything to gripe about.

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Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs, wanted to create an American Splendor movie back in the Eighties, but he was not 3established enough to pull it off.
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Harvey Pekar was a regular guest on the David Letterman show and he remained one of Letterman’s favourite guests. Still, Pekar was very candid and in 1988 was banned from the show after a rant against corporate sponsor General Electric. Despite this, Pekar would return twice for interviews. Sadly NBC refused to release the footage for use in the movie, so the scenes were recreated by the actors. Despite Pekar’s notorious grumpiness, Paul Giamatti said that Pekar was “one of the most compassionate and empathetic human beings I’ve ever met.”
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Comic fans will enjoy the brief glimpses of Robert Crumb, though portrayed by an actor. The famous underground cartoonist was a close friend of Pekar’s, sharing in particular his love for jazz music. Crumb was also instrumental in Pekar’s career, illustrating numerous of his script.s
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American Splendor is not entirely a fictional biography. Chunks of the film feature interviews with Pekar, his wife and his colleagues, many whom became characters in his comics. The interviews were shot especially for the movie and were all made in one day.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: July 27, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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