Skip to main content

American Splendor (The Movie)

American Splendor (2003)
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis

Part of the
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

The film American Splendor screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival with none other than Harvey Pekar to give opening remarks and a Q&A after the film. He was rather grandly described as a pivotal figure in the history of comics, the first to popularize the autobiographical illustrated novel, namely American Splendor, written about his own life as a file clerk at the V.A. Hospital in Cleveland.

It was a notion the irascible cartoon artist hastened to dispell. "I'm not used to this kind of star treatment," he said. He reminisced about his introduction to comics, and their typical superhero world. "If you wanna call that Superman, you can call me Schlepperman." When it came to the film that chronicles his life, he was equally candid. "This movie really saved me." As he confided, he found that couldn't retire on his earnings as a lifelong file clerk - he never went for promotions because he loved the job where he didn't really do very much. "And my comic books don't sell that much," he added.

After having seen him in the Comic Forum the day before, I'd have to say it was Harvey at his most genial. "If you want to come down to Cleveland, I'm in the phonebook - give me a ring." It sounded like a genuine invitation.

Then it was on to the film. It's partly narrated by the real Harvey Pekar and featuring his real life wife Joyce Brabner, partly acted out by Paul Giammati and Hope Davis as same, with a scene or two where we see the film being made, the cameras behind Paul, and in one scene, Paul as Harvey watches as a third actor and actress act out their/his lives. It keeps the narrative tripping along.

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff." It's Harvey's mantra of sorts, and an explanation of why he writes what he writes. As much as he's uncompromising in some ways, the humour softens the blows. On looking at himself in the mirror: "Now there's a reliable disappointment."

The film begins just as his second wife is leaving him. Some lonely time later, Joyce, then a young and budding/failing comicbook store owner, strikes up a written correspondence with the artist whose work she loves. One thing leads to another and they decide to meet.

It's a match made in heaven. Right off, at their first meeting, he announces his vasectomized status before anything else - Joyce seems nonplussed.

Later, at his place:
"Harvey, would you get me some water and 3 aspirin?"
"Why, do you have a headache?"
"No, I'm trying to avoid one."

Harvey admits to marrying quickly all 3 times to the only women who'd have him (his words!) For whatever reason, it's a schedule Joyce was in synch with. This also on the first date:

"I think we should just skip the whole courtship thing and get married."

Naturally, even after he hooks up with Robert Crumb barely out of his teens and gets him to illustrate his first comics, and even after he marries the love of his life, things don't seem to get much better - certainly not his mood. "I'm just a gloomy guy, that's all." He still has to work as a file clerk as the riches fail to come in.

Eventually, as history tells us and many will remember, the David Letterman Show got wind of his grassroots appeal, and had him on. The infamously irritable Harvey balked at Letterman's slick questions and assumptions (he bristled when asked why he didn't quit his day job!) but the fractitious repartee seemed to suit the audience. Even though he was aware that he was largely playing Letterman's chump, he thought it good for business, so to speak, and so the appearances continued.

He did, that is, until one fateful appearance at a time when Joyce had been away saving children in Palestine, and he'd just found an ominous lump in the nether regions of his body. At the same time, he'd concluded that he was serving perverted corporate interests by appearing on the talk show. The result is an episode that went down in history.

Despite his resident gloom, however, it's clear that his life came alive when he began producing his comics, and he met virtually all the important people in his life because of it, including Joyce and their foster daughter, a brainy blonde little girl brought around by one of the artists he worked with. That's the thread of hope that keeps the story - and him, I would imagine - alive.

The latter part of the film deals with his struggle with cancer. It was Joyce's suggestion to turn the ordeal into something positive by making a comic out of it, a book that won them both recognition and awards.

"With any luck I'll get a window of good health between retirement and when I die." It's his semi-hopeful wish.

Paul Giamatti, one of my favourite actors, inhabits the role completely, from his posture, his voice and words, gestures and movements. It's a really interesting film about a true iconoclast.

Comments

What Else Is Hot This Week?

Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company Spring 2013 Toronto Performances

From a media release:

The new season brings
Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company
to new heights and new audiences

March 20-24, 2013 - A Night in Madrid
April 25-28, 2013 - Annual Toronto Season - World Premiere of Portales

TORONTO : Following on the heels of Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company's (EESDC) 30th anniversary year where its production Aguas/Waters was named one of the top five dance shows of 2012 by NOW Magazine, the early months of 2013 are full of excitement and possibility for Esmeralda and the company, which brings the finest flamenco and Spanish Classical Dance to Toronto stages.

March 20-24, 2013 - A Night in Madrid
Company dancers Esmeralda Enrique and Paloma Cortés perform Spanish Classical dance with the celebrated Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir for A Night in Madrid featuring the Iberian flavoured music of composer Luigi Boccherini who made his home in Spain. His work is infused with the sounds of Spanish and gypsy folk music.

March 20-24 …

Polina Semionova to Appear as Guest Artist with American Ballet Theatre

From a media release:

POLINA SEMIONOVA TO APPEAR AS GUEST ARTIST
WITH AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE
FOR 2011 SPRING SEASON AT METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE

New York - Polina Semionova, a principal dancer with Berlin State Opera Ballet, will debut as a Guest Artist with American Ballet Theatre for the 2011 Metropolitan Opera House season, it was announced January 14, 2011 by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. With ABT, Semionova will perform Kitri in Don Quixote at the matinee on Saturday, May 21, opposite David Hallberg as Basilio, and the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake on Saturday evening, July 2, opposite Hallberg as Prince Siegfried.

Born in Moscow, Semionova studied at the Bolshoi Ballet School before joining the Berlin State Opera Ballet as the company’s youngest principal dancer. Her repertoire with Berlin State Opera Ballet includes Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, Nikiya in La Bayadère, Marie in The Nutcracker, Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Swanilda in Coppélia, Kitri in Don Quixo…

Harlem Stage Digital Event: A Drop Of Midnight October 13 & 15 2020

From a release:Harlem Stage Digital Event:
A Drop Of Midnight
October 13 & 15 2020A two-part conversation with Jason ‘Timbuktu’ Diakité and his creative team around the developmental process of creating his autobiographical theater project, A Drop of Midnight. In this conversation Jason will take us on his journey to becoming one of Sweden’s chart-topping hip-hop artists and a best-selling author. He’ll also share the story of how a mixtape from Brooklyn traveled across the waters to the tiny village of Lund, Sweden and altered the course of his life forever. We will examine the impact of hip hop music and culture on the globe. How has hip-hop united communities of color globally?  How do you translate a personal story into a universal truth? How do you build a creative team? How has the current climate of social justice informed your artistic practice? Jason will read excerpts from the play and share some of the music. October 13—Part IIn this conversation A Drop of Midnight author…

So You Can't Go: Six Ways To Travel Virtually

So You Can't Go:
Six Ways To Travel VirtuallyTravel is limited for most of us in the world these days. For Canadians, it depends on the province you live in, but with the border to the US still closed, and other options limited at best, virtual travel from the couch can provide at least a view with a difference at a time when you may well need it most. Google Cardboard – VR On A BudgetYou don't need a lot of cash to get into travel via virtual reality. Google Cardboard is a line of VR viewers that are, well, made of cardboard, and are priced starting at $12CAD.If you check out this link, you'll find out how to download the software to your smartphone.At this link, you can get yourself an actual Google Cardboard for a hands-free VR experience. Google Cardboard apps offer a variety of ways to experience our beautiful planet, including Google Earth itself, which can take you anywhere, along with apps to view museums and cultural artifacts, and more.Ascape VRAscape has a huge l…

Fall for Dance North Debuts 2020 Festival: Live + Digital Experiences Sept 29–Oct 18 2020

From a media release:Fall for Dance North Debuts 2020 Festival
Captivating Live + Digital Experiences on Newly Enhanced Digital PlatformToronto’s premier international dance festival launches curated collection of original content and proprietary programs on new custom-built websiteTORONTO, ON — Fall for Dance North (FFDN) proudly presents the 6th edition of its esteemed international dance festival, The Flip Side, from Sept. 29–Oct. 18, 2020
Featuring a new, Netflix-style digital platform, an enhanced line-up of free programming, and a ticketed signature livestream presentation featuring six world premieres by Canadian dancemakers, FFDN has reimagined the festival experience to offer audiences an intimate connection to the art form of dance during these extraordinary times.Starting on Sept. 29, free programs will be released at ffdnorth.com daily, including an original podcast, a quirky interview series in a bathtub, a poetry + music album, a new dance film featuring 46 Ryerson Schoo…