American Splendor: Harvey Pekar and the Splendor that was Cleveland
Harvey Pekar and the Splendor that was Cleveland
by Henry Edward Hardy
American Splendor is the story of Harvey Pekar, a file clerk and down-market intellectual from the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the schlubby hero of his own comic, and the multifarious protagonist of his own movie. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor (2003) is a sweet, funny film about a cynical, good-hearted loser and his idiosyncratic friends and family.
I had read that this film involved a combination of the real Harvey Pekar, dramatizations of the comic and still frames by various artists. I expected the movie to be incoherent, pretentious, arty and boring. Having lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio in the ’60s and ’70s, I anticipated the depiction of Cleveland would be a phony, cheap satire.
Surprisingly, American Splendor is brilliant. The transitions between cartoon frames, the understated acting of Paul Giamatti, and the real Pekar, work wonderfully. The result is like a moving Kandinsky montage, a collision of disparate elements that nonetheless combine with the spaces between them to make a harmonious whole. The location shots are true to life and the gritty urban scenes made me downright homesick for Cleveland in the ’70s. And any movie that makes you homesick for Cleveland in the ’70s is a brilliant film.
Pekar worked as a hospital file clerk and as a music critic on the side. The music of American Splendor underlines Pekar’s love of jazz and his massive jazz record collection. Harvey Pekar is the loveable, acerbic, intellectual, grouchy yet well-meaning lower-white-collar guy that Woody Allen always wanted to be.
American Splendor is also a love story. It is a story about Pekar’s affair and somewhat functional marriage with his third wife, Joyce Brabner. American Splendor is about making a life among the urban decay of post-industrial Cleveland. The film celebrates all the people who don’t fit in, the misfits, artists and non-conformists. It is an uplifting story about a miserable, gloomy guy who has no life as we know it. Pekar is a modern Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce, an apostle for the common man.
If your life sucks, if you are a nerd or quasi-autistic, if you have bad luck or no luck at all — or if you have a sense of humor that always carries you through, see American Splendor.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
No comments yet.