January 19

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Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – American Splendor

Write what you know. It’s good advice for anyone harboring literary ambitions. But what if all you know is the misery of a plebian lifestyle consisted of crap neighbourhoods, crap jobs and terrible marriages? That’s the predicament facing Harvey Pekar at the start of American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s meta meditation on the late underground comic book writer, whose rise to cult stardom via his titular tales of life “from off the streets of Cleveland” this film charts.

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Played by Paul Giamatti, Harvey begins the film as a going-nowhere misanthrope, a “pretty scholarly chap” newly dumped by his second wife and stuck in a dead-end job as a filing clerk for a Cleveland hospital. His life at this point – the mid 1970s – is mostly a series of disappointments, the only respite from which is the temporary and increasingly hard-to-come-by satisfaction he gets from obsessively collecting rare vinyl or obscure comic books. He’s friends with the cartoonist Robert Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat and soon-to-be doyen of the counter-culture comic book scene, but his own lack of artistic talent and inability to connect with the kid-friendly audience to which superhero comics are targeted discourages him from doing his own stuff … until, that is, his inner voice rages at him to stop suffering in silence and make a mark on the world.

The flashbulb moment comes in a supermarket checkout queue. Silently fuming at an old lady haggling over a coupon deal on tumblers, he storms off back to his house, sits at his desk, roughly divides a blank sheet of paper into the panels of a comic strip and lets his inner rage out, documenting the supermarket incident’s banal details verbatim and using stick figures to crudely illustrate his story. It’s a start – and a good one too. Crumb likes it enough to offer to illustrate it properly and, in a niftily symbolic moment, the laryngitis that has been plaguing Pekar for months suddenly clears up. He’s finally found his voice.

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If the latter sounds a little too neat, it’s an intentional part of the film’s design. Part biopic and part documentary, American Splendor cuts between the two formats, frequently breaking the fourth wall to illustrate the way real life – “the stuff the everyman’s got to deal with,” as Harvey puts it – can be harvested for the purpose of soul-baring entertainment. The real Harvey Pekar died from an accidental overdose in 2010 following a third cancer diagnosis, but he narrates this 2003 film in self-referential fashion, appearing in it as the directors cut to behind-the-scenes shots of the recording sessions, their voices frequently soliciting him for opinions about what it’s like to have this film being made about his life.

It’s through these documentary interludes that we begin to get another perspective on Harvey. Among the other interviewees, for instance, is Joyce Brabner, his third wife and co-collaborator on several of his books. She immediately becomes a character in his comics, so naturally she’s part of the movie, played in the dramatised segments (opposite Giamatti) by Hope Davis. The real Brabner objects to the way she’s frequently characterised in the comics as sour and joyless. She thinks there’s more happiness in their life than Harvey’s stories suggest. Harvey thinks happiness doesn’t sell – misery loves company, after all – so doesn’t include it. The dramatic license the filmmakers take with that aforementioned “voice” moment, then, is really just their way of drawing attention to how all writers, even those purporting to tell it like it is, shape their experience to suit their style and market.

American Splendor is great at detailing that ephemeral process, what ‘Movie Joyce’ refers to in the prison writing workshop she runs as the act of “building an interior life” to “make art out of … monotonous, suffocating routine”. The film shows Harvey learning to do the same, but it takes care not to romanticise it. The modicum of critical success and fame he achieves (he becomes a regular on David Letterman’s chat show) doesn’t stop him getting cancer, doesn’t stop the chronic loneliness he sometimes feels. Nor does it enable him to quit his day job. But it does give him purpose. As Thomas Carlyle is quoted in the film: “Writing is a dreadful labor, yet not as dreadful as idleness.” Or, indeed, as dreadful as silently fuming at old ladies in supermarkets.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, January 2015