Sunday, December 30, 2007

American Splendor and Splendor Redux

Working-Class Hero

Cleveland legend Harvey Pekar hits the big screen in the long-awaited American Splendor

By Pamela Zoslov

You didn't really think that success would spoil Harvey Pekar, did you? Just because American Splendor, the movie based on his life and comic book, has won several major film awards and is sending critics into paroxysms of praise, doesn't mean that Pekar — the author of the autobiographical American Splendor comics — is happy. I mean, is he ever?

Actually, Pekar is uncharacteristically sanguine about the movie, which opens nationally this Friday. The movie has made Pekar, his wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner, and their foster daughter, Danielle Batone, into the most unusual of Hollywood celebrities; Pekar has chronicled their adventures at Sundance and Cannes in typically mordant comic panels in local magazines.
This morning, the three of them look weary and morose as they brace themselves for yet another press interview. I ask them the question everyone has already asked: What's it like to see yourself, and your life, depicted onscreen?

"Weird," says Danielle.

"It doesn't feel unusual at all," says Pekar. He's been chronicling the details of his life since launching American Splendor in 1976, so the movie seems like a natural progression. "People have been illustrating my work for a number of years, and there have been several plays based on my work, so it's not unusual."

They have nothing but praise for the filmmakers and actors. "I think Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis did an outstanding job," Pekar says. I note that Giamatti doesn't so much portray Harvey as channel him, and wonder if he spent time hanging out with him to study his character. "He studied the comics," Brabner says. "And they went book shopping. He's a lot like Harvey."

"What the actors offered was, you know, more like interpretations than imitations of us," Pekar explains. Hope Davis, who plays Joyce, spent some time with Brabner, but the actress requested that Brabner not be present on the set. "It made her feel much too self-conscious," Brabner says.

One of the movie's funniest sequences recounts Harvey and Joyce's comically hasty courtship. Moments after meeting Joyce, the twice-divorced Harvey blurts out, "You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy." And after their first dinner together, Joyce becomes violently ill in Harvey's bathroom. A solicitous Harvey offers her some herbal tea, and she impulsively suggests that they "just skip the courtship and get married."

"It really was that fast," Brabner says. "I'd written to him because we had a distribution problem [at the Delaware comics store where she worked]. I probably thought he was still married. He sent me back a personal letter, and I had this thing about encouraging artists while they're still alive — so I figured I'd better write to him before he's dead.

"We started corresponding, and we had these phone calls, and I came into town and found out that he didn't have Tourette's, he didn't smell really bad, and didn't have these twitches." (In a particularly funny bit of movie dialogue, Joyce asks Harvey about the wavy lines that emanate from him in the comics. "Those are motion lines," Harvey insists. "I'm an active guy!")

"I was really disturbed, because I knew then I was going to marry him, and I didn't want to get married again," Brabner recalls. "And I did this sort of, show me a sign, show me a sign. And I got food poisoning. (The episode is altered slightly in the movie because, Brabner quips, "Hope wasn't into diarrhea — she's got this Boticelli thing.")

"So here's this guy swabbing up the bathroom floor and making me herbal tea, and I just really fell in love with him. On our second date, we picked out rings."

Pekar insisted that the movie not glamorize their very ordinary lives. As a result, the story of the couple's relationship — Brabner's depression after moving into Harvey's cluttered Coventry apartment, Harvey's battle with lymphatic cancer (the basis of their collaborative comic, Our Cancer Year), their sudden parenthood when Danielle moved in with them — is told movingly, but with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Pekar and Brabner give credit to writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose background is in documentary filmmaking.

"One of the things we realized was that Harvey's story wasn't any longer about a lonely bachelor, a freakish character," says Brabner. "It was a very comfortable fit when we started working with Bob and Sherry, 'cause they're a married couple, and they had different insights into us."

It is a testament to the film's realism that the shift between Pekar, Brabner and Danielle, who appear in the movie's documentary segments, and the actors portraying them is utterly seamless. The movie uses actual footage of Pekar's appearances on the David Letterman show, culminating in his legendary confrontation with the talk-show host over General Electric's corporate ownership of NBC.

"I was tired of doing my working-class shtick," Pekar explains. "I wasn't getting very much out of the show. It wasn't helping the sales of my books at all. I wanted to branch out, to show my serious side. And I thought that either he would jump in there with me, and we could improvise and make it a pretty funny show, or I could cause a sensation by getting into a big argument with him, and that would be good for him, too."

"You were bored and disgusted with doing [the show]," Brabner says. "We were surrounded by these creepy, condescending handlers — and there's no handling of Harvey."

The movie is certain to bring Pekar greater fame, but fame has never been his primary goal. A working-class guy, he is famously and forever fixated on the bottom line. The cover of Bob & Harv's Comics, an anthology of the Robert Crumb-illustrated Pekar stories, pokes fun at Harvey's parsimony. Crumb, watching a buxom lass pass by, silently laments, "I can never have her," while Pekar, seated next to him, prattles on about cashing in: "I'd sell out in a minit, but nobody's buyin' what I'm sellin'!"

Will the movie, unlike the Letterman gig, pay off for Pekar? "They paid me a pretty fair amount for the rights," says Pekar, 64, who recently retired from his file-clerk job at the VA hospital. He continues to write jazz and book reviews, and while the movie has made it easier to negotiate with editors, he still grumbles about those who don't pay him and won't return his calls. Happiness seems as elusive as ever.


Return To Splendor : Has Movie Success Spoiled Harvey Pekar? Naaah.

Just over a year after the release of American Splendor, the award-winning movie based on his underground comic series, the paradox of Harvey Pekar persists. There is Pekar the literary artist, the writer who in 1976 began a seemingly artless narrative about the triumphs and disappointments of his daily life, embracing within it the quietly desperate stories, recorded with the ear of a documentarian, of people he worked with and those he encountered on the streets of Cleveland. That Pekar has been embraced as a genius, a blue-collar everyman, a writer in the tradition of Chekhov and Dreiser.

And then there's Pekar the money-hungry, working-class shlub , the chronic worrier who frets that once the glow of his movie fame wears off, his freelance writing opportunities will dry up, and he won't be able to supplement his pension from the veterans' hospital where he worked as a file clerk for 37 years.

“Will the jobs keep coming, and if so, will I be able to get them fairly easily or have to beg for them?” Pekar asks in one story in the new American Splendor compilation, Our Movie Year . He worries throughout the stories in this book: about flat tires, a dead car battery, the blackout that befalls the northeast on the eve of his movie premiere, and mail that piles up at home while he, his wife, Joyce, and their teenage foster daugher, Danielle, are flown to Cannes, Australia and other exotic locales.

But maybe the paradox is really about Cleveland, a city whose grace and charm are evident only when you scrape away its rough, rusted exterior. And that is what makes Pekar — like Cleveland, maddening, tiresome, inadequate, and unexpectedly brilliant — the city's ideal ambassador.

Our Movie Year comprises stories published in various publications, along with new stories describing the road that led to the making of American Splendor (the idea had been kicking around since 1980, with such names attached to it as Jonathan Demme and Leonardo DiCaprio), and the Pekar family's unlikely brush with Hollywood demi-celebrity

As recounted here, all was not paradise for Harvey. Just after shooting of the film wrapped in 2001, he was hospitalized for depression, and was struck by a recurrence of the lymphoma he battled in the early '90s. He underwent chemotherapy, followed by a series of electroshock treatments, which so disoriented him that when he first saw the American Splendor movie, he found some of it confusing.
Through all his traumas, Harvey remains characteristically cranky but humble —grateful for his luck in having the movie made, generous in praising the talents of the filmmakers and actors, and thankful for the help of his patient and protective wife.

The book also includes several of Pekar's wonderful collaborations with artist Gary Dumm commemorating jazz musicians Pekar admires (Joe Maneri, Willa Mae Buckner, King Oliver). It is often overlooked that Pekar's work has always been highly dependent on the talents of the illustrators who bring it to life. Represented here, along with Dumm, are artists Mark Zingarelli, Gerry Shamray, Ed Piskor, Frank Stack, Joe Zabel and Dean Haspiel.

In truth, the dull linearity of Pekar's stories can be wearisome, and the artists labor admirably to give them transcendence. Shamray adds clever computer-generated images to enhance a prosaic tale in which Pekar is stranded at a movie theater by a dead battery. Zabel combines computer animation and photographs to enliven an account of Harvey taking his car for an emissions test.

The collaborative process finds its apotheosis in Robert Crumb, the famed underground comics artist who, as Pekar's original and arguably best interpreter, brings an extra frisson to “Reunion,” in which Crumb fields a phone call from Harvey asking him to illustrate “somethin' for Entertainment Weekly .” Harvey, in a manic reverie, tells an increasingly alarmed Crumb that “all the ol' teams,” like Simon and Garfunkel, are getting together for reunion tours, and suggests that he and Crumb do a tour together, with comedy routines, songs and Crumb accompanying on banjo. Crumb's look of horror, before he tells his old friend, “Yeah, Harvey, that'd be swell,” is a thing of beauty. If it had been written by Crumb, the story would tell us something about what his old pal thinks of him.

But Pekar, as the author of the story in which he is an annoying pest, achieves an admirably wry distance from himself — something I wish he would do in more of the American Splendor stories.

Originally published in 2006 in the Cleveland Free Times.

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