I had a lovely brunch with S at The Flying Biscuit, one of the coolest restaurants in town, this morning, and tonight we went to see American Splendor (IMDB), the film based on Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic. Pekar, who also co-authored Our Cancer Year, with his wife, Joyce Brabner, appears to be an interesting figure, but I have to admit I knew little about him before watching this film (I’ll definitely read his stuff now).
What struck me as most interesting about the film was the way it treated the conversion from his comic books to the film. The film effectively mixed interviews and voice-over narratives (by Pekar himself) with performances by Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and James Urbaniak (as friend and frequent illustrator, Robert Crumb). Because much of Pekar’s work is autobiographical, this narrative technique called attention to how Pekar himself used narrative to frame his experiences (in part in order to sell comic books). Many shot sequences used a static camera and framing that recalled the artwork typically associated with comic books. I also very much enjoyed the film’s treatment of Pekar’s appearances on David Letterman (during his NBC days), mixing actual footage of the show with Paul Giamatti’s performance as Pekar and shots of Giamatti watching himself on Letterman’s show, which has always been self-conscious about its own staginess. Pekar was a regular on the show until he eventually broke down, angrily airing his resentments about having to sell himself on Letterman’s show. I’ll also say that the sequence in which Pekar has a nervous breakdown on the show (just before he is diagnosed with cancer, according to the film’s narrative) is smartly filmed, using stage lights and cameras to block our access to Pekar’s face during this emotional scene, with Letterman confiding quietly to Pekar that he’s blown a good thing.
The film deals with Pekar’s tensions about his celebrity very carefully (Pekar continued to hold his job as a file clerk years after achieving commercial success as a comic book writer), and Pekar’s ability to capture the subtleties of his friends and colleagues is effectively captured by the graphic matches between the comic books and the film itself. Good stuff. The Village Voice review, which references Marshall Berman’s appreciation of Pekar’s comics is worth checking out.