Harvey Pekar’s Land of the Losers-Burps at Hollywood’s Heros

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor , based on Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s autobiographical comic books and produced by Ted Hope, has excited and exhilarated me as no other American film this year. Perhaps it’s because I never imagined that I’d be raving about a movie based on a comic book-even one with a naturalistic protagonist rather than some fantastical superhero. It’s hardly surprising that I’d never heard of Mr. Pekar and his work until I saw this film; as I’ve noted in previous columns, I draw an admittedly arbitrary line at not wasting time on comic books, despite being addicted to newspaper comic strips since early childhood.

Mr. Pekar lives in Cleveland, which sounds like a loser’s punchline from the outset. Fittingly enough, he worked for many years at a dead-end job as a V.A. hospital file clerk, while moonlighting as a comic-book writer and a freelance jazz critic. After two failed marriages he met Joyce Brabner, a Delaware comic-store manager, who wrote to him asking for a copy of American Splendor . The two misfits soon after got married and adopted Danielle Batone, a child of hippie parents who couldn’t handle the responsibility.

I’m not sure what I would think of Mr. Pekar’s comic books if I ever read them, but Ms. Springer-Berman and Mr. Pulcini-who also happen to be married-have managed a triple play of almost miraculous dimensions by introducing Mr. Pekar first as a cartoon figure, then in the luminously uncanny incarnation of veteran character actor Paul Giamatti, and finally as the real-life Mr. Pekar, mainly through footage of his stormy appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman . Even Luigi Pirandello would have been impressed with this film’s fluid transition between the real and the imagined.

The same tripartite process is followed for Ms. Brabner, with the ideally cast and magically gifted Hope Davis adding another exquisitely edgy characterization to her ever-growing gallery of no-nonsense spunky females. The letter-perfect casting of actors who project the grainy texture of real people extends to Madylin Sweeten as Danielle, Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff, Mr. Pekar’s spasmodically opinionated buddy, and James Urbaniak as Robert Crumb, the most celebrated of the several cartoonists who drew characters to accompany Mr. Pekar’s glum thought-bubble dialogue. That Mr. Pekar was so graphically illiterate-he represented his characters with childish stick figures-reminds us that Walt Disney’s dramatic genius was not dimmed by a drawing gift so feeble, according to Richard Schickel’s biography, that he was forced to hire a more accomplished draughtsman to sketch out his patented signature.

American Splendor , in both its comic-book and movie manifestations, would seem at first glance to be a defiant burp at the conventions of the Hollywood hero. Still, celebrations of the earthly slob and the street punk are not entirely unknown in the Hollywood mainstream, vide Wallace Beery and Marlon Brando. But this film is about something much more interesting: a portrait of the artist as grumpy grown-up. Indeed, Mr. Pekar in all his guises never lacks confidence in his artistic goals, but all the while carries on grousing about his daily difficulties in picking the right line at the supermarket checkout counters or, with the same level of gravity and exasperation, finding the best treatment for his life-threatening cancer.

There have been many claims over the years by both industry-bankrolled and independent filmmakers that they were engaged in exploring the lives of the forgotten, the forsaken and the downtrodden. But very seldom were these rank losers and outsiders given intelligent things to say about anything beyond their most immediate concerns. There were the occasional exceptions, like John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963), and Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), in which otherwise disenfranchised characters displayed both wit and intellectual energy despite being on the outside looking in. In general, however, screenwriters find it more “realistic” to write down to the presumed imbecile level of most “real” people.

The point is that stories about bright people who have never been able to get it together have seldom been told on the screen. The bitter truths of these stories do not make audiences feel warm and fuzzy inside. Fortunately, Harvey and Joyce make us feel very warm because Mr. Giamatti and Ms. Davis transform a grotesque courtship scene into the beginning of a great love story under the inspired tutelage of the hitherto nonfiction-filmmakers, Ms. Berman and Mr. Pulcini. American Splendor is awash with feelings of understated love and affection, as reflected in the joyfully surprised expression on Joyce’s face when she unexpectedly encounters Danielle in the apartment. You just know that she is never going to let this little girl out of her life, and the next time you see them, they are playing some sort of game that requires mutual concentration on each other. This is typical of the whole movie, as it weaves a sublime tapestry of seemingly small incidents.

At one point, Harvey tries with comic desperation to convince Toby that the movie Revenge of the Nerds (1984) is not worthy of his cultish worship, since the nerds in the movie are spoiled college kids with wealthy parents and not blue-collar drudges like Toby himself. There is no irony in Harvey’s concern to set Toby straight, only a heartwarming expression of friendship from one outsider to another.

As it happens, I also identify with Harvey, Joyce and their friends because, like them, I spent many more years on the outside than the inside. And the truth of the matter is that I had a great many more interesting conversations before I “made” it than I have had since. There’s a tremendous amount of cultural vitality out there in the land of the losers; American Splendor is one of the first and best films to capitalize fully on this phenomenon. Yet I’m still not sure that comic books (or should I say “graphic novels”?) can provide a reliable source of incisive, insightful movies on the lofty level of American Splendor . But even if it should prove to be a one-shot, I urge losers and so-called winners not to miss it.

Longwinded Complexities

Claude Lelouch’s And Now Ladies & Gentlemen , from his own original screenplay, with adaptation and dialogue by Mr. Lelouch, Pierre Leroux and Pierre Uytterhoeven, was the closing-night feature at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which attests to the high esteem in which Mr. Lelouch is held by the French film industry. Yet the much-honored director of A Man and a Woman (1966) has always been despised by the more esoteric film critics for what they perceived as his overly facile romanticism. Being a notorious romantic myself, I started out as one of his supporters back in 1965 at the Mar del Plata film festival, where I was a member of the critics’ jury and voted for Mr. Lelouch’s Une Fille et des Fusils as best picture, much to the dismay of my international colleagues. I’ve always respected his prodigious energy as a technician and as a virtually one-man production studio, with over 30 features in over 40 years. So what went so very terribly wrong with his latest film, which seems to disintegrate into delirium before one’s eyes?

For starters, Jeremy Irons is a strange casting choice for a romantic love story when his forte has always been desicated eccentrics like Claus von Bülow in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990), which won him an Oscar, and his dual role as the creepy twins in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), which won him a New York Film Critics Circle Award. Here he plays Valentin, a sly, velvety jewel thief, reportedly patterned after the French fictional master criminal, Arsene Lupin. Valentin begins his depredations in London, moves his operations to Paris and then winds up in Morocco, where he encounters Jane Lester (Patricia Kaas), a blond chanteuse who has lost much of her memory after breaking up with a jazz trumpet player. A weird symmetry, Valentin has lost much of his memory, too. There is much talk of C.A.T. scans and scenic pilgrimages up a magic mountain where a dead sultan’s daughter has been buried after she was killed for an unsanctioned love affair. Indeed, as Bobby Clark once remarked in a Broadway revival of Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts , “Never was a thin plot so complicated.”

Much of the action dissolves into frequent dream sequences, and an unending concert across the continents with Ms. Kaas singing everywhere she goes. She has reportedly sold a huge number of albums of vintage French chansons worldwide. Nonetheless, Mr. Lelouch seems to have indulged Ms. Kaas and Mr. Irons beyond any rational narrative consideration. The English dialogue sounds as if it were made up as the characters went along. The disguises Mr. Irons devises to hoodwink gullible jewelers are so unconvincing that I began to wonder if I was missing the joke. I could go on and on and on, but I would be merely repeating the mistake of this and too many of the other “big” films of the summer by being needlessly, endlessly long-winded.

Darker, Wilder Days

The revival scene at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street) is getting a big boost with a new 35-millimeter restoration of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) from Aug. 1 through Aug. 7, and a new 35-millimeter print of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) from Aug. 8 through Aug. 14. Both cinematic thunderbolts were well regarded at the time of their release, but their reputations have grown over the years to immense proportions.

From a screenplay by Wilder, D.M. Marshman and Charles Brackett, Sunset Boulevard is, after half a century, still the best film ever made about Hollywood, while Chinatown , with its politically and historically astute screenplay by Robert Towne, can still lay claim to being the best L.A. noir after almost 30 years. William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Eric Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson make up as spectacular an acting ensemble as there had ever been, while Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston do about the same for Chinatown . Though Sunset Boulevard was a contemporary film when it was first released more than half a century ago-with its pathetic “waxworks” of such faded stars as Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and, for that matter, Swanson herself-the film plays today like a period film of the bygone Big Hollywood Studio era. Chinatown , set in the 30′s, seems comparatively timeless in its depiction of corruption at every level of government in Los Angeles. So what, if anything, has changed in the interim?

Both films are much darker than any mainstream movie project today. And no wonder: Both Wilder and Mr. Polanski lost family members to the Nazi Holocaust, and the hovering shadow of this outrage against humanity has cast a stylistic shroud over both filmmakers. Both films also employ distinguished directors-Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard and Huston in Chinatown -to play crucial roles: Stroheim revisits his flamboyant role as the silent era’s mad Prussian, and Huston projects a more sophisticated and more modern sense of evil. Both films are worth seeing. Enjoy.