Thursday, February 28, 2008

american splendor, by berman and pulcini

American Splendor, a film about autobiographical comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, sets its first act in 1970's-era Cleveland, and in this way it completes Film Club's triangle of films about the 1970s (the other two points are Dazed and Confused (Film Club XXI) and The Virgin Suicides (Film Club XX)). Like those others, American Splendor has value as a reflection upon the Americana of that period, but it's interesting in other ways, too.

American Splendor could have ended up as a rather run-of-the-mill biopic, or even an exemplary one: the material of Pekar's life is certainly engaging enough, and Giamatti is a gifted interpreter of the "character":

But directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are significantly more canny and ambitious than that. They seem to have a keen sense of the fundamental strangeness of the endeavor of making a biopic in the first place, of the distortions and misrepresentations that will inevitably emerge from the process. They exploit this strangeness by pairing the biopic narrative with documentary material, bringing in the "real" Harvey Pekar to provide commentary and reflection on the events we see unfolding in the biopic material:

Pekar's an especially interesting figure to be doing this kind of thing with, given that what the film is adapting in its narrative segments is not so much the "raw material" of Pekar's life, but rather the creative work that Pekar has produced over his lifetime. The film ambitiously shoehorns some of this material in as well, forming a third representational layer:

Pekar's comics work is autobiographical, yes, but the production of any autobiography involves its own degree of highlighting and omission. That's accentuated in Pekar's creative output, of course, because he's working as a writer in collaboration with artists, whose stylistic "takes" on the Pekar "character" only serve to further obscure the "real" Pekar. The film seems distinctly aware of this point, exploiting it strikingly:

An even more dizzying example comes at the point in the narrative where a California theatrical company does a stage adaptation of American Splendor:

What we're watching here is a cinematic re-creation of a stage re-creation of a comic book re-creation of a real experience—four distinct layers of representation, for those of you keeping score. The fact that Pekar spends a lot of the movie railing against "phoniness" and "Hollywood bullshit," and striving to create a body of work that represents the trials and tribulations of "real" everyday life is perhaps a crowning irony. And the fact that he succeeds to such a remarkable degree, in spite of the artifice inherent to the technologies and techniques of representation, is perhaps a crowning triumph.

There are a few possible choices here for follow-up films—both David Lynch's Inland Empire (2007) and Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life (1998) have a similar awareness of the vertiginous hall-of-mirrors that can open up between narrative and reality. (I also considered the harrowing documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003).) But the film that best exploits this tension, to my mind, is Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002): next week's pick!

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.

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