The one thing the current wave of comic book-based films all seem to have in common is that they exist separately from their source material. In other words, you can conceivably watch Blade or From Hell or Daredevil without knowing that it’s based on a comic book. (If you knew nothing about comic books, anyway.) Now along comes American Splendor, a film which proudly shows off its roots, yet does so without pandering or talking down to its audience – and tells a very entertaining story in the process.
Based on the long-running autobiographical book, Paul Giamatti stars as series creator and writer Harvey Pekar, a perpetually gloomy Gus who finds solace from his humdrum Cleveland life writing comics about himself. The idea is inspired by his friendship with future indie comics legend Robert Crumb, who illustrates the initial few issues. When fan Joyce Brabner (played here by Hope Davis) seeks him out, they begin an unlikely romance defined by constant bickering, the comic’s increasing success, and a debilitating bout with cancer.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are faithful to the book (which I admit, I only bought for the first time days after seeing the film) not just in content but in looks. It starts with the opening credits, which are integrated into one long comic strip incorporating both images of the cartoon Harvey and of Giamatti as Harvey – and continues with the occasional “caption boxes” sprinkled at intervals through the film, and even the use of animation based on the original cartoons. In that sense, the film is not unlike the Batman television show from the 60’s – in both cases, what’s on screen does its best to render the feel of the comic through a variety of methods. One of the primary themes of the film is how identity is defined, and by using so many different incarnations of Harvey – including a scene depicting the American Splendor stage play, and even the real Pekar and Brabner, in documentary-like interludes – the film turns into a kaleidoscope of images. In one slightly surreal scene when Harvey goes on Late Night with David Letterman, we see Giamatti-as-Harvey backstage. Then he leaves. Then, as Davis-as-Joyce watches the show on television, we see the real Pekar talking to Letterman. And when the interview is over, Giamatti-as-Harvey re-enters the room. It’s a sequence that twists the film in on itself like a Moebius strip and keeps you on your toes.
Giamatti, best known for his comedic roles, shines here in his finest performance to date. Harvey is an irascible sort – confrontational, moody, possessive – yet book smart, open minded and a free thinker, and Giamatti nails these facets perfectly. Seeing the real Pekar comment on the action takes a little getting used to, but it’s not as distracting as I originally thought it would be.
American Splendor might be the best, most compelling evidence that comics are for everyone, not just children, a point that’s emphasized strongly in the film. Whether it’ll have any long-term impact in that regard remains to be seen, but if someone like Pekar can achieve fame telling the kinds of stories he does, then there’s hope for us all.
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So that blackout on the 14th was a shocker, huh? I was too young to remember the last time New York City had a blackout, in 1977, but from all the stories, I’d have to say that this one, while certainly far-reaching, was somewhat easier to deal with from a man-on-the-street perspective. There were the expected problems, but they didn’t drive people crazy or anything. I suppose after 9-11, this was tame in comparison anyway.
I was at work, talking to my boss, when it happened. (Did I tell you I finally got a new job? I’m at a different video store now.) We thought at first that it was confined to our block, then we realized it was the entire street. There were two other guys there, and one of them walked over to the main video store (ours is but a spin-off) to get instructions on what to do. Since my shift was almost over, I opted to count out and leave, but the thing is, I was supposed to open the store the next day (Friday). What if the power loss continued? John, my boss, said to come in anyway and see what happens. I told him he could reach me at home if anything changes, but little do I realize that getting home won’t be easy…
In fact, it was damn near impossible. Walking uptown, I heard radio reports on the street of the situation. I was relieved to know it wasn’t terrorist related, but disappointed to know that it was pretty extensive. Subways were obviously not an option, so I tried to catch an express bus near midtown, but the sidewalk was jammed with people, all queuing up towards the buses. (I even saw a news photographer snapping pictures of people pushing their way onto one bus.) Walking home would take an extremely long time, and not something I looked forward to, hot as it was.
So I called up my friend Vija, who works in midtown and lives about ten minutes away from where I was. I told her my situation and she invited me over to her place. She has this big humongous loft in Chelsea that she’s lived in for years and years. I stayed with her for awhile, as her loft gets darker and darker. We tried lighting candles but their light is totally insufficient. I’m thinking now that I may have to spend the night here and Vija, bless her, is more than willing to put me up.
Seeing Manhattan blacked out was more than a little unsettling for me. Seeing people walking around with flashlights, entire streets completely dark… actually being able to see the stars for a change! Vija and I walked around for awhile and saw lots of people sitting outside their buildings, some lighting fires, and of course, sirens everywhere you went. There was this high-rise on a group of blocks on 9th Avenue that had its own separate power source. On that block was a little indy theater comedy troupe, and since they had power, they were able to perform that night. We went in (only $5 each) and saw their show – a parody of Pretty in Pink with a live band performing the soundtrack (their version of “Left of Center” sucked but otherwise they were great) and a guy playing Molly Ringwald’s part.
I slept on Vija’s lumpy futon and left her place around a quarter after 8 Friday morning. I went to the video store and the power, of course, hadn’t been restored yet. I hung around for maybe a half hour before realizing that this was stupid and decided to just go home. I took a different bus, this one near Penn Station, as far as Sunnyside in Queens (which is fairly close to Manhattan) and tried to transfer to another bus, only every one was packed and most didn’t bother stopping.
So I walked after all. My feet hurt, my thighs ached, and I was hot as hell. I had lunch at a Pizzeria Uno’s in Forest Hills for maybe an hour and a half (most of that time spent waiting for my order). By the time I got out, the buses were slightly less crowded, so I eagerly got on and headed for Jamaica, where I caught one more bus home, where we have our own separate power source as well, thank god. So that’s my blackout story. Could’ve been a lot worse, especially since I was stuck in Manhattan for the night, but the worst that came out of it for me was getting sore legs and feet from walking home.