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150 Films #7: American Splendor (2003)

When I first started this blog, I had no idea what it would be.

It started when a friend offered a coveted LiveJournal invitation, back when that was the place to be if you were a young narcissist wanting to share your thoughts with the world. I’m not sure if it still works this way, but at the time you had the option of either paying a fee to acquire a LiveJournal—or a friend who had an account could invite you for free. As LiveJournal grew in popularity, I remember coveting friends who had received invitations. When I finally got one, it seemed like a big deal.

It went downhill very quickly. I treated my LiveJournal like, well, a journal. Random thoughts and quotes were fine, but when I started telling long-form stories about my life, the friend who invited me started yelling at me. “If you’re going to write such long entries, you have to put in a cut.” A “cut” was the same idea as the “jump” in a newspaper (or blog). Cuts bothered me, because LiveJournal had a rudimentary social-networking function where friends could follow each other, and as a user you could look at a custom feed of all your friends’ entries. At the time, the majority of my LiveJournal friends were actual, flesh-and-blood friends from high school and college. The only place my posts showed up was on my LiveJournal page or on my friends’ feeds. I kept thinking, “Why wouldn’t my actual friends want to read actual stories about my life?” Which led to the thought, “Why aren’t they putting any effort into journaling?”

In short, I think I didn’t really “get” LiveJournal.

It wasn’t too long before a friend of mine decided to start a web-hosting company and gave me a friendly discount. When he set up my space, he asked me if I wanted a blog. I could be misremembering, but I think it was the first time I’d ever heard the term before. I didn’t know what it meant, and he had to explain that it was short for “weblog,” a relatively new type of website that was little more than a self-hosted LiveJournal. Since I felt myself chafing under the restrictive etiquette of LiveJournal, I said, “Sure,” and imported my LiveJournal entries to my new blog.

But I still didn’t know what it would be.

The blog proper in the infancy of the medium, before it became a news/op-ed platform in most people’s eyes. Pre-web services used to have “online diaries”; “everything/nothing” sites briefly replaced them until easy-to-use posting services like LiveJournal appeared. But LiveJournal quickly developed its own culture that didn’t really allow proper “journaling.” I think that, combined with the contrarian attitude of many computer nerds (“Blech, I’d never want to post on a popular website”), led to the early rise of independent blogs as the heir apparent to the “everything/nothing” site; unlike LiveJournal, you really could post everything and nothing without facing pointless community backlash.

A few early posts, like “The Protest,” achieved some measure of popularity and positive feedback from friends and fellow bloggers. These stories shaped the blog’s direction, transforming it from a repository of idle chatter to a home for my anxieties, frustrations, confusion, paranoia—drizzled with a humorous detachment. If, in the moment, I couldn’t help behaving like an idiot or an asshole, a little bit of distance (sometimes even a few minutes) allowed me to see the humor in a situation. I saw the humor in myself, my fallibility, and the way the colorful cast of weirdos I went to school with or worked with or hung out with thrust me into stranger-than-fiction situations. Whereas in life I appeared reserved and good-natured, often to my own detriment, on my blog I could write about my unfiltered thoughts and feelings.

Less than a year later, the blog had turned into something resembling a comic soap opera, with a full cast of oddballs, enemies, and unrequited love interests. It was therapeutic in some regards (notably in giving me a chance to reflect shortly after emotionally trying situations), but stunting in others (because I’d pitched myself as a sort of curmudgeonly comic character on the blog, in life I kind of shrugged off the neuroses that made my stories entertaining since without them, I’d be pretty boring—you know, like I am now).

Then I saw American Splendor, and I knew what my blog would be.

The innovative adaptation/biopic by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini blends elements of documentary, animation, nonlinear storytelling, fourth-wall-breaking, and comic book art. It turns the straightforward story of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti)—frustrated, lonesome Cleveland file clerk finds modest success and fame writing underground comics about everyday life experiences—into a unique, cinematic experience that nevertheless emulates the eccentricities of its subject and source material. The film honors Pekar’s comics by telling his story as a series of quick, profound vignettes—most funny, some poignant—as well as by adapting several of his best stories as scenes in the film. Whether intentional or not, the approach enhances the creaky biopic formula (one I’m on record as not liking much) by telling the story of an influential man’s rise by focusing on the small details.

In a typical biopic, the adaptation of the story “Alice Quinn” (played by Maggie Moore) would have a different ending. Here, Harvey bumps into an attractive woman he hasn’t seen in 20 years. She’s a fan of his comics and proud that she knows him. She reveals very quickly that she has a husband and kids, and in a sense, she lets her own literary ambitions live vicariously through Harvey’s comics. Giamatti’s performance expresses an emotional rollercoaster most people have experienced: excitement and hope that a new person has some interest, followed by frustration and sadness. At the same time, Moore plays Alice as a woman considering how her life might have played out differently—not that she has or had any romantic interest in Harvey (she clearly never did), but that she might have a smidgen of regret that she married and settled down instead of pursuing her dreams.

In a worse movie, this experience would cause Harvey to have an epiphany: he’s lonely. He needs the love of a good woman. Smash cut to montage of him clumsily flirting and going on bad first dates… That’s what drives me nuts about the formula of a mediocre biopic (and most are mediocre): a figure’s life never gets room to breathe. Every scene serves as inspiration for some kind of famous triumph. It’s true that many people see biopics to learn the inspirations for famous triumphs, but that alone doesn’t make a person interesting, especially when handled in such trite ways.

Instead, this scene plays perfectly on its own, reinforcing Harvey’s loneliness (a major theme of the first half of the movie, not to mention Pekar’s early comics), and leads organically to the introduction of eventual wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). I give Berman and Pulcini a lot of credit for the way they adapted and structured American Splendor, but most of the credit must go to Pekar. He had a knack for finding deeper meaning in the most mundane aspects of life, meaning understood by the directors and actors and imbued upon each scene.

This, perhaps, gets hammered home most clearly in the film’s straightforward adaptation, “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” a monologue delivered directly to the audience by Harvey. The backdrop, an evocative green screen, transforms to reinforce the beats of the story. The story itself is deceptively simple: Harvey finds another “Harvey Pekar” in the Cleveland phone book, leading to a spiral of questions that quickly go from banal (why does this other Harvey Pekar get the “purer listing,” while our man is stuck with “Harvey L. Pekar”?) to existential (“Who is Harvey Pekar?”).

The comic concludes with a panel of a silent, stone-faced Harvey, a panel fraught with meaning. Berman and Pulcini, quite brilliantly, use editing to achieve the same Rorschach inkblot quality. They place it at the nadir of Harvey’s personal and professional life: ravaged by both cancer and chemotherapy, helpless in the face of a wife crippled by depression, unwilling and unable to work, burning bridges left and right.

One night, we find a ghostly Harvey gazing at himself in the mirror. He asks, “Am I some guy who writes about himself in a comic book, or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will that character keep going, or will he just fade away…?” And then… He collapses. That’s when the dreamy monologue occurs, serving as both the film’s climax and its thesis statement. Who is Harvey Pekar? The audience, the filmmakers, and Harvey himself have been on a journey of discovery. The answer is as simple and as profound as anything Pekar himself wrote: Harvey Pekar is both “some guy” and a character. His comic defined his life and cultural importance, and he wrote about his life. The two share an unbreakable bond.

“Name Story” came relatively early in American Splendor‘s run, and arguably Pekar spent the remainder of his life and career trying to find the answer. Yet, as the line between fact and fiction blurred, the answer grew more and more elusive to the man himself. Pekar copped to making things up, exaggerating, shifting events around to make them more literary. In my essay on All the President’s Men, I argued that factual truth is paramount in journalism. In storytelling—even ostensibly true personal essays—what matters more is emotional truth. Would it matter if Pekar never once looked at a Cleveland phone book? Even if there was never a second or third or fourth Harvey Pekar, he uses a plausible fiction—their presence in the phone book—to ask deep, important questions about the nature of identity. These questions came from his mind and arguably trump the lie-presented-as-truth that Pekar uses as a springboard.

American Splendor led me to look at my blog in a different light. I continued to tell stories about my life, but instead of just telling the story, I would start with the question: “Is there anything about this dumb experience that exposes an interesting facet of the human condition?” I will cop, as Pekar did, to playing with truth to make a story more resonant and compelling, or sometimes just funnier. There’s a distinction between Pekar adding fictitious literary embellishments—even to the extent of outright making up stories—in what would now be called “creative nonfiction,” versus something like Brian Williams exaggerating his experiences in Iraq. Journalistic ethics don’t apply to a personal essay designed to provoke contemplation and introspection rather than to relate facts or expert opinions.

I can justify and defend until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, this type of writing distressed me. American Splendor helped me find my blog’s voice and style in the early days—imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery—but I felt twinges of guilt when I received praise for an embellished story. I felt like a deer in headlights when I’d get questions like, “Wow, how do these crazy things always happen to you?” Did I tell them it didn’t happen quite as written, or did I stay silent?

So, much as American Splendor defined what I wanted the blog to be, I found myself increasingly wanting to write the stories as honestly and unvarnished as possible. I asked myself about the deeper meaning of a story, and if I couldn’t find one, I wouldn’t try to reshape the story to invent one; I would write it as-is or not write it at all. I did pretty well with this until I got to Hollywood and found myself, for job security reasons, changing major details to disguise where I actually worked and with whom. Yet, aside from those changes, the stories themselves were honest.

That became my ethical benchmark. Let’s say I wanted to write about auditioning for a band, but I didn’t want the band members to know I’d written about them. In the case of the linked post, I didn’t use any names (I didn’t really care if anyone in the band find it, but some people don’t like being written about without permission), but what if I wanted to talk a bunch of shit without having a trail of breadcrumbs making anyone’s identity obvious (especially mine)? Maybe I’d say I played the euphonium and lucked into an audition with a German oom-pah band I loved. Other than the details of the instruments, everything could remain the same. The interactions, the dialogue, the conflict, the core story—all exactly as it happened. I found this much more palatable, ethically, than changing the substance of the story itself to make it better.

Don’t get me wrong—I still respect what Pekar did and what he accomplished. He had a remarkable skill for identifying the importance of the small things in life. I don’t think he embellished or fabricated as much as some claim, so he’d more or less pass my ethical benchmark. I also try not to hold others to the same, very high standards to which I hold myself. Not everybody is me, not everybody thinks the way I do, and they can still produce great art (or be great people) while having very low standards. I’m very much of the mindset that one should judge the art, not the artist (mostly because artists are often really shitty people), and Pekar created art, not journalism. And his art, embellished or not, happens to speak to me in a way very little art does.

Exposure to American Splendor—first the film, then the comics—helped me to not only expand my own artistic palette but to codify my own ethical standards. This, naturally, means American Splendor had a tremendous impact on me. I didn’t realize it until writing this essay, but it actually made me a better writer, a better artist, and a better person.

How does that happen? How can two hours unwittingly plot a new, improved course in a person’s life? I suppose that’s a major question I want to explore in these essays. Now that I’ve identified the question, as Harvey Pekar did in his second issue of American Splendor, maybe I’ll find an answer. Wild guess: that answer will reveal itself in my umpteenth viewing of Top Secret!

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: The Apartment (1960)

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