Three or Four Harveys: Formal Experimentation in American Splendor (2003)

Over ten years after its protagonist’s death and nearly 20 after its initial release, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor remains a stunning achievement in balance. Both a dizzying formal experiment combining fiction film with documentary and a deeply-affecting, yet sardonic, portrait of an artist (and a portrait of that artist’s portraits of himself), the film tells the story of Cleveland native Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti, in a career-defining role) and his meteoric rise from broke file clerk struggling to get anywhere in life to broke file clerk who writes comics about struggling to get anywhere in life. If this sounds like fodder for a weird, existential art film, it is: Springer Berman and Pulcini (who also wrote the screenplay) have crafted Blue Collar America’s answer to European art house giants like Godard and Bergman, injecting a suitably meandering, quotidian narrative with all the ennui and alienation one might find in the bleakest work of those two venerable iconoclasts.

But American Splendor is no mere knockoff or pastiche: anchored by a virtuoso performance from Giamatti (who had only found work as a character actor up to that point), it balances the crushing weight of daily life with a cynical, acerbic sense of humor and a certain looseness in the documentary scenes that completely erases any hint of pretentiousness. The film accomplishes this by casting its main character in triplicate: Giamatti as a young(-er) Harvey Pekar, figuring out life and love, Pekar himself as both narrator and documentary interviewee, looking back on his past with his trademark candor, and an Animated Harvey, who appears as both a stand-in and internal monologue for Giamatti’s character. American Splendor begins (after a brief prologue with a fourth Harvey, 11 years old and refusing to dress up for Halloween) with Giamatti stuck in a dead-end job and heading for a second divorce. The Real Harvey is shown recording his narration, with a backdrop of folding chairs, recording equipment, and a young actor standing in for a recording engineer, all against a jarringly stark white background reminiscent of the construct program in The Matrix (1999). Then we see him discussing the script with the (off-screen) directors, admitting he is more concerned with whether his voice will hold up against the demands of narrating a feature film than whether the film’s screenplay (which he has barely skimmed) will reveal any uncomfortable truths about his life. The Real Harvey’s indifference is perhaps predictable, as the film soon divulges that the comics which brought him recognition are all drawn from his own experiences – anything the movie might say about him he has already said about himself.

The next documentary interview sees The Real Harvey sitting in the middle of a yard sale reconstructed on the same white backdrop and discussing his time collecting and selling used records. In the succeeding flashback, he meets fellow “underground comix” author R. Crumb, noting, “they made a movie about him too,” referring to Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 documentary Crumb. This throwaway line carries a double meaning that is actually highly significant to the experimental aspects of American Splendor, connecting Crumb the artist’s assistance in starting Pekar’s career (he illustrated many of The Real Harvey’s early stories and helped get them published) with Crumb the film’s trailblazing in the documentary world; the massive critical success of Crumb, along with that of Hoop Dreams the year before, was a watershed moment for the form, triggering an overhaul of the Academy’s Oscar nomination process that gave a bigger voice to independent productions, an achievement of which the veteran documentarians Pulcini and Springer Berman certainly would have been well aware, though American Splendor marked their transition into other forms of filmmaking. Additionally, the at-times-uncomfortable intimacy and frankness of Crumb clearly influenced American Splendor, as we see all of its main subjects (including Pekar’s third wife Joyce and his work friend Toby) asked for their feelings on the film and Pekar’s portrayal of them in his comics in real time. To my knowledge, this level of direct access has not been seen before or since actually DURING a film; outside of making-of featurettes and DVD commentary, I don’t know where else you would even see anything even similar.

This cycle of interview and staged flashback continues throughout the film, with other minimalistic “sets” and the real-life counterparts to its characters filtering in and out around The Real Harvey, all against the infinite white backdrop. Is this room The Real Harvey’s brain, shifting its focus constantly as he processes his memories? Is it an empty panel of a comic strip, waiting to be filled with his life? Or is it just a convenient dramatic device, a liminal space between our protagonist’s idiosyncratic mind and the filmmakers’ interpretation? In a traditional documentary the so-called “talking head” setup is used ostensibly to allow the subject to tell their own story. It completely effaces the off-screen presence of the documentarian(s); we almost never see them in-person or hear their actual questions, only the subject’s answers, implying an unmediated presentation of objective Truth. In American Splendor on the other hand, there is no such pretension to objectivity, only The Real Harvey’s perspective. His often freewheeling recollections of his past, accented by a jazzy score from Mark Suozzo (Metropolitan [1990], The Notorious Bettie Page [2005]), are the only point of view we are given, and really the only one that matters. With three or four Harveys on-screen reflecting the many different illustrators he collaborated with over the years to bring his comic persona to life, we see a sharp contrast between the form and content of the film: all we hear from The Real Harvey is that he’s just being honest, that he’s not a phony, but the true brilliance of what Pulcini and Springer Berman have accomplished here is that American Splendor, as it was in comic book form, is not reality as the documentary elements of the film imply. It is no more and no less than his reality, and we the audience are invited to take a look regardless of whether we’ll like what we see.

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