Au Hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Dir. Robert Bresson

Written by: Robert Bresson

Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert


This is a film that I was only introduced to within the last five years, although it has quickly captivated my interest and is on its way to becoming one of my favorite movies of all time. Sometimes there are just those films that when you see them for the first time, you know. You think, “This is something special. This one is going to be sticking with me for a long time.” Or at least, that’s the way I have felt about certain films. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film that I’ve written about on this blog. It wormed its way into my brain, causing me to ponder its mysteries and consider the message of its philosophy for years to come. Au Hasard Balthazar did the same thing to me, but on an emotional level, rather than a cerebral one. Since I first saw this simple fable about the life of a donkey, it’s been one of the few films to consistently move me in an emotional way every time I view it.

Au Hasard Balthazar follows the life of the titular Balthazar, a donkey, and his owner Marie (Wiazemsky) as they grow up and begin to experience life together. Set in a small French farming village, the film is a pastoral fable, exploring themes of human cruelty, suffering, and absolution. Throughout his life, Balthazar has many masters, most of whom treat him with a mixture of indifference and outright cruelty, however, he always returns to Marie, the only human who has ever shown him true love and care. Marie’s own journey in the film, growing from a girl to a woman, parallels Balthazar’s, as she also learns lessons about the capacity of human beings for abuse and cruelty from her “masters,” her father (Philippe Asselin) and the criminal, Gerard (Lafarge), with whom Marie pursues a relationship. At times, Au Hasard Balthazar can seem to be a grim and bleak look into the cruel power that the strong hold over the weak and the helpless, but its ending does hint at the possibility for the meek and the humble to obtain a reprieve from terrestrial sufferings and, ultimately, a form of redemption.

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While this might sound like an over-simple description of the film, Au Hasard Balthazar is just that simple. Bresson is a highly minimalist filmmaker, and the apparent straightforward simplicity of his films often belies their symbolic depths. Underneath the mundane, realist surface of Balthazar lies a wealth of truth about human nature, and the capacity of human beings for achieving redemption and absolution in life. I think these hidden depths are what have so attracted me to the film since I first encountered it in 2013. It’s hard to believe that, presented in such a simple package, a film could contain so much of the human experience, but it’s all there in Balthazar, from birth to death. Bresson manages to capture the essence of human emotion through his animal protagonist, and provides the viewer, through Balthazar, with a blank surface upon which to project their own hopes, fears, and beliefs about life.

Bresson’s Catholicism is often mentioned when discussing his films, particularly Balthazar, as it is so overtly concerned with suffering and redemption, but I have never had much interest in the religious overtones of the film. It is impossible to completely avoid discussing the religious subtext in the film, but I am much more interested in considering the humanistic implications of its themes. Jean Luc Godard once referred to Bresson as the “Grand Inquisitor” of cinema, and by that he meant that Bresson’s films are able to get the very core and essence of the human experience. Though Bresson is largely known for his Catholicism, watching his films truly reveals him to be a Humanist. The films of Bresson, particularly Balthazar, are some of the best examples of film as a humanistic art. A great film can do many things, but one of the chief achievements of the best films is to help the viewer to understand their own humanity, or the human experience of those unlike themselves, on a deeper level. All great art helps to reveal aspects of the humanity of both its creator and its audience, but through its ability to recreate life with photorealistic integrity, the cinema is the art form with the most revelatory capacity when used correctly. With Balthazar, Bresson is at the height of his powers as an “inquisitor” of the human spirit, and in the film he exposes both evil and purity at the heart of human nature.

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Balthazar was not my first experience with Bresson. I saw Lancelot du Lac (1974) in a class my freshman year of college, but it didn’t have a huge influence on me at the time. I remember thinking that the film was interesting, but it didn’t drive me to seek out more Bresson, nor did I have chance to encounter one of his films again until I sought out Balthazar nearly a decade later. I became aware of the film after seeing the most recent Sight & Sound greatest films poll in 2012. The list, published by the British Film Institute and updated every ten years, is voted on by hundreds of filmmakers, critics, archivists, programmers, and other industry professionals. I’ve enjoyed looking back at the Sight & Sound polls to chart the changing of critical tastes over the decades and also to see how the accepted “canon” of great films has shifted over the years. When I was reading through the 2012 version, I found in the 16th spot a film that I had never heard of before with a provocative French title that caught my eye and captured my imagination. I had no idea what it was about and, my French being more than a little rusty from high school, I didn’t even know what the title meant, but I decided that moment that I needed to see Au Hasard Balthazar. It was probably the best cinematic hunch that I ever acted upon.

I waited for the Criterion Collection to have one of their periodic half-price sales and I purchased Au Hasard Balthazar on DVD in the spring of 2013. In the time between discovering Balthazar and actually seeing it, I had done plenty of reading about the film. After having read critical essays about Bresson in general, and this film in particular, I went into my initial viewing with high expectations that were immediately exceeded. I fell in love with Balthazar immediately. Bresson’s shots of the donkey’s soulful eyes penetrated me on that first viewing. I felt that those eyes contained the wisdom of the ages. I felt that the film contained some key to understanding the mysteries of the Universe. I watched it three times in a week, eventually taking screening notes. A film hadn’t impacted me this much in a long time. I felt like I needed to write my way to the middle of Balthazar, as I had done before with other films that vexed me in this way, but I couldn’t find a way in to the heart of Bresson’s masterpiece.

That summer, I expanded my exploration of Bresson’s work, viewing both The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Mouchette (1967) shortly after my initial experience with Balthazar. I began the process of sketching out a long format essay on the three films, which Bresson made in succession, and their formation of a triptych exploring the role of suffering in the human experience, and its necessity in the process of humans receiving ultimate absolution. My overall thesis was that the films showed an increasingly pessimistic viewpoint on the part of Bresson, depicting increasing instances of human suffering while offering fewer opportunities for salvation. At the time, I simply didn’t have the depth of understanding of Bresson’s Catholic faith to attempt to approach these films from a religious standpoint, but I felt it to be the best path towards understanding them. I ultimately scrapped the project, because I didn’t have the words to begin to adequately describe Balthazar. I still don’t. However, despite my failings to write my way to a full understanding of the film, Balthazar never left my mind. I still watch the film at least twice a year, and there is rarely a week that goes by that its images and themes don’t pop into my head.

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As I said, I still don’t have the words to really describe Au Hasard Balthazar in any meaningful way. In its simple story and minimalist images, the film contains the whole of human experience. Through the eyes of the innocent, naïve Balthazar, we see the true nature of the film’s human characters. Their capacity for love and for malice is showed through their actions toward this harmless, humble beast. Balthazar entered my life at a time when I was beginning to reengage with cinema in a serious way, having started to write about film again only about a year prior to seeing it. I had hoped that my fervor for the film would spark me into writing more lengthy criticism, but instead it pushed me into discovering many other classics of the great 1960s and 70s international art house boom. Before beginning this blog, I hadn’t written anything formal about movies since my inability to work through Au Hasard Balthazar. I would occasionally take some screening notes, or maybe jot a few paragraphs down about a film that I had seen, and I made a habit of creating a top ten films of the year list that I put a lot of thought into, but I didn’t feel able to sit down and really get to the business of writing about movies. Instead, I watched hundreds of films, new and old, but I always came back to Balthazar, each time letting it entrance me the way that it had the very first time. I’ve finally been able to spill a little digital ink on the film, and in a way it’s freeing. I know that I’ll never really be able to fully express my feelings for Au Hasard Balthazar because the film is simply too big. I love too many aspects of the film to ever inventory them all, and its brilliance exists on a level that I am unable to approach. After having been introduced to thousands of films and having spent years studying the medium, it wasn’t until I saw Au Hasard Balthazar that I truly understood the dizzying heights that the cinema could achieve. To me, the film is the Platonic ideal of cinema, conveying the very essence of humanity recorded on film. I am not totally sure that Au Hasard Balthazar is my favorite film ever, though I truly think it may be, but I do know that it is the most important film in my life.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now: Redux (1979/2001)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (from the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)

Starring: Martin Sheen, Larry Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando

This review is going to be a bit different, because I’m going to be writing a lot less about Apocalypse Now as a film, and a lot more about its presentation as a DVD, and about my experience with collecting DVDs in the early-to-mid 2000s in general. As I’ve mentioned before, those years when I was in high school and, to a lesser extent, early college, much of my disposable income was spent on building my DVD collection. The portability, special features, and relative low cost compared to VHS made collecting DVDs fun and easy. Though we know now that it isn’t true, it seemed, at the time, that this format would last forever, the discs not being subject to the same kinds of physical degradation that tapes could suffer from. DVD was sold as a format for serious film viewers and collectors, people who would be interested in listening to multiple full-length commentary tracks from directors and stars, people who wanted to see the footage that was left on the cutting room floor. DVD took the promise of Laser Disc and made it affordable and convenient for the masses. I bought in completely, and I often sought out “Special Edition” discs that contained hours of extra footage and bonuses about the movie. My copy of Apocalypse Now is just such a set.

The “Complete Dossier” collector’s edition of Apocalypse Now was released in November 2001, and was one of the first DVDs I added to my collection. It marked the first home video release of Coppola’s full cut of the film, entitled Apocalypse Now: Redux, which premiered at Cannes earlier that year. The set includes both the original cut of the film and Coppola’s director’s cut, which adds nearly an hour of extra footage to the film, spread out over two discs. It also contains a third disc with hours of special features, commentaries, and behind the scenes photographs and films. All of this is neatly packaged in a trifold case featuring stills from the film, and then inserted into a beige slip case, meant to mimic the look of the confidential file on Colonel Kurtz (Brando) that Captain Willard (Sheen) carries with him. The packaging is fantastic, and makes this collector’s set feel essential. The amount of material contained on the set’s three discs is overwhelming. Watching both cuts of the film would take up just under six hours, and the additional supplemental features could comprise an additional feature-length making of documentary if they weren’t broken up into bite-size pieces. Overall, it’s a great set.

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Over the years, as streaming has become most people’s preferred method of media consumption, disc formats have become less and less extravagant. With the exception of boutique lines, such as the Criterion Collection, which are aimed at serious film nerds, physical copies of films are now often rushed to market with little fanfare, and precious fewer special features. Retailers are stocking fewer discs in store and the shelves are dominated by cheaply packaged new releases, aimed to make a quick buck off the folks who will come to pick up a physical release on day one, before they ultimately meet their end in a bargain bin. Gone are the days when a movie like Fight Club could become a cult classic based on its second life in DVD sales. In a post-Netflix, post-YouTube world, there is little need to own physical media. Behind the scenes footage is now the stuff of viral marketing campaigns, directors can provide commentary about the making of their films directly to the audience through a podcast or a Twitter feed. Though streaming may not have the fidelity of a BluRay disc, it can compare to any DVD, and is far more convenient. I can’t blame anyone for ditching physical media altogether, but, as is probably painfully obvious to this point, I still have a strong nostalgic attachment to these discs. The promise of insider’s knowledge that a good DVD set offered to me in 2001 is still something that I relish.

I can remember the first movie that I ever watched on DVD. It was the summer of 2001, and my family was visiting my grandparents in Upstate New York. At that time they had a cabin on a lake and for several years in a row, my family and my cousins, aunts, and uncles would vacation at the lake and stay at my grandparents’ cabin. During the day we would go out on the lake, swimming, fishing, or sit out and read, but at night time, there wasn’t much for us kids to do. We’d play cards or watch the Yankees game, but we never watched movies because the only tape I remember my grandparents owning was Doctor Zhivago. That changed in the summer of 2001. That summer, my cousin brought a PlayStation 2 with him to the cabin, and a stack of discs. I had heard about DVD as a new format of home video that would soon supplant VHS as the dominant video medium of the time, but the first time I’d ever experienced watching one was when he popped in Ghostbusters and I and my family gathered around to watch the movie, followed by nearly an hour of deleted scenes. I had seen the movie dozens of times by that point, but this viewing experience was like opening up a treasure trove of information about one of my favorite films. Immediately, I started scheming on ways to acquire a DVD player of my own.

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Later that year, my sister and I made that goal a reality as we pooled our financial resources and bought a PlayStation 2, and I started to use the money I made at my first part time job building up a collection of movies, both new and classic. I remember fondly some of the first titles that I picked up: Monty Python & the Holy Grail, The Matrix, A.I., Fight Club, and, of course, my own copy of Ghostbusters. As I mentioned before, in its earliest stages as a home video format DVD was truly aimed at collectors and cinephiles, and these discs were all bursting at the seams with special features, commentary tracks, and deleted or extended scenes. Growing up, my family had taken frequent trips to the movie theater, and we often gathered in front of the television to watch movies that we’d taped during an HBO free preview weekend, but transitioning to DVD changed my viewing habits. I suddenly had my own movie collection, and movie nights became more of a solitary event than a family affair. I soaked up as many different stories as I could, and explored the commentary tracks and making-of documentaries included on the discs as I began my self-driven education in film.

My copy of Coppola’s Viet Nam epic, Apocalypse Now, was an essential piece of that self-education. When I purchased the Apocalypse Now: Redux set sometime in early 2002, I had not yet seen the film. At that time, however, The Godfather was my favorite film, and I was eager to see more of Coppola’s work, particularly the universally revered Apocalypse Now. On initial viewings of the film, I had trouble breaking through the murky haze (both literal and figurative) that permeates the Viet Nam of the film, particularly in its extended version. Though it certainly doesn’t lack for action, Apocalypse Now shines a light on the horrors of war through revealing its characters’ reaction to increasingly dire straits. War is Hell, but in this film it is also madness, unjustly cruel and senseless. Apocalypse Now feels like a fever dream, the inscrutability of its imagery and narrative increasing as Willard traverses deeper into the jungle towards the mouth of madness personified in Kurtz. The film proceeds as a death march, following Willard and the crew of PBR Street Gang as they traverse up the Nung River into Cambodia. The river is frequently obscured by fog or smoke, a visual obfuscation that mirrors the lack of psychological clarity that these characters have in relation to their surroundings in a hellish warzone. Though Kurtz is singled out for assassination for having lost his mind and deserting, it’s clear that the war has robbed most, if not all, of these characters of some piece of their sanity.

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When I first saw Apocalypse Now, I had never seen a war movie that was so thematically rich and dense with meaning and symbolism. At the time, I was watching movies like The Patriot, so to engage with a movie like Apocalypse Now that presented war so cerebrally was a major shift. For much of the movie, Coppola replaces the typical spectacle and bombast of the war genre with a more insular and meditative tone. Rather than propping up nationalistic or patriotic ideologies, Coppola’s film depicts the Viet Nam war with a healthy dose of skepticism for America’s interventionist military position. Willard’s mission to assassinate Kurtz operates as a microcosm of the war at large, cloaked as it is in secrecy, and undertaken with a dubious claim to the moral high ground. In Coppola’s vision of war, there are no clear winners or losers, only survivors, and even they seem to have been irreparably damaged by their experiences. Where a film like Saving Private Ryan (which I enjoy, and which is one of the great war films) presents the viewer with a tidy moralistic view of war, in which saving one man can somehow make up for the deaths of so many others, Apocalypse Now presents war as a scenario that brings out the basest, most animalistic instincts in men, and in which no one can expect to be redeemed. Apocalypse Now is a look into the savage, black heart of the individual and of society.

It’s always a pleasure to rewatch Apocalypse Now, which I believe to be the best movie about war ever made. The director’s cut of the film does add some interesting scenes that enhance both the strange, dreamlike quality of the film, and its anti-imperialist/anti-interventionist themes, but I typically default to watching the original cut, which is what I watched in advance of writing this post. One could teach a master class on film style with this movie. Form and content match as the film’s pace ebbs and flows like a river, the languid, dreamy scenes aboard PBR Street Gang intercut with flashes of brutal action, such as the arrow attack that kills Chief (Albert Hall). The lighting is perfect, particularly towards the film’s end, with Coppola often presenting Willard and Kurtz in total silhouette, or obscuring their faces with shadow, to reflect that darkness that they both share within. The acting is both naturalistic and inspired, from the leads down to supporting characters like Mr. Clean (a 15-year-old Fishburne) and Chef (Forrest), two members of the crew, and the unforgettable Colonel Kilgore (Duvall). The characters feel lived in and fleshed out regardless of how much screen time they get, with Brando’s performance as the mad Colonel Kurtz standing as one of his best, despite not appearing in the film until the final act. Apocalypse Now doesn’t attempt to make sense of all of the madness and horror, it simply allows it to be, challenging the viewer to respond to and reflect on it.

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I think that I have such admiration for Apocalypse Now because of the particular way in which I was introduced to it. While it doesn’t exactly rank up among my favorite films of all time, it’s unquestionably a great movie, and, as I said, I believe it to be the best movie about war ever made. My understanding of the film was enriched by my ability to watch it in multiple cuts and replay specific scenes, or the whole film, over and over again. I was also given a wealth of supplemental material to put the film into a greater context and provide insights into the thought processes and working methods of the people involved in the making of the film. I have become so enamored with Apocalypse Now as a result of having owned it on DVD. I’m sure that I would have greatly enjoyed seeing it, but I don’t know that if I had seen the movie in a theater or just viewed it one time at that age, it would have made quite the impression upon me that it did. Being able to engage in a deep dive with the film provided me with a relationship to it that I rarely have to films that I see now, even ones that I greatly admire or objectively like more than Apocalypse Now. This project was born of a desire to explore physical media that I own, and while I mostly like to write about the movies themselves, it’s also important to consider the physical object itself sometimes. Apocalypse Now is a great movie, but I learned to appreciate it as a great DVD set, which in turn led me to discover its greatness even more.

Animal House

Animal House (1978)

Dir. John Landis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller

Starring: John Belushi, Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, Mark Metcalf


Animal House is, without question, one of the most influential and best comedies of all time. An entire subgenre of comedy that dominates the cinema to this day was largely born from the DNA of this seminal classic. Animal House is the first film from the National Lampoon, the humor magazine that would go on to expand into a media empire throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, and it is the distillation of the brand of humor that that magazine would come to represent over its first decade of existence. The film’s creators were already stars in the niche world of underground comedy, but Animal House launched the careers of Harold Ramis and John Landis who would go on to make some of the most iconic comedies in the history of film in the next decade. It also marks the first feature film performance by the great John Belushi. All that being said, I never watch Animal House anymore, and I don’t think I have sat down to watch the whole movie in nearly two decades.

It isn’t that I ever disliked Animal House. It was a staple of a mine and my friends’ movie rotation during high school, along with other classic teen movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Say Anything. Back then I could quote the movie from memory, and I aspired to party as hard and be as cool as Bluto (Belushi) and the Deltas. I also appreciated the movie for its historical importance. I was (and am) a big fan of raunchy comedies, and I knew that without Animal House, there would be no P.C.U., Dirty Work, or Road Trip. The Deltas sticking it to the system at Faber College through partying and pranking is a familiar trope in comedy now, and Animal House may not have completely invented the format, but it certainly crystallized and advanced it. As perfect a comedy as it may be, however, Animal House loses its punch the further away from adolescence one becomes. I will never not laugh at Bluto’s impression of a zit, or at Neidermayer’s (Metcalf) over the top sadism, but I don’t ever feel the need to watch the whole movie anymore.

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That’s probably because, as a movie centered on adolescent hijinks, Animal House is designed to primarily appeal to a certain demographic of the general public. More than its sophomoric sense of humor, however, it’s the period setting of Animal House that I really have trouble relating to anymore. Though it came out in the late 1970s, the movie is set in 1962, when college men were expected to wear blazers and pledging a fraternity was the pinnacle of social networking. The period setting doesn’t at all hinder the humor in Animal House, which is commendable. So often, humor can be topical or not translate from one generation to the next, but Animal House could really be transposed to just about any era, largely keep the same jokes, and it would be a successful comedy. There’s just something about the film that doesn’t really resonate with me the way that it used to. I can recognize its importance in the genre, but actually sitting down and watching the film for this post was a bit of a chore. I laughed like I always have, but over the years my desire to watch a full length feature that is so focused on physical comedy and gross-out humor has diminished greatly.

For me, Animal House and films of its ilk work best in little pieces. The film is somewhat elliptical, with many scenes simply existing to highlight one joke, and I think some of the film’s best moments are just as funny when taken out of the context of the larger film. My very favorite scene in the film is the scene in which Bluto and D-Day (Bruce McGill) convince Flounder (Stephen Furst) to put Neidermayer’s horse in Dean Wormer’s (John Vernon) office. After locking the horse in the office, the three are having a laugh when D-Day hands Flounder a pistol and tells him to “finish the job.” Though he doesn’t know the gun was loaded with blanks, Flounder can’t bring himself to kill the horse, so he fires into the air. Of course, the horse drops dead of a heart attack anyway, and the reaction shot of D-Day and Bluto is priceless. Later in the film, a worker is briefly shown measuring the door to the office and measuring the space between the dead horses upturned legs before revving up a chainsaw. It’s honestly a fairly one-note joke, but the absurdity of the situation has always stuck with me and the idea of sawing a dead horse in half to get it out of an office never fails to crack me up, no matter how many times I see the scene.

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Animal House is full of scenes just like that one. Hilariously absurd situations and non sequiturs that don’t advance the film’s plot but provide some of the most memorable jokes and the biggest laughs. Think about Bluto casually spying on the sorority girls’ topless pillow fight and then winking at the camera, or about the record scratch moment when the Deltas walk in to the Dexter Lake Club. These are the scenes that make the film the classic that it is, so when I think back about Animal House I almost think of it more as a sketch comedy than as a feature film. Its roots in the short form satire of the National Lampoon are obvious. Undeniably, the film is a comedy classic, and as I mentioned, was hugely influential in shaping the direction of mainstream comedy filmmaking, but as a film it leaves something to be desired. Landis and Belushi would team up again in 1980 to bring Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s “Blues Brothers” characters to the big screen, in a film that works much better on the whole, for me. With Animal House, however, the whole does not always equal the sum of its parts.

American Splendor

American Splendor (2003)

Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Written by: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (based on the comics by Harvey Pekar)

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar


American Splendor is a biopic about the life and work of Cleveland cartoonist Harvey Pekar, the creator of the comic series of the same name. The comic “American Splendor,” which ran from 1976 to 2008, follows the mundane everyday lives of Pekar and his friends and coworkers. It contains Pekar’s musings on life and is presented in his cynical, often miserable, tone, with the illustrations being provided by some of the biggest underground cartoonists of the 70s and 80s. The film adaptation is a genre-hopping picture that presents primarily the period of Pekar’s life in which he was writing the series. It intertwines a dramatized version of Pekar’s life in which he is played by Paul Giamatti with interviews with the actual Pekar, his wife, and friends. Many scenes from the film are direct adaptations of panels from “American Splendor,” sometimes even fading in or out from the illustrated panels.

I have fond memories of this film, having seen it shortly after its release, sometime in 2004. I wasn’t familiar with the comic series at the time, but I remember liking the film’s style and being very enamored with Pekar as a character, both through his actual interviews and Giamatti’s portrayal. I identified very much his persistent negativity. The documentary aspects of the film lent the dramatized storyline veracity, and I enjoyed watching Pekar be interviewed with Giamatti sitting in the background. The film goes out of its way to highlight its construction, which was intriguing to me. I liked being able to compare Giamatti’s performance with the genuine article. I was also intrigued by Pekar’s brand of blue-collar intellectualism. I probably watched the film a half dozen times between 2004 and 2007, or so.


I was disappointed that after not having seen it in probably a decade, American Splendor didn’t live up to my memories. The film’s varied style of presenting its story, an aspect of it that I had previously enjoyed, was the primary reason for me not connecting with it this time around. Stylistically, I was fine with the introduction of animation and panels from “American Splendor” in the narrative portions of the film, but I felt that the documentary and narrative portions just didn’t mesh. I think that American Splendor works better as a documentary that it does a narrative film, and the presence of the actual Harvey Pekar overshadows the film’s narrative. Springer Berman and Pulcini use Pekar as a narrator throughout the film, both in voice over and in filmed interviews. His character and commentary are so engaging that I found myself wanting more of that, which took away from the film’s narrative segments. I felt that there were the makings of a very good talking head style documentary and a pretty good comedic biopic contained with American Splendor, but I couldn’t quite reconcile the two into a greater whole.

I’m not surprised that the documentary portions of American Splendor shine through, because the film is Springer Berman and Pucini’s first foray into narrative cinema. Previously they had directed several documentaries, primarily about Hollywood subjects. The husband and wife team craft the narrative well, however, and the film, which was shot on location in Cleveland and its suburbs, feels authentic. Giamatti’s performance also helps to elevate the film’s narrative portions, as he captures Pekar’s essence perfectly. He embodies Pekar’s pessimism with his hunched, shambling gait and his raspy line delivery. This role was one of Giamatti’s first breakthrough performances, and it’s clear why he gained the acclaim he did for it. A lesser talent would probably not have been able to stand up in the shadow of the charismatic and funnily sardonic Pekar. My biggest complaint with the narrative portions of the film is that the narrative often feels directionless. I don’t know if this was a conscious artistic decision to mimic the slice of life style of “American Splendor,” but the film felt lacking in motivation. It was enjoyable to watch Giamatti growl and mutter his way through the film, but outside of some occasional domestic turmoil with his wife, Joyce (Hope Davis), there was very little narrative tension or conflict. The film’s third act focuses on Pekar’s diagnosis and subsequent battle with lymphoma, but it feels more like an epilogue than a continuation of the story that the film had previously been telling. Pekar beating cancer should feel like a narrative payoff, a big win for the hero of the story, but instead it had the same significance of any of the other events depicted in the film. I don’t mean to sound overly critical of the film, because it is enjoyable enough. I do think it would have worked better as a documentary with inserts from Pekar’s cartoons and many media appearances. As it is, American Splendor feels a bit like a jumbled mixed-media collage. I think there could be many reasons for this stylistic choice, but it ultimately doesn’t work for me.


While I likely won’t be rushing to watch American Splendor anytime soon, rewatching it has made me realize how influential the film was in developing some of my literary interests without me even realizing it. A few years after moving to Pittsburgh, I was finally able to track down an “American Splendor” anthology at my local library, which I eagerly read and thoroughly enjoyed. From there it was a short leap to discovering the novel Post Office, and Charles Bukowski became one of my favorite writers during my early- and mid-twenties. In the years after dropping out of graduate school, I sank myself into my work as a bartender and I had a lot of trouble reconciling my professional career with my latent desire to continue academic or creative pursuits. In Bukowski and Pekar, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had found kindred spirits. Working class intellectuals who created great art not in spite of their circumstances of employment or their lack of formal training, but because of it. I don’t have anywhere near the talent of these writers, but it’s good to remember that it’s never too late to get started again. Though Bukowski eventually left his job at the post office, he didn’t become a full time writer until his forties. Pekar worked as a filing clerk for the Cleveland VA hospital for nearly 40 years, finally retiring in 2001, well after he had received much acclaim and fame for his writing. It’s impossible to imagine the work of either without their professional experiences and working class sensibilities. I haven’t thought about Harvey Pekar or American Splendor in years, but his depictions of the day-to-day lives of everyday people, and his elevation of their mundane existences to poetry, have stuck with me and shaped the way I interact with the world today.