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.

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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.

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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.

About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)

Dir. Alexander Payne

Written by: Alexander Payne (from the novel by Louis Begley)

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney

 

About Schmidt feels like a forgotten movie. I rarely hear anyone mention it, and I know that it has been largely ignored by myself. I purchased this film on DVD sometime in 2003 from Blockbuster Video. At that time in my life, Blockbuster was a big source of DVDs for me. They would almost always have their used rental discs for sale at pretty good prices about a year after their release, due to the store’s policy of stocking heavily on new releases and then downsizing their stock once the movies got a little older. Myself and my best friend would go to the area stores and raid their used DVD bins, stocking up on 4 for $20 discs. Our logic was that since it was about $3 to rent a DVD for the night, if we could get a disc for $5 and watch it twice then we were getting a good deal. I’ve watched About Schmidt more than two times since purchasing it some 13 years ago, but not many. I remember enjoying the movie, but it never made a huge impression on me, however it has hung around in my DVD collection when I’ve lost or misplaced other, more cherished discs.

It isn’t so much that About Schmidt is a bad movie, it’s just that it’s a very bland one, and it hasn’t aged particularly well. The film begins with the retirement of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) from his job at a Midwestern insurance firm. Already put off by the loss of his familiar work routines, Warren is thrown into a full three-quarter-life crisis after the death of his wife Helen (June Squibb) and his subsequent discovery of her decades-long affair with his best friend. Warren’s solution to his crisis is to set out in the RV that he and Helen purchased to spend their retirement together, and drive cross country from Nebraska to Colorado to attend the upcoming nuptials of his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis). Along the way, Warren begins to learn more about himself, and about the people around him, as he starts to accept and adjust to his new life.

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Like the rest of Alexander Payne’s output, I feel About Schmidt is a fine piece of entertainment. It’s largely a light comedy, and it succeeds at hitting the beats it’s supposed to. The performances are solid across the board, with Nicholson and Kathy Bates receiving deserved Oscar nominations for their roles. However, my favorite performance was Dermot Mulroney as Randall, Jeannie’s ponytailed fiancée, who sells waterbeds, invests in pyramid schemes, and very obviously does not meet Warren’s approval. Randall is the film’s most obvious comic relief, but Mulroney never plays him as a total clown. Randall takes pride in his work, but he works to live rather than living to work. In this way, he provides a foil for the workaholic Warren, who sees Randall as a rube, unfit to wed his daughter. It’s telling that Warren made his living selling life insurance, a product that can’t be cashed in while the purchaser is still alive, versus the waterbeds that Randall sells, which are meant to provide comfort and enjoyment in the here and now. Halfway through the film, Randall approaches Warren with an opportunity to invest in what is “definitely not a pyramid scheme,” in an attempt to bolster his economic prospects in a changing economy, but also in an attempt to ingratiate himself to his future father in law, and to try to make an entry into the world of the upper middle class. Warren’s rejection of Randall is indicative of his classist attitude, as he repeatedly claims that Randall is “not good enough” to marry Jeannie, despite the obvious evidence that he makes Jeannie happy.

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While Warren’s classist nature is revealed through his interactions with Randall, the film’s voice over narration often reveals its tendency towards White paternalism. Early in his retirement, Warren sees a commercial for Childreach, which leads him to sponsor a six year old boy in Tanzania named Ndugu. Throughout the film, Warren writes letters to Ndugu, which are narrated in voice over. Warren introduces himself to Ndugu as his new “foster father,” and proceeds to use his letters to Ndugu as a way to vent his frustrations and project his unfulfilled dreams onto the child. The letters are presented comically in the film, and they are often genuinely funny, but the content reveals Warren’s basic inability to understand or relate to cultures other than his own. The fact that Warren finishes off his first letter by writing that he’s sure Ndugu wants to “hurry down and cash that check and get [him]self something to eat,” is funny, but it also underlines a paternalism inherent in the attitudes of otherwise well-meaning do-gooders. I feel that this sort of well-meaning sentiment applies to the film as a whole. It’s funny, the acting is good, and it is largely enjoyable, but the point of view that it represents as the norm likely wasn’t relatable to most average Americans on its release, let alone now, when American society has become more diversified and stratified than ever.

As I mentioned, About Schmidt simply feels outdated today. The film was released in December of 2002, into a much different America than the one that I live in today. The idea of a gold watch retirement from a career after 50 years of service with one company seemed antiquated to me in 2003, and feels even more so watching the film again today. While the prospects for a retiree in the early part of the 21st century may have seemed bright, the reality for most American workers just 15 years later is that there may be little chance for a true retirement of any sort. The type of middle class prosperity that Warren Schmidt is meant to represent in this film is largely unachievable for most American workers in the year 2016. And while the film is dubious, or even downright pessimistic, about the happiness that can be found through a life dedicated to the achievement of material and monetary wealth, the relative comfort that a man in Warren Schmidt’s position has been able to enjoy, even at the expense of a more meaningful marriage or relationship with his daughter, must be preferable to an existence spent working overtime for a degrading wage simply to provide the bare necessities for your family.

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The feeling that this film’s subject matter is distinctively out of step with the modern world is a problem that I’ve come to have with the films of Alexander Payne, in general. I have seen all of the films that he’s directed with the exception of his debut, Citizen Ruth, and they have always struck me as decent movies that leave little impression on me as a viewer. I have trouble relating to the Midwestern-ness of About Schmidt and Nebraska, and I also have trouble relating to the privilege and overbearing White-ness of Sideways and The Descendants. While I’ve enjoyed all of these movies at different times, and still think that they’re largely decent films with strong performances and are generally of high production quality, I can’t help but feel that they aren’t reflective of the face of America. As a viewer, I’m getting bored of the dominance of movies about White male elites, and I am hoping to see more representation of women, people of color, gays, and other marginalized groups in the films that get made. I’m hoping to see more films being made by people in these marginalized groups. There have been plenty of just fine movies made about the experiences of aging White men, and those movies will always continue to be made, but I hope that it isn’t at the expense of potentially great movies about characters who look less like the folks in Omaha.