Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor, 2003

  1. Harvey Pekar’s long-ongoing graphic novel series American Splendor concerns itself with what appear to be purely ordinary things. Writing about himself, with different artists providing illustrations, means that the most important common theme across all the works is Harvey Pekar himself. At first it would seem to imply the series is simply about The Everyman, a sort of stand-in for humanity at large. But by “casting” himself and other people in his real life, Pekar does more than that across American Splendor’s long run. He shows that one man is not actually a concept, not “The Everyman,” but in fact is a unique and original and fascinating being. Each of us is the hero of our own story – any of us could star in our own comic and it would not be a repeat of American Splendor. Each of us has many truths to relay, not in grand sweeping statements, but in our “ordinary” day to day reality.
  2. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s innovative film American Splendor takes an approach that stands apart from the typical Hollywood “bio-pic.” They play with “comic” conventions – word/thought bubbles, credits done in comic style, boxed-in shots – in ways that are not entirely new in film, but they pair it with a documentary sensibility that makes it stand out. In perhaps their most illuminating move, they use the real Harvey Pekar to narrate the movie, and feature interview pieces with him along the way, as well as having actor Paul Giamatti play Pekar for the actual story of Pekar’s life. Though really, it’s the story of Pekar’s arthttps://twitter.com/PekarProject. Though really, ultimately, those are the same thing. Harvey Pekar is a man whose existence is entirely expressed through – and was dependent upon – his art. Having him available for commentary on his own story, and thus smashing standard narrative conventions, makes for a memorable film about a singular life in art.
  3. Harvey Pekar published American Splendor across thirty years of his life. With so much material to work from, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who wrote and directed; writing credits are also given to Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner) made the wise decision to focus only on a few key representative stories. They worked closely with Pekar and Brabner, realizing that by selecting which stories to put forward they were in control of the “character” of Harvey Pekar as the film audience would perceive him. As Springer Berman says in an interview with Bette Gordon for Bomb Magazine, “Harvey didn’t want to do some idealized version of himself.” Anytime a biography is put to film such decisions must be made, of course, but the inseparability of Pekar from his comic “self” made for a unique wrinkle in this adaptation. By taking a documentary sensibility to their work – interview segments with Pekar, Brabner, and other real people behind the characters, shot very much in a less realistic way than the narrative portions – they were able to capture the unique sense of Pekar and his own self-created world and art. It is not always a pretty picture, but it has a clear sense of Pekar’s own vision of how he wants to be presented.
  4. “The Pekar Project” and associated Twitter feed, smithmag.net, last updated Jul. 12, 2011One of Pekar’s last projects before his passing, “The Pekar Project” was a collaboration (naturally) to produce a weekly webcomic. Pekar tended to avoid the internet and computers in general, but worked with a team of artists to put new work there weekly.

    “Harvey Pekar Dies; Authored ‘American Splendor'” npr.org, July 12, 2010

    NPR’s Neda Ulaby filed this report on Pekar’s passing in 2010, mentioning the movie of American Splendor favorably.

    “Harvey Pekar” kcrw.com audio interview with Elvis Mitchell, Jul. 6, 2011 (rebroadcast of 2003 interview)

    Distinguished critic Mitchell speaks with Pekar on his life and work and the movie made of the same.

    “Narrativity, Purpose, and Visible Adaptation in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003)” miranda.revues.org, 2013

    Matthew Bolton’s critical essay forwards the theory that Springer Berman and Pulcini mitigated the difficulties of adapting work without strong narrative force in large part by making their own work of adaptation appear front and center. “In other words, Berman and Pulcini turn the opposition between cinematic narrative propulsion and Pekar’s open-ended episodes to their aesthetic advantage, using this friction between strong and weak narrativity as an invitation for audiences to consider just what kind of story a life is, anyway.”

  5. Viewed from the perspective of our current culture of social media and self-created news, Harvey Pekar’s world inside American Splendor seems not that unusual, at first blush. However, there is a purposefulness in Pekar’s varying layers of self-portrayal that distinguishes it. In Chris Campion’s interview with Pekar for Sabotage Times the parallel is drawn between Pekar in American Splendor and Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Mere weeks ago on Bloomsday (June 16), social media filled with reflections of Dublin and other cities’ celebrations (#Bloomsday and #Bloomsday2015). However, these social media reflections seem to point out where the difference lies between Bloom and Pekar and the current culture of self-curation: self-consciousness. In Pekar’s 2008 interview with Walrus Comix, he says “Nahh. I don’t think I’ve done anything to be ashamed of. I mean, I’ve got a lot of faults, which I will readily admit, but I’ve never murdered anybody, I’ve never robbed anybody or anything like that. That’s serious shit. But being cheap, I’ll cop to that. OK, I’m cheap, there are worse things. Who doesn’t have faults?” Pekar’s unique self-presentation, as reflected fairly accurately across his own American Splendor books and Stringer Berman and Pulcini’s film of the same name, is less self-conscious and more truly full than most self-curated social media feeds. It is telling that there are no “official” Pekar presences on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram (though there is a hardcore punk band out of Cleveland called “Harvey Pekar”). WIthin the film, there is an added layer of curation of course – Springer Berman and Pulcini are collaborating on a work that is already collaboration, adapting a work that is already a sort of adaptation (Pekar’s words to artists’ renderings). Pekar’s writing renders himself in the truest form he can muster; the public face of Pekar is always seen through the lens of others’ perceptions – illustrators and movie directors alike. In the end, this truly draws American Splendor as not mere social media self-consciousness but as art created from life with purpose.american-splendor-2

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