American Blender: A Reporter Sifts Through the Many Realities of Hanging Out with Harvey Pekar the Movie Star by Jack Baney

Posted by on July 16th, 2010 at 5:01 PM

Above: art by Frank Stack

ROGER EBERT: [From Chicago Sun-Times, May 23, 2003.] Most people at Cannes have never heard of Harvey Pekar; his wife, Joyce Brabner, and their adopted daughter, Danielle Batone. But to comic-book fans, Pekar is famous for chronicling the story of his life, bringing unexpected drama and poignancy to the existence of a man who worked all his life as a government file clerk. And now Cannes knows him, too, because of American Splendor, a film by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini that combines a fictional story starring Paul Giametti [as Pekar] and Hope Davis [as Brabner] with real-life footage of Pekar, Brabner and Batone. The film is not in competition, because it won at Sundance in January, but many feel it’s the best film they’ve seen here.

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The film American Splendor adapts Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book of the same name, as well as the graphic novel Our Cancer Year by Pekar and Joyce Brabner. It was originally intended as a television movie for HBO, but after it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, HBO Films slated it for an Aug. 15 theatrical release. American Splendor also won an International Critics’ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

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HARVEY PEKAR [All quotes are from Spring/Summer 2003 interviews and conversations with The Comics Journal, unless otherwise noted.]: First of all, I was surprised by how good the movie was and the chances that they took … The most obvious way it was innovative was mixing these various genres — documentary and regular narrative and animation and cartoons, and having the character portrayed by himself and by an actor … And I think that the unusual things that they did came off — they were successful experiments … I was flabbergasted by the reaction. It’s practically unanimous — everybody says it’s good, at least. Some people think it’s great.

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Here’s our reporter, Jack, riding the train home to New Jersey from a press screening of the American Splendor movie in New York. He thinks the movie was good — the actors did a great job, and the narrative/documentary blend really captured the feeling of the comic. Not even Jack would have thought of doing it that way, and he knows and understands Pekar’s work better than anyone.

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ROBERT PULCINI: The material lent itself to the kind of hybrid that we wanted to make. I mean, when we read [Pekar’s work], we went, “We could do something really different with this.” We had no intention of ever making a documentary about Harvey. Because Harvey has such a disregard for conventional structure or narrative, we thought, “Wow, we can really be true to the spirit of the comic and do something really exciting.”

SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: We thought it was interesting because there were multiple depictions of Harvey … He’s really sort of handsome in the Gerry Shamray [depictions], sort of an intellectual, romantic figure. And in the Crumb Harvey, he’s hunched over and hairy and insecure. We thought, “Well, this actually gives us a license to do a movie that has multiple Harvey Pekars.” We could have an animated Harvey, we could have the real Harvey Pekar, we could have an actor playing him, and yet, there’d still be the essence of Harvey. So it was very fertile ground for us to do some very interesting things. The comic demanded that we do that, or else, why make the movie?

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When the Journal met with Pekar in June, his appearance didn’t fit perfectly with any of his portrayals by cartoonists. He dressed simply as expected — wearing jeans, sneakers and cheap-looking short-sleeved shirts — and sported his trademark sideburns. But he appeared much older and somewhat less attractive than most of his comic-book depictions, including some fairly recent ones. He was a very thin and mostly bald man who looked his age of 63. His gauntness and baldness may have had something to do with the chemotherapy treatments that he had received the previous year for his second bout of lymphoma, which was in remission. (During the Journal’s visit, several people told Pekar that he looked good, which served as a reminder that he had probably looked quite bad during his recent illness. He certainly looked younger in June than in Joe Sacco’s drawings of him from the 2002 story “The Way It’s Going,” which was about his lymphoma and a period of depression that preceded it.) But, sitting close to Pekar, the Journal noticed two unusual traits — extremely overgrown eyebrows (one of his eyebrow hairs looped almost all the way over his eye) and a lot of nose hair — that were probably recent signs of his aging. And as the Journal watched him walk around a public library, he looked like the kind of weird old guy who you would expect to see in a library during working hours on a weekday.

art by Gerry Shamray

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But Jack knows he could improve American Splendor quite a bit if he had the chance to rewrite it. He’d scrap the scene toward the beginning about Pekar’s voice problem — it isn’t true to Pekar’s actual experience, it isn’t very funny, and its portrayal of Pekar’s second wife makes her seem like a snob stereotype from a bad sitcom. Jack would start the movie with a complete adaptation of “An Argument at Work,” which would introduce most of Pekar’s many sides — his “flunky” status, loneliness, temper, freelance writing career and intellectualism — all at the same time and in a really compelling way. The up-front introduction to his intellectualism would be especially important, since the filmmakers’ version didn’t emphasize it nearly enough.

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SPRINGER BERMAN: It was very important for us to show that he’s an intellectual — not just a working-class guy but a working-class intellectual. That whole sequence when he talks about Dressier — that was supposed to illuminate that aspect.

PULCINI: He also recognizes a quote from Mr. Boats immediately — an Eleanor Hoyt Wylie poem. Wherever we could, we tried to put little references to his literacy in the screenplay.

art by R. Crumb

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As in his comics, Pekar came across as many-sided during the six or so phone conversations that it took for the Journal to set up an in-person interview with him. He seemed extremely depressed when the Journal first called and asked for a telephone interview. Although Pekar agreed to the interview and said he was glad that the Journal liked the American Splendor movie, his short replies to everything the Journal said sounded like the words of an old, tired and possibly grief-stricken man.

Days later, when the Journal called to ask for an in-person interview that weekend, Brabner answered the telephone and stayed on the line after Pekar had picked up on another extension. As Pekar listened silently, Brabner asked the Journal to identify itself, then said her husband was going to the Cannes Film Festival in a few weeks and had no time to be interviewed before that. “Goodbye,” she said, and hung up.

A brief moment of silence followed, but sensing Pekar’s presence, the Journal ventured, “Harvey?”

Pekar began, “Sorry, Jack …” but he was interrupted by a voice in the background and asked the Journal to hold on. When he came back on the line after a short pause, he explained that his wife wanted him to get off the telephone and said goodbye.

But a few days later, Pekar answered the phone and spoke to the Journal at length. He said that he would have plenty of time to spend with the Journal after Cannes; asked the Journal reporter about himself, his job, and his coworkers; and expressed trepidation about the festival. (“I don’t know about this trip, man.”) Pekar came across as fairly cheerful and very friendly during this call; he also sounded as though he was shoveling food into his mouth through much of it.

However, he acted hostile and suspicious when the Journal called again upon his return from Cannes. Pekar said his past relations with the Journal had been poor and that he had heard from one of the American Splendor directors that the Journal reporter thought Pekar was not well-read. After the Journal claimed to have expressed the exact opposite opinion, Pekar agreed again to an in-person interview while acting like he was doing the Journal a big favor.

The next day, though, he called the Journal to apologize for the fact that he would be unavailable for an hour or so during the Journal’s visit. (“I hope this doesn’t screw you up too much.”) When the Journal brought up the previous day’s exchange about Pekar’s reading habits, he brushed it aside and said he had misunderstood one of the directors. During a final call before the Journal’s departure for Cleveland, Pekar expressed annoyance at the way The Comics Journal and its readers had treated him when he had criticized Maus, and he went on to mock Journal editor Gary Groth’s enthusiasm for firearms (“Is he still goin’ around shootin’ at stuff?”). Overall, though, he came across as lively and good-humored during this call.

Pekar gave yet another impression of himself during the Journal’s three face-to-face meetings with him in Cleveland. He came across as simultaneously easygoing, patient, accommodating, semi-depressed, humorless and bored. He showed hardly a trace of annoyance when the Journal first showed up at his house about three hours late or when the Journal was late again for an arranged meeting the next day.  He never complained as the Journal conducted about six hours of interviews with him and asked him some very personal questions. But neither did Pekar show much enthusiasm during the interviews, as he answered the magazine’s questions in a rather weary manner. He didn’t perk up much around other people, either — he smiled a bit when he and the Journal visited the Stokes VA Medical Center, where he used to work, but he was less gregarious in this environment than readers of his stories about the hospital might expect. Pekar seemed like he was about to pass out from boredom by the time the Journal finished interviewing him and Toby Radloff, his friend and former coworker, at Radloff’s house.

art by R. Crumb

The Journal came to agree with Shari Springer Berman’s and Robert Pulcini’s view that Pekar tends to be “down” in the mornings. Although the comics writer had often described himself as a habitually early riser, he generally seemed most depressed when the Journal spoke to him early in the day.

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Also, Jack’s version of American Splendor would avoid trying to do things on film that only work in comics. He’d scrap the hospital scenes with Mr. Boats or else do them differently — they read well when illustrated by Crumb but seem kind of lame and sitcom-ish on film.

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