Cleveland circa 2003 in American Splendor

Review: American Splendor (New York: HBO Films, 2003).
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

By Evan Ash

In a middle-of-the-night lymphoma-induced delirium, Cleveland everyman Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) asks his wife Joyce (Hope Davis): “Am I a guy who writes about himself in a comic book, or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will that character keep goin’? Or will he just fade away?” This poignant scene serves as a climax to Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor, a multi-layered film that is at once comedy, drama, and documentary. Released in 2003 under the auspices of HBO Films, the movie won 29 awards, including one from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

The film is set amidst the empty, rusting lots and boarded-up Lakewood and Cleveland neighborhoods that Pekar called home during the 1970s. Save for a moderately upscale restaurant to which Pekar and Joyce treat themselves (“I can’t believe you’d eat in a place like this,” remarks Joyce), the film’s setting is the postindustrial periphery of early 2000s Cleveland—the parts untouched by the urban renaissance of the 1990s. In a fashion befitting the film’s melding of narrative and documentary, the film uses the exact locations that Pekar and friends frequented—Tommy’s Restaurant in Coventry, Shay’s Restaurant near the lake, and the Elmwood Home Bakery of Lakewood.

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Paul Giamatti shot in front of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont.

Derived from Pekar’s earlier American Splendor comics and graphic memoir Our Cancer Year, the movie explores Pekar’s existential battles with divorce and general aimlessness, his physical battles with depression and cancer. Giamatti’s performance as Pekar is lights-out, bringing to life all of his misanthropic quirks and mannerisms. Viewers get a chance to make up their mind more firmly on the accuracy of the various portrayals, as Springer Berman and Pulcini intersperse the fictional events with documentary footage of interviews with Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Pekar’s quirky coworker and friend Toby Radloff, and in one memorable scene have the actors conversing in the background while the filmmakers interview their real-life versions, so to speak. American Splendor is a biopic-lover’s delight, and any historians who enjoy unorthodox presentations of the past will enjoy it.

The film follows Pekar’s life, with brief flashbacks, beginning with the abrupt departure of his second wife. We see Pekar meeting a young Robert Crumb (played by James Urbaniak, whose portrayal Crumb’s wife Aline detested), and the beginnings of Pekar’s rise to comic fame. Comic-style animation and archival footage merge to portray his genial, then disastrous appearances on the David Letterman show. The release of Pekar’s Our Cancer Year follows, and then documentary footage of the retirement party of the real Pekar after 36 years as a V.A. file clerk.

But for a film dedicated to a man who described life as “a war of attrition,” the film seems almost afraid to be political. Pekar’s first American Splendor released in 1976 at the peak of Cleveland’s deindustrialization woes, and fittingly for a film adapted from a comic book, it shows more than it says. The opening sees Pekar strolling near abandoned warehouses and boarded up homes. But the characters have little to say about their situation, save for when Pekar berates Toby for living with his grandmother in an “ethnic ghetto.” Pekar also has a brief realization later in the film, preceding his fateful Letterman appearance, that his life, along with Toby’s, was commodified by large corporations at their expense.

This is a far cry, of course, from Pekar’s comics themselves. One 1992 story titled “Red Baiting” sees a young Harvey putting up Henry Wallace flyers despite fears of being called a communist. A 1995 comic called “Breakfast at Billy’s” features Pekar and Toby eating breakfast and lamenting “Yuppies from Ohio City” and gentrification. Part of that sentiment derived from the revitalization of Cleveland, driven by a resurgence in manufacturing and rapid increase of service industry jobs alongside a widespread cultural and urban reimagining. “Indeed,” write urban geographers Barney Worf and Brian Holly in “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cleveland,” “long a city with a notorious reputation as an uncultured, working-class city void of sophistication[, Cleveland] has emerged as an important center of cultural consumption, with a reputation as the ‘Comeback City’ carefully crafted by the local growth machine.” [1]

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American Splendor blends biopic and documentary, evidenced by this still of an interview with Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner from the film.

Domestically, the film received a Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking award from the National Board of Review, who also awarded Giamatti with Breakthrough Performance by an Actor. Springer Berman and Pulcini’s screenplay received an Oscar nod, and Davis’ performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Despite the film’s surface-level politics and its lack of structural analysis of postindustrial cities, the accolades it received are more than justified. Bergman and Pulcini’s project amounts to a distinctive take on the biopic and documentary genres, driven by powerful performances from Giamatti and Davis. It is perfectly paired with Terry Zwigoff’s biopic Crumb (1994) and Pekar’s Cleveland (2012)—an illustrated history of his hometown.

72689078_2785883648088537_319312500422082560_o (3) (1)Evan R. Ash is a cultural and social historian of the 1950s researching the American anti-comics movement and the domestic Cold War, with other interests in general American comics history and film criticism. He recently received his M.A. in history from Miami University and is a current history Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. He can be reached on Twitter @evanthevoice and by email at erash@terpmail.umd.edu.

[1] Barney Ward and Brian Holly, “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cleveland,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 551 (May, 1997): 208-221.

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