Sunday, December 19, 2004

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."

I watched the great movie, and I think, very overlooked comic book adaptation, "American Splendor" again this morning. What a wonderful little flick this is, and how perfectly it captures the quixotic life of Harvey Pekar. Its oddball nature, though, kind of left it in the ghetto frequented by movie critics and alternative comics fans.

On a second viewing, "American Splendor" might just be one of the best comic adaptations of all. It takes Pekar's consciously mundane autobiographical comics and translates them into a kaleidoscope of a movie, putting animation, reality and re-creation all into a blender. The structure of this movie, which many critics put on their best of 2003 lists, amazes me. It takes real advantage of the comic book form to play with our perceptions of reality -- the real Harvey and actor Paul Giamatti as Harvey switch places throughout the film, making you wonder what's "real." Harvey's just a file clerk at a VA, a luckless cynic who's left failed marriages and is borderline obsessive-compulsive. But his sideline of doing an infrequent autobiographical comic book has somehow transformed his ordinary life into something emblematic of us all. Although I know I should know better, it depresses me a bit to see all the yahoos on the IMDB message boards talking about how the movie is "boring" and wondering why Pekar "deserves" a movie about him. They totally miss the point.

Topped off with that marvelous, frowning, clenched performance by Giamatti (also drawing applause in this year's "Sideways," which I have yet to see) as Pekar, "American Splendor" is the kind of movie I can watch over and over again, and get something a little different from it each time. I know we all like our heroes, our Batman and Spider-Man, and I like 'em too, but in the end most of our lives are a hell of a lot more like humble file clerk, curmudgeon and cynic Harvey Pekar than we'd care to admit.

I picked up Harvey's latest graphic novel, "Our Movie Year," this week, too, and have enjoyed flipping through it. It's kind of a grab-bag compared to some of his other books -- as you can guess from the title, it focuses on his life post-movie and how having an acclaimed film and touring the world to promote it has (or hasn't) changed the ol' grouch's life. Some really good work here, but there's also a little redundancy in this collection, as it comes mostly from various newspapers and magazines rather than Harvey's own comic book. We get several scenes repeated in different strips (three times we see the movie winning a Sundance Film Festival award), although it's not done enough to be truly annoying. I also would've liked to see credits telling me where pieces were reprinted from. Also, there's a lot of Pekar's music biography strips about obscure early 20th century artists and musicians, which I dig. They are very different in tone from everything else in the book, though. Still, all of Harvey's work has this shaggy dog quality to it, messy and untamed and rambling -- kinda like life.

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