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Essence of a grump

February 16, 2003|John Clark | Special to The Times

Park City, Utah — During the question-and-answer period after a rapturously received screening of "American Splendor" at the recent Sundance Film Festival, an audience member asked the film's subject, curmudgeonly underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, if he still felt as hopeless as he seemed in the movie.

"I feel more hopeful than I did 24 hours ago," he said grudgingly.

One can only wonder how he felt a few days later, when the film won the festival's top award, the Grand Jury Prize, topping a very respectable field of feature films. Or a few weeks later, when the HBO Films production was picked up for distribution this summer by Fine Line Features. Did he feel better than hopeful? Did he actually feel good?

Not likely. It would be way out of character, a character that Pekar has chronicled for the last 25 years in a comic-book series, also called "American Splendor," about his miserable life in Cleveland as a clerk in a Veterans Affairs hospital, his money problems, his petty irritations, his monomaniacal obsessions, his weird friends and colleagues, his rocky marriage, his unexpected parenthood and his bout with cancer. In short, it's an ode, or a dirge, to the Everyman.

It's also an unlikely subject for a comic book -- and for a movie. After all, both mediums normally traffic in heroes. "I write about people who don't get written about ordinarily, unless they commit an ax murder," Pekar says. "I think everybody is real interesting."

The trick, of course, is to find a way to make audiences share this interest. Pekar managed it with black humor, relentless honesty, comic-book tropes and the assistance of a host of illustrators, including Robert Crumb. (Pekar doesn't draw; he writes the material first and then it's illustrated.) Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who together wrote and directed the movie, tackled the problem by employing a variety of techniques, including traditional narrative, animation, voice-over, TV footage and interviews, not to mention the crummy, stubborn spirit of the comics.

"It's scary sometimes," Pulcini says. "I see all the ways it could have gone wrong. Casting. If that didn't work, the movie would collapse. If those transitions between Paul and Harvey didn't work, I don't see why you watch the movie."

Pulcini is referring to the fact that the real Pekar appears as himself in the movie and narrates scenes from his life as acted by Paul Giamatti, who doesn't look like him but somehow manages to suggest him. The filmmakers made this easier to accept by placing the two Pekars in radically different contexts. Giamatti inhabits the gritty Rust Belt Cleveland of the '60s, '70s and '80s. Pekar is shown talking against a white studio backdrop with carefully placed objects that deliberately mimic a comic-book frame.

It's also clear that the dramatized bits are projections of Pekar rather than realistic depictions of him, much as his comics are (in which, incidentally, he is drawn in different ways by different artists). The filmmakers and Giamatti are the first to say that they were adapting his comics, not his life.

Of course, as well thought out as all of this is, it's not going to work if the audience doesn't embrace Pekar and his world. He is, in Berman's words, "a pain in the butt" and "sometimes you want to strangle him," but he also represents the kind of person we all are or fear we may become, the man stuck in a dead-end job. It doesn't hurt that he's played by Giamatti, a sympathetic on-screen presence.

Long time coming

Clearly, it's a minor miracle that a movie like this got made. ("If people thought about this movie for too long," says Pulcini, "they'd find a lot of reasons not to make it.") According to Pekar, the idea of doing a film based on "American Splendor" has been kicking around for more than 20 years. He was approached by a number of interested parties in the early '80s, including Jonathan Demme, "but they could never get the dough together."

Finally, in 1998, an illustrator friend put Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, in touch with Good Machine's Ted Hope, a longtime fan. Hope purchased the rights to the material, but it wasn't until early 2001 that he found the right filmmakers for the job, the husband-and-wife team of Pulcini and Berman, documentarians ("Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's") who also have written a couple of pending biopics (on Mexican bandleader Esquivel and Hollywood restaurateur Prince Michael Romanoff).

The directors say they fell in love with Pekar's comics and the tapes of Pekar's notorious '80s appearances on television with David Letterman that Hope sent them (Letterman allowed the filmmakers to use these tapes in the film, except for an appearance in which Pekar went after Letterman's corporate benefactors). They then pitched the project around town, ultimately eliciting interest from HBO, and wrote the script in three weeks to beat an impending writer's strike. In the process, they got to know Pekar and Brabner.

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