DVD review: ‘American Splendor’

There’s a scene in “American Splendor,” the story of underground comics hero Harvey Pekar, where Pekar is standing on one of those caged pedestrian bridges high above a big expressway. Pekar’s life and his outlook are so wretched that the first reaction is to think: why doesn’t he just jump? He can’t, of course, because of the chain-link enclosure, which roughly symbolizes his life: Pekar sees a world that should be his, but he can’t get there because he’s stuck behind this fence.

The real Harvey Pekar and his wife, Joyce

Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis as Harvey and Joyce.

Critics and film festival fans gushed over “American Splendor” last year, when the film raked in major prizes at Sundance and Cannes. It’s out on DVD now, which in a way is a much better way to experience the movie because all the DVD extras — the comments track in particular — tell so much more of the story than shows up in the actual movie.

I have my own biases for watching the movie: I wondered if Pekar’s story could shed some light on why people keep buying comic books after, say, age 12. The older I get the more I wonder why a small fraction of the population — geeky, antisocial guys mostly — never outgrows these things.

The movie’s directors, Shari Springer and Berman Robert Pulcini, explain this phenomenon by going straight to the source: part of the movie is the real Harvey Pekar explaining what’s happening in the fictionalized part of the movie, where Paul Giamatti portrays the young Pekar (“He doesn’t look like me,” notes the real Harvey, whose raspy voice bears the burden of a life whiled away in a sterile Veterans Hospital file room). He’s part crank, part genius — a comic voice of authority on the subject he knows best: his own strange self.

The real Pekar lives in Cleveland with no prospects beyond his job as a hospital file clerk. As the movie opens his second wife is leaving him. His throat has a polyp that makes speaking painful. In a hilarious grocery store scene, Pekar has a revelation while waiting in line to pay for his Spaghetti-O’s: It’s time to do something with his life.

Pekar decides to start a comic book about the odd interludes in his life. Problem is: he can’t draw. His life may be a wreck, but he has one good fortune: an old friend is Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), creator of the “Mr. Natural” comic book character. Pekar scribbles his words on pages, illustrates them with stick figures and hands them over to Crumb, who says, “these are good.”

From thus springs the comic book “American Splendor,” which ironically exposes the splendor-free existence of Harvey Pekar. He writes about the everyday annoyances of his life in the hospital file room, and his colorful coworkers. Over time the comic develops a following; one of its fans is Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a woman working in a comic book shop in Delaware. Her whirlwind romance with Pekar is one of the funniest sequences in the film — she’s just as neurotic as he is, but unlike all the other women he’s known, she won’t toss up her hands and toss Harvey out of her life. As the real Harvey notes, “I met my match in Joyce.”

Another of Pekar’s fans is David Letterman, whose cast of recurring oddballs made his “Late Night” one of the funniest things on TV in the mid- to late ’80s. Dave invites Harry on the show, where his condescending tone comes across as more disturbing than humorous. By this far along in the film we’ve come to identity with Harvey’s endearing weirdness, and it’s obvious that Dave is exploiting it for easy laughs. Later the real Harvey seals the deal: None of the appearances helped his comic book sales; Letterman’s fans weren’t laughing with Harvey, they were laughing at him. Creepy.

In the commentary on the DVD, though, Harvey reveals himself as a far more savvy media player than the movie portrays. He says, sure, he was there for comic relief and he was doing a shtick — which culminates with Harvey unleashing a profanity-laced screed against Letterman and his show’s corporate sponsors. Harvey might’ve seemed like a useful idiot, but he got the last laugh on his last “Late Show” appearance.

I admit I was charmed by how “American Splendor” neatly integrates comic book imagery into scenes, and by how the real Harvey deftly narrates the fake Harvey’s cinematic adventures. And I was amazed at how Giamatti seemed to nail Pekar’s quirks. That stuff brings goodness to the movie, but the greatness comes from Harvey himself. By the end of the DVD, which tacks on accounts of Harvey getting his just due on the film festival circuit, I was thinking of that scene on the pedestrian bridge and how Harry explained what keeps him going: If you hang around long enough, something’ll turn up.

Harry becomes a forgotten American who wins in the end. That spirit of against-all-odds optimism — Harry’s got deep, deep problems but he soldiers on — says something about the splendor in all of us, and not just Americans.

Angry about Orkut

The other day J.D. Lasica, a good guy and good neighbor, invited me to join his online social network at this site called Orkut.com. The site has wonderful potential for helping people find other people they’d never meet otherwise — sort of like storing Internet serindipity in a central location.

A central quirk of Orkut is that it’s an invitation-only service. You can’t get in unless you’ve got a pal who’s already in. At the moment Orkut’s invitation system is broken. I sent out three dozen invitations the other day and none of them have gotten to their destinations.

I posted a note yesterday to Prints the Chaff, my newspaper editor blog, announcing that all these invitations were on the way. Within hours a couple of my most devoted readers — who were among the first on my invitations list — sent me e-mails that found nice ways of saying, “Tom, why haven’t you invited me?”

It was a minor embarrassment and no harm was done, but the exercise seemed to encapsulate how we have come to accept busted technology because we’re so powerless to do anything about it.

Orkut’s Web site has a disclaimer saying, in effect, “the site’s under construction and bad stuff’s bound to happen in the next few months.” But nowhere does the site say, “oh, you know, the invitation-only model doesn’t work right now because the invitation system has broken down.” Kinda like a cut-rate rental car company telling you “you gotta expect some bugs at these prices” and finding out the car you’ve got has no gas tank. The least they could do is tell you where to get one.

The concept of “online social networking” is a fraud when the technology breaks down. That’s why it’s a big deal when a venture like this aggravates the early adopters. I realize a popular way to work the kinks out of a system is to put it out there bugs-and-all and let the users uncover the system’s flaws. If they whine the reply is, “well, it’s beta site, that’s what’s supposed to happen.”

I don’t care, it still irritates me.

3-day weekend alert

We have this fine thing called a union contract that obliges some of us to stay home on Presidents Day, so blogging will be limited today.

I do have one thing to pass along, though: Tim Porter sent some fresh doggerel for my new Banned For Life blog. It’s a collection of handy bits of hackdom assembled by the late Ed Beitiks, who died in 2001 after a long career as a writer for the pre-sale San Francisco Examiner. Beitiks was quite the colorful character, according to his obit in the San Francisco Chronicle.

    Beitiks served in Vietnam in 1967 and ’68 with the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division and was awarded three Purple Hearts. In combat, he was shot in the face. The bullet entered through his cheek and left through his mouth, which had been open because he was talking. If not for his gift of gab, the doctor told him, the bullet would have lodged in his face and he probably would have bled to death.

I wonder how many of the Ivy League-minted newsies at the New York Times could claim something like that?

You may be hearing about this guy

Four years ago I interviewed a 17-year-old hormonal Alaskan guy named Marty Beckerman, who at that tender age imagined himself the next Dave Barry. Now he’s 21, he’s got a new book out and reviewers are calling him a rough mix of Hunter S. Thompson and Lenny Bruce.

Beckerman’s tome, to be released later this month by MTV Books, is called
“GENERATION S.L.U.T. (sexually liberated urban teens): A Brutal Feel-Up Session With Today’s Sex-Crazed Adolescent Populace.” He’s gotten praiseworthy blurbs from HST, Neal Pollack and a host of respectable people.

I may have accidentally been among the first to interview The Next Big Thing In American Letters. Wow. One of Marty’s latest posts at his Web site is a bash to the face of East Cost literary hipsters. A highlight:

As everyone who’s anyone knows, books and albums are meant to be appreciated, not actually enjoyed. This is why Hipsters pay absolutely ridiculous rents to live in New York City

SB 38 wrapup

In a just world, MVP honors would go to the losing quarterback in this game.

Jake Delhomme looked like he had no business on the field early on, but he single-handedly made things interesting by completing huges passes when it looked like the Panthers had used up all their breaks.

Tom Brady played as expected: Composed, solid, effective — nobody can question whether he’s one of the top QBs in the league. He did what was necessary to win, but really, he didn’t exceed anybody’s expectations. Probably couldn’t have.

I wrote the Panthers off after the first Patriots touchdown — you could tell by the Pats’ control of the offensive line, their tendency to move the ball at will, that they were going to win this game. But every time they seemed to have it in the bag, Delhomme and his band of irregulars pulled off another miracle.

The Panthers had too many penalties, made too many mistakes on defense, showed no signs of life on offense for the first 25 minutes of the game, were outrun and outpassed and outplayed all day. And yet they came within a couple plays of knocking off a clearly superior team.

If I had a hat, it’d be tipped to the Panthers for making this a game worth watching, for getting me to pay attention to the teams’ strategies more than the advertisers’ strategies.

One for the ages, in any case.

SB 38 second half

No miracle runback for the Panthers. But a wonderful effort by a team that seemed clearly outgunned from the get-go.

Even if the Pats win, credit goes to the Panthers for making this a Super Bowl for the ages.

Kick is good! 32-29 Pats. 4 seconds left.

41 yard field goal try. Has Adam Vinatieri used up all his bad luck?

Big completion to the 24 yard line. Pretty long field goal from here.

14 seconds left. Maybe two chances for the Pats to get into field goal range. Overtime looking likely.

Ouch. Penalty nullifies huge first down for the Pats. Troy Brown makes a great catch with 30 seconds left.

29-29 with a minute left. Pats have the MVP QB. Field goal can win it.


1:08: Delhomme is the luckiest man alive. Nine defenders in pass coverage and a guy gets wide open in the end zone. TD gives Panthers the chance to tie it. Kick is good.

1:38, 4Q: 2nd & 10 from the Pats 15. Short gain makes it 3rd and 8.

1:50: Delhomme has some luck left, nails a 30-yard completion. Getting interesting here. Remember, they need a touchdown.


I have to think Jake Delhomme has run out of miracles, but the Pats will be in a prevent defense that will let some receivers get open.


Did I call that drive or what?


3:00 Q4: Brady finds linebacker Mike Vrabel for the TD. 2-point attempt succeeds. 29-21 Pats.

Brady rolls out, finds David Givens inside the 5 for a first down. Panthers need another miracle.

4:00 Q4: Pats at the Panthers’ 21. Big rush forces a bad Brady pass. 3rd and 9.


Panthers defense needs to take some risks now or the Pats are gonna chew ’em up with a grinding drive down to field goal territory.


Reality check: Pats have moved the ball well most of the game; all they need is one drive and a field goal. Stands to reason their field goal kicker has used up all his bad luck.


Holy Shit! How was that for a game-breaking pass … floats this prayer of a pass up for grabs … receiver outruns single coverage, goes in for the TD. Miracle play. Second two-point attempt fails. 22-21, Panthers.

3rd & 10 for Delhomme … games on the line here.


Back to the game: Panthers pick off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone. I don’t see it affecting the outcome. Phil Simms, boy genius: pass rush causes QB’s to pass badly. Gee, I never noticed that before. Except in every game ever played.


shardsofglass.com: that is a hoot.


8:38 4Q: Pats’ Kevin Faulk dashes to the Panthers 10. Curtains for Carolina.


Whoa, draw play goes all the way for a touchdown. Hmm… 2-point try fails. 21-16 Pats.


Delhomme needs to find some of that magic that got his boys back in the game.


14:49 4Q: Goal-line breakdown by the Panthers defense allows a standup touchdown run. 21-10 Pats.

Fourth quarter: Tom Brady made a big pass down to the Panthers’ 9. Gotta like Brady … he’s not flashy, just dependable.

1:48 3Q: Hmm, Pats seem to be wearing down the Panthers defense.


Oh for God’s sake: A close shave is not like an orgasm. These morons at Gillette think we go for this crap?


The helicopter flyover is coming to symbolize this game: big, ugly and slow.


The Cialis ads have so many warniings, I’d just as soon go without sex. Not that I need that stuff, mind you.


Is it just me or has Phil Simms failed to make a single insightful observation tonight?


7:54 3Q: If the Pats can put in a sustained drive for a score here, it could drive a nail in the Panthers. Almost 80 yards to go, so too early to call.


The office supply Don: We chuckled a bit.


Another chimp: Line of the day: “so, how do you feel about back hair?”


Man, these inspiring Microsoft ads are such a crock.


Game time: I think we’ll return to the smashface defense we had most of the first half. That flurry of scoring late feels like a fluke.


Justin: A Jackson in his/her sleep has better moves. Tear-away bustier stunt wins no raves at our house.


Janet’s back. Rhythm Nation bit not too shabby. Michael may be a twisted sicko, but he’s got better moves.


Kid Rock: Where’s Eminem when his country needs him?


P. Diddy: to busy ruling his empire to come up with a good bit. Nelly: Way groovier.


Janet sounds too much like her brother. Gives me the creeps.


Sorry: The Emerald Nuts pieces are not funny.

SB 38 1st half

Half ends with a Carolina field goal. 14-10 Pats.

:17 2Q: Lordy: nothing happens for the first 25 minutes, then three touchdowns in five minutes. It’s 14-7 Pats and I stick by my sense that they’ll prevail.

1:07 2Q: Figures _ the minute I note how terrible Delhomme’s doing, he starts making some completions, then throws this 40-yard touchdown pass.


Early in the game the announcers were finding a hundred subtle ways to say the Carolina Panthers quarterback, Jake Delhomme, is out of his league. By any measure he’s having a terrible game. Good thing his defense is keeping the game close.

3:05: Touchdown, Pats. Finally.

5:15, 2Q: key turnover for the Pats; they’ve got the ball back deep in Panthers territory. First interesting thing to happen in the whole game.

Ouch, the Ali ad was painful. Rare for IBM to miss that badly.


Pats’ second field goal try misses. Didn’t I say the chopper flyover was bad luck?


Horse farts and toilet paper. Consumer culture at its finest


Melissa’s taking a nap right now. I don’t blame her.


11:18, 2nd quarter: Carolina has zero yards on offense. Not to be a cynic or anything but this is not the stuff of Super Bowl champions.


Mitsubishi ads still have the most rockin soundtrack (Barroom Blitz!). Now if somebody would start buying their cars.


The Alamo: Who needs to see all those Texans get killed? Might do some business south of the Border, come to think of it.

Oh, a donkey. Nice try kids.


OK, I liked the guy in the kilt doing the Marilyn Monroe over the sidewalk grate routine. Will I ever drink Sierra Mist? Probably not.


End of first quarter prediction: A defensive score will make the diffference in this game. It’ll have to, the way these offenses are playing.


Hmmm… the best ads must be coming up during halftime. May have to turn to the game for entertainment. Rats.


Elephants. What’s next? Whales?


Body wax: ouch.


Bears! Geeze.

OK, AOL top speed: The biker shop father & son are funny, but who on earth uses AOL anymore?

(sorry, mom).


Three creature commercials in a row. Whoah. The Bud Light dog-to-the-naughty bits was a bit predictable, but it made me chuckle. The Fed Ex alien was swell, thought not in the league with the famous helium-snorting munchkin of lore. Dodge needs to get over the Hemi thing.


12:03: I’m not going to get into play-by-play but the Pats are already looking too tough for the Panthers.


Let’s see what kinda commercials we get.

Hmm, Ford debuts its coolest car since the ’64 Mustang and that’s the best they can come up with? In what gear do you realize it’s time to fire your advertising agency?

Super Bowl pregame

Sorry, but a helicopter flyover seems like a bad omen to me.


Hey, Beyonce can hit those high notes!


Pity the poor Shuttle astronauts … all those advanced degrees, years of training, and to have to put up with “Your Raise Me Up.” Right now I’m rooting for a NASA funding cut. I mean, why put these good people at further risk?


Proof there is no justice in this world: Somebody’s gonna get to own one of those Ford GT’s and it won’t be me.


OK, I admit it: I love the California Cheese commercials.


Christ, Aerosmith is embarrassing itself.

Anything for a paycheck, eh guys?

Wait, now they’re playing a real live blues song.

Please don’t go, indeed.

Parachutists: Maybe it’s the cops enforcing a restraining order.