Why I waited so long, I don’t know.
But a little while ago I spent about four days watching American Splendor, another couple of days rooting around the Internet for various memorials, and rather felt like Harvey Pekar had colonized my soul for a long moment…which is no bad thing, for sure: because at the time I was dead broke and doing nothing but writing stuff and mailing stuff and boiling stuff to eat, and it’s all okay, that stuff, those little patches of put-your-head-down doldrumish living, in that it gives you that virtuous self-flagellating feeling…nevertheless, role models help, too! And Harvey-ish old Harvey, honestly he makes a pretty good one.
So there’s that, right away, before anything else.
But then on top of it the movie was real interesting to me, even if (I suspect) not for the reason the folks at Sundance and Cannes found it interesting — because I was fascinated by Paul Giamatti’s effort to “translate” Harvey. Of course no translation’s perfect, and every translation can’t help but betray the personality of the translator, that’s not exactly news…but in this case the subject’s pretty challenging, and that’s likely why things got weird in such a way, in this translation, that I can’t help but wonder what really went on in the making of this movie, can’t help trying to pick out the seams between the scenes. Everywhere you look in it, there are filters that acknowledge their own existence to you, and yet at the same time seem calculated to draw you in past them as though they were transparencies. Paul G. looks like himself sometimes, like “real Harvey” in flashes, other times (as I’m sure everyone has already said) like another caricature of Harvey out of American Splendor itself…and yet other times like a guy doing Serious Acting (or Comedic Acting) in a way you’re supposed to notice, while still other times not…and in total, it’s like something of all of them. And to me the whole thing’s all weirdly visible because of that, kaleidoscopic almost; sometimes the dialogue sounds like a ninth-grader wrote it, for an Afterschool Special no less…a demonstration of how what constitutes “realism” is sometimes prone to change with your platform, I think, as something tells me all the clunkiest-sounding stuff was lifted right off Harvey’s own pages…and yet it’s just at these times, in these vexed moments, that Paul G. is also extremely convincing, perhaps more convincing than at (almost) any other time, right when he has to infuse the clunk with something else to make it read more real. And this is acting that’s a bit harder to…I want to say “notice”, but I think “appreciate” might be better? There’s a grating absurdity to the staging of certain scenes, stuff you just know can’t have been somebody’s idea of the best thing to do…when Harvey meets Crumb we are treated to a weird myoclonic twitch of Hollywood-style hagiography, “two legends meet”, and it seems wildly underconceived: “hey, I’m inta comics myself, man”. Jesus, it’s like watching Roadhouse for the briefest of instants, all about how bullshit characters bump into one another, Roadhouse with a dollop of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould thrown in. Comic-book stuff, you know? It’s a fight scene, or it would be if somebody was playing this a lot more meta than they are…but they aren’t, and it isn’t, so it’s more peculiar overlap, more kaleidoscope stuff…
But for me it’s a bit hallucinatory too, and therefore it works frighteningly well, to draw me in…because that’s my scene, I grew up in those rainy, shitty backyards with their garage sales, I recognize the clothes and I recognize the argot, I feel as though I am there, as though at any moment I myself might walk into the scene in the background, broke, hands in pockets, trying hard to look cool. Okay, and it’s not really synchronized well, it’s a few years out; but it’s just a few, and that’s still all the stuff I remember. Add to this that I can totally relate to Harvey, I consider myself a connoisseur of people like Harvey…and also maybe it’s just that so many people have banged on about the resemblance to me, that I can’t help seeing a bit of myself in Paul G…although my friend Stu D. looks a lot more like him than me, and so I see Stu in there too, and Stu’s inta comics himself, man, and so who does that make me in this movie again…? Weird deja- and double vu-type shit everywhere, and I don’t know if I remember all of it, or just enough of it to make me think I remember more than I do. Did I see Harvey’s friend Toby on a tape or something sometime, at some hipster’s house years later, and get ported back to the Eighties in the seeing? And thence to the early Seventies in my memory, perhaps, down the road of childhood but I just DON’T KNOW, it’s all wreathed in some kind of nostalgic familiarity but I’m not sure it’s mine. And yet, at the same time, I’m quite sure it is. There’s so much I recognize in here from comics, so much I’m bringing to this movie myself…there’s so much that Harvey and I share, even though we were not contemporaries or even neighbours, our towns are nothing alike and our lives are completely set apart…and yet, and yet, and yet once again. We go from scene to scene in the old movie-making fashion, though on first viewing we may not notice it…it’s just a thing about movies these days you know, the structure is all buried somehow, the lines of the symbolic skeleton are hard to discern under all the thick flesh and flabby motion laid on top of it. Stuff you have to have, of course, like you have to have the moment where Harvey slumps down and realizes he has to change his life, the most standard Hollywood motivational boilerplate there ever was and YET…!
It happened, didn’t it?
Paul G. plays it from the inside in that bit, just like he knows it…like he knows he’s in the scene in the movie where the hurtin’ songs are all over the radio after the breakup with the girl, like he’s resigned to the fact that it looks that way, and he can’t change how it looks. And that’s the movie, really; when he turns to Crumb on the bench and bitterly complains about his go-nowhere life, and his voice cracks…it’s like a bad movie then, something the kids in the theatre would laugh at, repeat to each other as a catchphrase later on…but that’s all true too, I think, even if this is Paul trying to say something and make it look natural, when probably only Harvey himself could make that bit look natural, because guys like Harvey are just really hard to emulate, you know? They’re too much themselves, they’re tough to reduce. And so there are things that break there, and a bit of real angst seeps through into that bad moment…it is really a good moment, then, and it sticks in my craw, I can’t quit replaying it. Translation hits a limit there, and I don’t know if that was intended, but it does work. Well…
Probably it was not intended?
Probably it really wasn’t, although on repeated viewings I did see the deep structure, the skeletonization of the thing…the symbolic balance that was designed into it, that could not have been accidental. In movies there is a strange thing that sometimes happens where the changing of the scene — the changing of it! — is what reveals character by carrying content, much as a penciller draws the eye across a page, or (probably more accurately) a colourist pushes it. It isn’t just about knowing where to end one thing and begin another, it’s about how that’s done — because it can be done many ways. A film is a montage, finally, in its core, and it obeys the dynamical rules of attraction and repulsion that animate a montage, the stuff they get down so pat with trailers, by snipping scenes and piping in music, playing with the beat of your expectations. It’s like comics, too, that part; as a montage and a collage have, inevitably, a lot in common. But in the actual movie it’s as well not to lean too heavily on the crutch of music, there, not to just say “take it to the bridge!” and then jam any old eight into the middle. That’s not really the high level of doing those things anyway, even if you do just put the music in there because you can you still must find a reason for it being that music, it can not really be “any old eight” and still tell you something at the same time. You’ve got to be more judicious than that. And sometimes “music” isn’t the answer, in a scene transition — because there are other ways of chasing down the dynamic of a transition, that follow the same rules as the other kind of break but use different devices. And sometimes that’s better.
And it does happen here, and you can see the intent percolating along behind it, and that’s fine…even if it takes a couple viewings, it’s still fine. It’s actually not the main thing, though I seem to be harping on about it a bit here…it’s not the main thing, but it tells you something about the toolbox of craft that’s being used here. But, that break, on the bus stop bench…I don’t know if that’s out of the same toolbox. Later on, when Harvey turns to Joyce and asks her if he’s real, if he can survive himself…it is the same thing as the bench, it is the same thing, but what was previously “bad” is reconstructed here as “good”…now Paul is being Harvey in a way he wasn’t before, or Harvey’s being Paul, or we’re being both of them…something’s happened to the kaleidoscope, it’s all collapsed in on itself, and the light’s broken through. Art? Yeah, well, but that kind of thing’s happened to me, you know? I’ve been there; right there. It isn’t just something somebody made up, it’s real, and meanwhile the real Harvey is still sitting in the White Room, too, comfortable as you please, no monolith in sight but just people wandering around in that holding-tank of a space, that strange little isolation ward, peculiar little spaceship…and the most important thing about that scene is that it happened, not to Charlie Chaplin or Achilles or Batman, but to Harvey Pekar. Paul will get just so close to him in his final soliloquy, he will get extremely close actually, if you know what Harvey looks and sounds like, and if you watch. He’ll get as close, really, as he’ll ever come. And that’s how a real actor does it, I think: I think the world of Paul’s skill, and here at last you do get to see it in “full” performance, the one-man show style. So suddenly it goes meta as anything, and a bunch of tensions built up in the “translation” resolve themselves…
But, was it actually planned-out that way?
I guess that doesn’t really matter; the French liked it well enough without knowing that. Aha, the French, they really did like it, didn’t they? I amuse myself by imagining why: because here was something really, really American, but also something they could come to grips with, this Very American Thing, so aha! That’s what they’re like, I knew it! I swear I knew it all along.
Of course, I don’t see it that way. Because I’m not seeing it, I’m feeling it…I’m feeling all that weird familiarity, that nostalgia, loaded on top of the slice-of-life and the artful construction. It’s like a mirror to me, as to them (I imagine) it is more of a window. Sitting there boiling my potatoes and trying to write enough decent stuff down to call it a proper day, feeling broke, feeling invisible. Economizing, in many more ways than one. I’m as old now, as Harvey was when Revenge Of The Nerds came out.
Do you remember that movie?
Man, I remember that movie.
There is no part of it, that I don’t somehow remember.
Funny how that goes.