Sunday, April 4, 2004

I finally got around to seeing the film version of American Splendor. Against all odds, it’s solidly made with well-rounded and well-motivated characters, a balanced mix of comedy and drama, and a coherent vision. In short, it’s untrue to the book. Toned down to near insignificance are Pekar’s intellectual side (his remark on a Dreiser novel is merely that it’s real “good”), his musical interests and his outbursts of true acidity. The scattered, swirling life of the comics are now mere Indie Film. Y’know: a cohesive but fairly unpredictable narrative, quirky and lovable secondary characters, a bit of romance but nothing too soapy, a bit of shadow but nothing truly dark, a tad of social commentary but nothing truly political. For this we can clearly blame writers-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini who are clearly working on some high school conception of art. Joyce, for instance, reveals her desire to have children immediately after seeing a woman with a baby which is either laughably heavy-handed or just plain dumb. The best passages are those drawn almost directly from the comics--Pekar’s grocery-store-line rant or musing about other people with the same name--which suggests that a straight set of blackouts or set pieces might have been stronger, though almost certainly less marketable. Even more suggestive are the documentary interview segments which could also have been turned into a film (despite almost uniformly superb acting). As it stands the documentary parts work more as self-congratulatory cleverness rather than creating any real friction against the fictional segments. You don’t have to imagine what Godard or Kiarostami or Herzog might have done, just think of Errol Morris or Terry Zwigoff and there are certainly dozens of others who could have done better with the material than this. I just hope that some of them get a chance.