I don’t imagine Woody Allen to be any kind of a fan of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” comics: Allen’s films make a recurring point of his acute discomfiture in the presence of slobs like Pekar. At one point in Manhattan, he actually confesses his fear of being struck by lightning and winding up “like one of those guys selling comic books in front of Bloomingdale’s.” For his part, Pekar can only long ago have written off Allen as the kind of “show-business phony” he prides himself on not being.
Interestingly, however, amid the praise paid to Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman for the ways in which their new film American Splendor successfully transposes Pekar’s comic book techniques, what is overlooked is the film’s debt to Allen’s freewheeling cinematic style. When I look at American Splendor, I see the grunge Annie Hall.
In AmericanSplendor’s opening scene, a child version of Harvey Pekar is granted a precocious awareness of his adult fate: Surrounded by superheroes, he is himself-as-hero, dyspeptic, malcontented, misconstrued—a scene that recalls young Woody, offering a Freudian defense of his early sexual impulses, and his elementary-school classmates, describing the course of their grown-up lives in Annie Hall’s early schoolroom flashback. When Pekar, in a crucial episode, grows impatient standing in line behind an annoying woman at the supermarket, the rhythm of the scene’s escalating frustration is precisely that of the famous scene in Annie Hall in which Allen is vexed by a pompous McLuhanite theory-spouting academic next to him in a movie-theater line.
Both films play similar tricks with regard to representation and reality: In American Splendor,the real Harvey Pekar periodically comments on the film’s dramatic portrayal of his life (Paul Giamatti plays him)—a voice-over commentary reminiscent of Allen’s intermittent direct address of the camera in Annie Hall. American Splendor uses comic book thought-balloons to convey subtext; in Annie Hall, a conversation between Allen and Diane Keaton is “translated” by subtitles indicating their actual thoughts. And both use real video footage of their protagonists on television: In American Splendor Harvey Pekar’s fraught relationship with David Letterman is represented by actual video clips of his original appearances on Late Night (with one exception) rather than by a filmed reconstruction with Giamatti; similarly, Annie Hall establishes the background of the character Allen plays by incorporating original footage of Allen, from his stand-up comedy days, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. And like American Splendor, Annie Hall even contains its own animated sequence, in which Allen’s fixation on the Wicked Queen from Snow White is brought to bear on his romantic relationships.
Finally, of course, at the center of each film are Pekar’s and Allen’s hesitant, halting romances with charmingly neurotic, intelligent, yet annoyingly New-Age-jargon-inclined women—a story that, in each film, is turned into a stage play that presents a version of the story at ironic odds with the “real” version we’ve been watching.
But for all the formal similarities, American Splendor is hardly a slavish imitation. Annie Hall, despite its autobiographical trappings, is a work of fiction, depicting an idealized, romanticized version of Allen’s relationship with Diane Keaton—it’s a fantasy of transcendence, of overcoming one’s vulgar, ethnic working-class roots and escaping into a polished, urbane world of art, culture, witty conversation, and Ralph Lauren clothing. American Splendor,on the other hand, hews to the ideals and practices of the nonfiction portrait film, foregrounding the unpleasant and inescapable aspects of Pekar’s actual, lived life. Pulcini and Berman are accomplished documentarians, and they rigorously (and inventively) oppose Pekar-the-character-portrayed-by-the-artist to Pekar-the-artist.
Annie Hall was produced in 1976, the same year Harvey Pekar published the first issue of “American Splendor”; it inaugurated a run of films (Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters) that, like the ongoing episodes of “American Splendor,” took the quotidian details and concerns of Allen’s life as writer, filmmaker, and comedian as grist for pessimistically funny social meditation. The conventions of fiction and an essentially bourgeois-escapist sensibility frequently allowed Allen to construct himself as morally superior to—and his art as a triumph over—his circumstances, whereas Pekar’s “American Splendor” comics instead explore the ways in which Pekar remains trapped by circumstance.
In the end, Annie Hall’s trickery is a means for Allen to express a wishful version of his interior experience. When the movie’s over, it isn’t the array of self-conscious play you take away from it but the bittersweet relationship between Allen and Diane Keaton, whereas the principle to which Harvey Pekar pledges greatest allegiance is just plain realism. (Hence his pointed admiration, in the film, of Theodore Dreiser.) In American Splendor, the emphasis remains on the grunge—and on Pekar’s responsibility not to flinch from it, and to face squarely up to the obstacles presented by his embrace of poverty-line bohemianism (not least of which include finding both time to make his art and appropriate outlets for it).
Cleverly, by adding Annie Hall to this equation, Pulcini and Berman have superimposed framing devices upon Pekar’s story that replicate the look and feel of Pekar’s comic books while effectively pushing Pekar’s life with Joyce Brabner to the background. Even though this romance occupies nearly as much narrative space as the romance in Annie Hall, it’s the style and presentation that command attention: American Splendor gives us less about what it feels like to be Harvey Pekar and more simply about the guy, Harvey Pekar. And part of the reason the film’s so good is that, aside from being a remarkable artist, Pekar turns out to be a remarkable guy—if one whose life is a disorganized mess, always a step from disaster. His world is far from a Woody Allen fantasy—where Woody can magically produce Marshall McLuhan in the flesh to trump his obnoxious adversary, Harvey can only storm away without buying any groceries.