27 May 2008

American Splendor

This is an intriguing case of a movie that completely failed to appeal to me, despite being quite interesting and very well made. I find myself recommending it to people and saying "I didn't like it that much, but it's really worth watching". 

Maybe it's my interest in lifewriting in general, but as far as biopics go, it's a really fascinating case. Not only does the movie intersperse documentary footage of its subject, Harvey Pekar, he also does the voice-over narration. Occasionally there are scenes of the man himself, or other people from his life, hanging out in the studio chatting with the actors playing them, or watching the movie being filmed. It's neat. Delightfully pomo but quite clever, especially when Harvey Pekar is narrating as the actor who plays him is watching a play made about his own life. 

But much as I enjoyed the way it was made, the movie itself totally failed to engage me. Part of it might be that I just can't stand Paul Giamatti, who plays Pekar (I HATED Sideways, if you're wondering). Though he didn't bug me as much in this movie as he normally does, I still can't really muster up much sympathy for any character he plays. And honestly, Pekar isn't all that sympathetic of a guy. He kind of grew on me in a loveable curmudgeon sort of way, but then, alas, the movie headed down the "brush-with-cancer-makes-you-a-better-person" path. 

I understand that it might sound heartless to criticize this aspect of the film, because after all, it really did happen to the guy. And certainly, this movie doesn't do nearly as cliche and treacle-y job of portraying illness as many others do. Furthermore, I understand that people's experiences of illness - and especially cancer - may well be shaped by predominant narratives of illness in our society. But unless you're treating it in a particularly innovative way, I'm not that interested (pardon the pun - I mean aesthetically, not medically. Though I suppose innovative medical treatments could be interesting?). 

Meanwhile, what could have been the fascinating part - though admittedly, it would be much more difficult to capture in film - was the way Pekar turned his life into comic art. This was the focus of the first half of the film, and somehow it came off as rather hollow and superficial to me. I dunno. I just didn't care that much. 

Pekar has had an interesting life, and this movie featured some really creative ideas for depicting it, but somehow it just never came together for me. But still, I recommend checking the movie out. I was reading the recent review in the NYTimes of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and discovered that some people on goodreads.com (oh how I adore that site) have done me the big favor of compiling a list of all the books mentioned*, and it seemed to me that the purpose of the list wasn't so much a "best of" as a broad sampling of different literary styles. In keeping with this idea then, I recommend American Splendor as an interesting example of a unique style, even if it's not that great.

*I haven't bothered to count how many of them I've read. But I must say, one of my biggest gripes with the list is that includes multiple books by the same author. In any list of this nature, I'd argue, you're allowed maximum 3 works by a single author, but after that, you're pushing it. If that author is really so great, then an intelligent person will be moved to seek out more works by them on their own time, later.  And anyhow, Ian McEwan, much as I like him, does not deserve 8 slots. Be for real. Not to mention, a lot of the books on the list that I've read, I don't much care for, and I really don't think they're worth the time, even as a showcase of style. Which makes me somewhat hesitant about taking its recommendations on faith. But we shall see. I stuck a bunch of 'em on the ol' To Read list (which can be viewed in that handy GoodReads box to your right) anyhow.

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