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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

American Splendor

I don’t believe in swine flu, global terrorism, meteors colliding with the earth or a black hole that will suck us through a portal and transplant us into a different dimension. I try my best not to listen to scientists, religious fanatics, social critics and fatalists. According to everyone the world is in crisis, partially a natural occurrence and partially a spiritual disconnect. People like Mark Bauerlein think that we’re the dumbest generation ever. They think we won’t amount to much. These are also the people who think that we peaked in the 1960s. The previous generations job is always to decry the next generation, but the condition is worsening. We’ve been struck by shortsightedness and a lost perspective on the big picture: The world has always been going to shit for thousands of years, and always will be. The ones who understand this fact are the only people I truly enjoy. People like Harvey Pekar.

Harvey Pekar understands life in that he understands that it is inherently frustrating, that every single day is a battle of the wills. Inspired by his buddy Robert Crumb, and an overbearing sense of futility, Pekar turned his mundane existence into a commentary on the human condition. He turned his frustrating experiences into common identifiable feelings. In short, he created art. Like any great artist, Pekar couldn't understand fully what he was doing; all he really understood was that he was doing something different.

Several months ago, I was perusing the internet in the never-ending task of finding “interesting stuff”, when I stumbled across a list of movies that creative types should watch. Considering myself to be one of these so called creators, I took note. When I saw that UCLA’s Hammer Museum was offering a free screening of one of the films, American Splendor, I marked my calendar.

From the onset, the film caught me off guard. It immediately and consistently broke the fourth wall; the opening scene brought to mind the beginning of Andy Kaufmann’s biopic, Man on the Moon. It took a full fifteen minutes to realize the importance of that similarity. What do Andy Kaufmann, Harvey Pekar, Hunter S. Thompson and Robert Crumb, among others, have in common? They used themselves as the subject until it became impossible to distinguish the artist from the art they were creating. American Splendor doesn’t present Harvey Pekar as if he is a detached writer dreaming up fantasy in Cleveland, instead it uses Pekar as Pekar would use himself to create his unique take on life and his attitude towards the world. The film combines archival footage, animation, reenacted scenes and faux behind-the-scenes footage to not only recreate Pekar’s life, but his process. The two facets eventually became one indistinguishable pairing. At one point Giamatti’s Pekar wakes in the middle of the night and in a drug and exhaustion induced state-of-mind, asks his wife if his character will live on without him. They will, but only in our memories, because his life and that of his characters are inseparable. The film, a biopic, could have been given an issue number and sold as an installment of his comic book series.

Pekar and the men listed above, took self expression to the limit, sacrificing their day-to-day existence in exchange for the connection and accomplishment that came with creating relatable work. The 60s and 70s spawned Gonzo journalism and performance art and in doing so, continued a progression of self-awareness that started post-WWII and ends with….reality television and daily blogs (ouch!)? It seems, according to many cultural experts, that we have reached a limit, that our creativity has leveled off….

And yet, I am believer. Or a non-believer, which ever you wish. I don’t believe we are washed up and ruined. I don’t believe that there is nothing left to accomplish in the arts. I don’t believe that any of these people can predict the future or calculate the unforeseen possibilities. I don’t know how things are going to turn out over the next 10, 20, 30, 100 years, but nobody ever has. There is a sudden presumption in the world that anyone ever knew what was going on. As far as I know, life has always been a struggle and will continue to be just that, even if tomorrow we were each handed one million dollars. It certainly didn’t change Harvey Pekar’s understanding of his surroundings. Maybe he became slightly more grateful, maybe he smiled a little more, but he never forgot the underlying truth.

When American Splendor ended, and the intermission was over, we were treated to a 60 minute documentary about Robert Crumb. Crumb is a genius and disturbed personality in his own right, but both he and Pekar pack a message to go along with their strange personas. Of course they are subversive and ground breaking and a load of other terms that pay tribute to their subtle genius. More importantly, however, they did it. They ignored, or cultivated, their disenchantment long enough to create something to help people deal with life. At the end of Crumb’s documentary he makes the point that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the artist to possess the self-control and concentration necessary to create art in the modern world. It may be difficult to concentrate, but it is not impossible. Everyday brings it struggles and when times are at their worst, we manage to find our way. You just gotta believe. Or not.

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