Fanfare for the Uncommon Man

When Arnold went on Leno to announce that he was running for governor — back when he looked like a cunning demagogue rather than another weaseling hack — he mouthed one of the campaign’s most surreal pieces of silliness: “We have to make sure that everyone in California has a great job, a fantastic job.” Now, there was a piece of utopianism to make Karl Marx seem as pinched as Dick Cheney. One pictured millions of Californians deciding that their jobs weren’t fantastic enough — why not own the Lakers or co-star in the next Julia Roberts movie? But while it was easy to mock Schwarzenegger’s blindness to the realities of work, it was hard to be surprised by it. Not only does the Terminator enjoy a life purring with privilege, he’s part of a culture that has less and less interest in the ordinary people who don’t.

Nowhere is this clearer than in our current idea of the hero. Two years ago this week, the whole country bowed down before New York City’s firemen and policemen, regular guys who sacrificed their lives saving other people. Beyond the FDNY ballcap fad, this outpouring for ordinary heroes could hardly have had less impact on popular culture. Aside from the antics of the Jackass crew, whose buddy-buddy bravado is magnificently American in its goofiness, ours is an age that demands super-heroism. We have a George W. Bush action figure (the real one looked lost when he addressed the nation Sunday night, like Travolta the first time he was blowing his career). And our major pop-culture events now focus on characters with superpowers — Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Terminator, Neo and, of course, Harry Potter with his lightning-bolt scar that’s like a curiously upbeat mark of Cain. These days, it seems, we want our heroes to be bigger than we could ever hope to be.

This is hardly a cultural disaster. Sure, I’d rather be Casablanca’s Bogey than Daredevil’s Ben, but there’s no proof that people who watch John Wayne movies are more likely to save a drowning child than those who watch Spider-Man. In fact, one of the most embarrassing pieces in recent years was English novelist A.S. Byatt’s screed in The New York Times attacking adults who enjoy the Harry Potter books for wallowing in adolescent fantasy. This didn’t simply make her a killjoy (no wonder people dislike literature) but also missed the point. For what makes today’s superhero yarns distinctive is that they have very little to do with their protagonists’ superpowers and everything to do with their neuroses, discomfort with their gifts and desperate need to learn how to handle them. That is, they’re pop versions of the classic bildungsroman — they just put ordinary feelings in extraordinary garb.

And they’re often more emotionally truthful than such supposedly down-to-earth works as King of Queens, a faux blue-collar sitcom, or Steve Martin’s condescendingly minimalist novella Shopgirl (where the Hollywood comedian tries to capture the struggles of one of The Little People). When our pop culture does try to portray ordinary people, it usually flattens things out, removing the social texture of their daily lives and reducing their dreams to purely personal matters of family, friends and love. There may be no purer expression of this than in David Byrne’s film True Stories, when citizens of a small Texas town sing a populist anthem designed to show what’s in their hearts. Titled “People Like Us,” the song builds to the lines:

We don’t want freedom

We don’t want justice

We just want someone to love.

 

If you suggested that Byrne felt this way about his own life, he’d probably smack you.

But three years into Bush Culture, it’s not only show-biz hipsters who have trouble capturing the social truths of ordinary life. The failing even appears in works that think they are doing just the opposite. That’s precisely what’s happened with American Splendor, the enjoyable, fiction-meets-documentary film based on the autobiographical comic by Harvey Pekar. It’s nabbed big prizes at Sundance and Cannes, garnered rave reviews, and had audiences cackling with pleasure; suddenly, Pekar himself seems to be everywhere, chatting on NPR, talking to Charlie Rose, publishing comics in this paper, the L.A. Times and Entertainment Weekly. One recent Saturday morning, there was even a drawing of Pekar on the New York Times op-ed pages telling readers about his beloved Cleveland. He and the movie have seemingly tapped into a deep yearning for stories about everyday heroes. And no one claims to be more extraordinarily ordinary than Harvey: “I’m not a superhero,” his 10-year-old self says at the start of American Splendor. “I’m Harvey Pekar.”

The movie tells the story of an irascible, eccentric loner (Underground Man, junior division) who lives in a blue-collar Cleveland neighborhood, works as a filing clerk in a VA hospital basement and burns with a desire for — everything. Harvey does want freedom. He does want justice. He does want someone to love. And he also longs to be famous, to project the shadow of his daily life on the skies like his own private Bat Signal. But he wants all of this on his own terms — no eating nightcrawlers on some reality show just to get attention. And so he writes a series of autobiographical comics, American Splendor, intended to capture the experience of his everyday reality — the decline of Cleveland, the tediousness of his job, the addictiveness of record collecting (his drug of choice), the annoyance of standing behind old Jewish ladies in the checkout line. Gradually, those comics change his reality. Through them, he meets his wife, Joyce Brabner, a comics reader almost as nutty as he is, wins nationwide attention for his ’80s appearances on the David Letterman show, and winds up appearing as himself in the movie American Splendor. Whether he’s successful or not, we always feel Harvey’s odd, angry integrity. When we see vérité footage of his retirement party after 35 years at the VA, the moment is heartbreaking because it has the authority of truth. Thirty-five years in that basement! This isn’t aestheticized slumming, it’s his life.

Or at least part of it. Ironically, even as the movie shows us Harvey’s ultimate triumph, it ignores much of what his triumph was about. For starters, it makes him too likable, almost cute. Pekar’s enduring aim has been to reveal life in all its jaggedness, fury and crushing smallness, and in his comic — which won the American Book Award in 1987 — he does that. When Harvey feels rejected by a woman, he’ll think “you cunt!” and then go on to pick a fight with a totally different woman just because she’s female, too. That unsavory side of Harvey is missing from the movie. More important, so are his ideas. Pekar describes himself as “a working-class intellectual,” but the movie largely ignores both his stridently peculiar left-wing politics and his tender feelings about the decline of the Cleveland he loves. For all his self-absorption, Pekar always has been able to see beyond himself. Indeed, he’s just released the beautiful American Splendor three-parter, “Unsung Hero: The Story of Robert McNeill,” about a young black man’s experience in the Vietnam War. Its power comes from its insistent ordinariness.

Pekar’s appearances on Letterman used to make me squirm because Dave, still in his snide older-brother mode, always treated Harvey as an oddball to be goofed on rather than as a man with something to say. And that scenario has eerily repeated itself during the film’s PR blitz. When Pekar appeared on Charlie Rose, its ever-lazy host (who evidently hadn’t seen the movie) pulled a Letterman, greeting his guest’s answers with the giggles he normally saves for guys like Jackie Chan whose English is hard to follow. He didn’t take him seriously, not even when Pekar said that all he wanted from life was enough money to have a decent retirement and send his stepdaughter to college. Charlie’s whole attitude was, What a character.

Although American Splendor is innocent of such condescension, it’s very much the product of a culture obsessed with winners and losers. Harvey Pekar has the stuff of a great ’70s movie loner whose alienation should offer a snapshot of a whole society — he’s equal parts Ratso Rizzo, The Conversation’s Harry Caul and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But along the way, this story of an ordinary guy becomes a Bush Era fantasy in which the unhappy outsider not only winds up with a family but wins the media sweepstakes. No wonder people like it. A Rocky Balboa for today’s bohemian, Harvey becomes an American Idol starring in a movie about himself, a job that even Arnold Schwarzenegger would find fantastic.


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