In an age of competitive narcissism, Harvey Pekar long ago established himself as a world-champion exhibitionist, a writer who made his own clinical depression the basis of a quirky art form. American Splendor, the serial autobiography he's been producing since 1976 in the unlikely form of lugubrious comic books, displays his despondent self-image. In texts he wrote for illustration by various artists (notably Robert Crumb), Pekar describes his life as a Cleveland file clerk who usually has no money, no girlfriend, no future and no hope. He exhibits, on paper at least, the symptoms of a chronic depressive.
The arrival this summer of American Splendor as a much-admired movie, directed with great wit and style by the wife-and-husband team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, could signal a change in public discussion of mental health. Depression, least fashionable of psychological disorders, may finally be acquiring an aura of chic.
Psychopaths and schizophrenics have been sympathetically depicted in movies for generations, and Woody Allen made the neurotic a universally recognized character. But depressives have been largely ignored, partly because nothing much seems to happen to them and partly because non-depressives don't quite believe in their suffering. Superficially, depression so closely resembles common sadness that one of the kindest people I know, someone well read in this subject, once told me she has to stifle her impulse to tell depressed friends to "snap out of it."
Depressives have no worldwide mutual help organization, no Depressives Anonymous, perhaps because true depressives lack the energy to go to meetings. Peter D. Kramer, the author of Listening to Prozac, wrote recently that many doctors and American insurance companies still refuse to consider depression an illness, even though genetic research suggests that it arises partly because of inborn vulnerability. I certainly never took it seriously until it ambushed me, about 35 years ago. I recovered, with professional assistance, but never lost my fearful respect for it and never forgot one central revelation: All depressives discover (once talk therapy starts) that they have at least a dozen excellent reasons for being depressed.
Depressives are often seen as life's losers, and that's how Pekar depicts himself.
Viewers of the film version of American Splendor will likely be moved as well as amused, but that can be harder for readers of his comics (recently reprinted by Ballantine in a thick paperback). Readers may have trouble getting past his weepy self-assessment. Those who know Winnie the Pooh will see Pekar as a cantankerous version of Eeyore. He's a moper, a sulker, a whiner, a grouch, and a sad sack. His life amounts to a catalogue of grievances.
In one story, produced when he was 42, he says that although he's been trying to write for 23 years, "I'm still an alienated schlep like I was when I was 19." On good days, he reflects, "I only feel normally lousy." When he and a woman break up he admits his only interest in her was sexual. "I know, I know, I'm an atrocious person." But, he says, that's what desperation does to you.
Aside from his troubles (which include two failed marriages) Pekar's comics have a theme: "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff." Early on, he made himself the poet of the dreary, the analyst of monotony. As Robert Crumb says, "The subject matter of these stories is so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic." Nothing that aggravates Pekar is too prosaic to make a chapter. He writes about losing a book or mislaying his glasses. He expresses his rage at an editor who fails to call him back, and confesses that he lost his temper in an argument with a co-worker. When he goes to a supermarket he describes the art of picking the right check-out line: You have to balance the efficiency of the cashier, the number and types of people in line, how much they are buying, etc. Naturally, he's infuriated to find himself behind a customer who creates endless delays.
This sounds like impossible material for a film, but Berman and Pulcini make it work brilliantly. They draw delightful funny-and-sad performances from Paul Giamatti as Harvey and Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner, a fellow depressive and fan of his work who turns up on Harvey's door and marries him. Berman and Pulcini build a narrative around the marriage, the cancer that afflicts Harvey, and the young girl Harvey and Joyce adopt while writing a comic book on his struggle with cancer.
Berman and Pulcini lift their film far above the ordinary by telling their story on three levels. We meet the real Harvey as well as Paul Giamatti and the real Joyce as well as Hope Davis. We also see Harvey and Joyce as cartoon characters coming briefly to life. The directors jump nimbly between the "real" and a vivid, imaginative version of reality.
Their film drew from one of the most influential critics, Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, both a rave ("exhilarated me as no other American film this year") and a startling revelation. Sarris said he identified with Harvey the loser because "I spent many more years on the outside than the inside. And the truth of the matter is that I had a great many more interesting conversations before I 'made' it than I have had since. There's a tremendous amount of cultural vitality out there in the land of the losers; American Splendor is one of the first and best films to capitalize fully on this phenomenon."
Still, the movie has already made Pekar, against all his natural inclinations, something of an insider. He's famous enough to set up a blog where he, his wife, and their daughter keep in touch with fans. On August 17, he wrote about talking to the press and public at the Los Angeles premiere of American Splendor. The film's press agent encouraged him to take an amiable approach, and he saw her point. He chatted with reporters even when their questions were inane.
"Less and less these days am I inclined to waste time being rude and argumentative with people I think are ill-informed or not especially bright," he announces. "In the future look for a kinder, gentler Harvey Pekar." Now that's depressing.