Sunday, January 29, 2012

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar (5/5)

“Cleveland: You’ve Got to Be Tough”: this unofficial slogan of that industrial city off the shores of Lake Erie was smattered across t-shirts in the 1970s. In the following decades a lot has changed, but the one thing that has remained constant is our perpetual underdog status. Our sports teams don’t win championships and even several decades removed from the collapse of America’s industrial engine, we’re still the butt of jokes. But that’s not to say that we don’t take pride in the city. Fully expecting to lose, every year plenty of Cleveland sports fans crowd into the Jake or the Browns Stadium. We also have our share of famous artists from the region that we like to name check from time to time, from Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison to Oscar winner Trent Reznor. But perhaps no single artist better epitomizes the city than indie cartoonist Harvey Pekar.

Harvey Pekar was a lifelong resident of Cleveland. As recounted in the collection American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, he first became interested in the medium of comic books after striking up a friendship with underground cartoonist, and occasional greeting card artist, R. Crumb. But unlike Crumb and other underground comic book artists who found their way to the one of the coasts where they found a reasonable amount of recognition, Pekar remained in Cleveland his entire life, toiling away as a file clerk in a local VA hospital while managing to pump out a series of often understated, always brilliant autobiographical comic shorts.

In some sense, Pekar is Cleveland and Cleveland is Pekar. Much like his home city, Pekar is a perpetual goat, slogging through the years and struggling to maintain a grip on himself. Most of the comics written for American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar were published in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the wide open possibilities found in the 60s counterculture were beginning to collapse. Likewise, Cleveland’s economy, which had once helped fuel the postwar boom, had capsized.

So we often find Pekar pontificating on the different racial factions of Cleveland and the rise to power of conservatives following civil rights. In one particularly affecting comic, Pekar relates the story of Emil, a European immigrant who worked in Cleveland’s steel mills. Emil begins his time in Cleveland as a union radical, but as white flight and economic depression take over the city, his attitudes change displaced by a racist view of the white and black culture clash of the 70s. Pekar of course sees Emil’s views on race as absurd and more than a little naïve. Emil doesn’t seem to realize the sort of racial tension that have built up in the African-American community over segregation and discrimination. But he tells Emil’s story empathetically as a missed chance for shared understanding. In a later story, “Jury Duty,” Pekar recounts his experience being chosen for everyone’s least favorite civic duty. He finds himself being co-opted by an out of control judicial system that overlooks crimes of the wealthy and powerful while judges have become increasingly draconian on the poor and powerless. Pekar decides that he cannot be a part of this out of balance system and stymies the judge and prosecution by telling them that he wouldn’t feel right determining someone’s guilt when he has no control over what punishment is dished out. In these moments his life as a sixties radical peeks through the grey of oil shortages and Reaganomics.

But Pekar isn’t normally cited for his views on large socio-economic issues. He is instead well known for looking at the quotidian aspects of life that seem to be constantly nipping at his heels. Pekar’s narratives often eschew the traditional structure of the short story, which are often comprised of three acts, a climax, and a denouement. Some of his shorter works, which are usually around a page or two, consist of mundane small talk heard on the bus or around the office. He might take on the subject of the punishingly long hours of a weekend with nothing to do where he dreads work on Monday morning but still cannot stand the lost time of the weekend. Mundane trips to the grocery store or helping a friend move can sometimes transform into a meditation on art and commerce or an existentialist crisis. Or these trips might just include a wry observation or two. Pekar feels no need to provide a clear justification for why these narratives exist. Instead, many of them feel as if they are little moments cut from a much larger reel of his life. And when a stray observation is used to tie up the end of the narrative, it’s thrown out there as nothing more than a possibility, as if Pekar is telling us, “This might be the moral of the story. Take it or leave it.”

Because of its everyday subject matter and occasional pontifications, the arc of Pekar’s work is impossible to parse with just one or two comics. These larger collections of American Splendor, then, are an ideal format for really digging into Pekar’s work, and The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar is an especially helpful starting point. While the American Splendor series consistently returns to subjects that directly affect Pekar’s life, the comics gets a lot of mileage out of these limited topics, and often his own life becomes merely a jumping off point for a whole host of issues. Pekar himself is not an artist, and has had to rely on wrangling others to illustrate his work. This has actually helped bring out the many facets of American Splendor in a way that a single artist would be insufficient. And each artist seems better suited to different aspects of Pekar’s work. R. Crumb, perhaps his most famous collaborator, brings out Pekar’s interest in racial, linguistic and cultural difference among the disparate ethnic groups of Cleveland, from Jews, African-Americans, Eastern Europeans, and Italians. Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm do a fantastic job of illustrating the nooks and crannies of urban life in Cleveland. Gerry Shamray, perhaps my favorite artist in the collection, delves into Pekar’s mental state, portraying a man at odds with himself, a man who is capable of great insight while at the same time unable to fully clamp down on his emotional distress.

And it’s this contradictory nature of Pekar that makes him a fascinating subject, despite the fact that he lacks the obvious trauma or grand life narrative that characterizes most memoirs and autobiographies. Pekar often pits his words and images against one another. In one story, “Ripoff Chick,” he describes a frustrating courtship of a somewhat daffy girl who’s unselfconsciously new age. While Pekar’s actions towards this woman are often troubling and always hilarious, he’s increasingly critical of his own behavior. Pekar freely admits that his disdain for this woman is at odds with his goals of, essentially, making his way into her pants. And so this split between Pekar the desperate curmudgeon barely containing his rage and disdain towards others brushes up against his exacting critical eye. This contradiction is easy to relate to. We aren’t all word boxes floating above our lives commenting on the world, just as we are not brains disconnected from our bodies. Instead, in our daily lives we are a bundle of emotions and energy that we sometimes have little control over. It is only in reflection that we can maintain a measure of repose. It is to Pekar’s credit that he puts himself in the crosshairs, dissecting not only those around him but his own anxieties as well.

But what is arguably the greatest achievement of Pekar’s work can be found in his somewhat ironic title. Most artistic works that use “American” in their title, or merely take on the mantle of an essentialized American experience, play in the arena of the upper middle class. Think American Beauty or American Pastoral, or even works by authors like Jonathan Franzen or John Updike. As a college dropout who purposefully chooses a tedious day job so that he can actually own his free time, Pekar does not easily fit into the normalized view of who the “idealized” American is. Instead, Pekar undercuts the totalizing effect of American as an adjective by linking it to his largely idiosyncratic life that, paradoxically, ties into experiences shared by many in the United States but are largely invisible in American art. And that’s the genius of Pekar’s work. The mundane, individualized aspects of Pekar’s art feed into universal existentialist questions that we all must confront. Somewhere between Anton Chekov and Jerry Seinfeld lies Harvey Pekar. And the world is much better for his having lived in it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

David Lynch Loves Coffee

In a brief article on the huffingtonpost website, David Lynch recently professed his obsession with coffee. Not only does he drop the fact that he drinks seven large cups of coffee each day, but he also talks about how, for him, coffee fuels the creative process. In some ways this isn't terribly surprising. Artistic types have often fallen back on drugs of some sort to bring out their creativity. The recently passed away Christopher Hitchens endorsed alcohol as a means of easing the writing process, and there are no shortage of musicians from the 1960s that professed that one drug of another inspired their music. Besides, the British Empire pretty much ran on caffeine from coffee and tea to keep their soldiers alert and productive as well as cigarettes to suppress their appetite.

The article did get me thinking about Lynch as an auteur. As he mentions in his article, coffee plays an integral part of several of Lynch's works, most notably Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. Part of the appeal of David Lynch as an artist is that when we go to see his films, we also feel as if we are seeing David Lynch himself splattered up on screen in all his messy glory. There are few directors, and even fewer American directors, who can conceivable be defined as true auteurs. That is, directors who, according to auteur theory, break through the studio system to provide a truly personal, idiosyncratic vision.

For an auteur to last long in the public eye, the individual director must be as intriguing as his or her films. Lynch's long list of serial obsessions allows him to keep his audience on their toes. What's more, there's probably as much an audience for Lynch the man as there is for his actual movies. It's because of his shifting, inscrutable nature that people haven't gotten bored of Lynch. It has allowed him to move in and out of making films, giving him time to profess his belief in meditation, record a pop album, and create his own blend of coffee, of course. And yet in interviews and articles it's hard to know whether Lynch is an actual person or merely a blend of idiosyncrasies. After all, who can really be that weird? It's hard to tell where Lynch the man ends and Lynch the trickster carnival barker begins. He's as much Alfred Hitchock in his self-promotion as he is Andy Kaufman in his ambiguity.

Like many, I have a special spot in my heart for the old man with the crazy white hair. So, here's the great espresso scene from Mulholland Drive. Please enjoy it with a find cup of joe.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin (3.5/5)
Stephen Spielberg released The Adventures of Tintin nearly simultaneously with his other film, War Horse. The two are strike an interesting contrast with each other. Where War Horse plays the role of the classic Hollywood epic, Tintin serves as its hyperactive younger brother. Most in the Anglophone world are, at best, nominally familiar with the strangely coifed titular character, Tintin, but he’s a pretty big deal among the Francophone part of the globe. My history with the character is modest, having only watched a short lived animated version on Nickelodeon when I was a kid. So I’m familiar with some of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you how the movie stacks up to the source material. But the film itself is rather unruly, at times providing exciting action but also failing to tell a fully engaging story.
Tintin is a boy reporter (his age is somewhat ambiguous) who has a penchant for discovering vast plots that require quite a bit of globetrotting to uncover. The film opens with Tintin buying an old model ship, a replica of the lost galleon The Unicorn, at a flea market. He snatches it up mere moments before another buyer, Mr. Sakharine, arrives to pick up the ship. Tintin rebuffs any offer from Sakharine to purchase the MacGuffin, er, ship, from Tintin at a sizeable profit. Needless to say, the model ship is more than it first appears, and in fact it comprises part of a series of clues that lead to a long ago lost treasure. Sakharine doesn’t take Tintin’s refusal to sell kindly, ransacking the intrepid hero’s apartment and eventually kidnapping him and storing him on a large steamship. The ship’s captain, Captain Haddock, has been deposed by Sakharine and the mutinous crew. Tintin and Haddock team up to stop Sakharine and discover the secret behind the fate of the Unicorn and its treasure, a secret that has familial ties to Haddock himself, since it was his grandfather who captained the Unicorn before it became lost at sea.
Perhaps more so than Tintin himself, Haddock seems to be the fan favorite character. He’s a bit of a drunken buffoon, and while I would imagine he wouldn’t be the ideal partner for world wide adventuring, he’s great fun to watch. Tintin was filmed using motion capture techniques, similar to the ones used in those Robert Zemeckis films, Beowulf and The Polar Express. This isn’t my favorite kind of animation because, as others have noted, the combination of animated characters and eerily realistic movement tends to produce an uncanny valley effect. However, this technique does allow Andy Serkis to put in an enjoyably cartoonish performance in the role of Haddock. Serkis has become the go to man for motion capture performances—he’s kind of a 21st century Lon Chaney—and his robust performance is a highlight of the film. He plays Haddock as a perpetually energetic man who has little control over his own drinking, downing bottles of liquor before he has a chance to even think about it. To his credit, Spielberg keeps all of the now risqué drunkard jokes, refusing to pander to his audience. And while Haddock’s alcoholism is often played for laughs, he’s also chastised once or twice by Tintin, even if he never gives up the drink.
Much of the film is an excuse for Spielberg to deliver one fantastic action piece after another without regard to pesky things like the laws of physics. There are some fantastic moments, including a battle between two ships during a raging storm and a crash landing in the desert. But perhaps the most thrilling part of the film is a chase through a Middle Eastern bizarre that takes place in a single, long shot. In these moments we see Spielberg eager to play with animation in ways that he can’t in live action. Unfortunately, it’s in the moments between the action that the movie seems unsure of itself. Like a jittery kid on a sugar rush, the movie can hardly sit still for a moment. The film is a series of action set pieces strung together with exposition as epoxy. This means that when the adventure should feel exciting, it sometimes feels exhausting. (I did see the movie in 3D, which may have only exacerbated this problem). This seems to be a problem that’s worse in animated films. With the exception of Pixar, most animation studios feel the need to barrage the viewer with constant noise and unending movement, like they’re shaking a pair of toy keys in front of a baby. Filmmakers need to let these films breath, to find a natural rhythm. Unfortunately, Tintin is no exception to this rule.
The director and film theorist, Sergei Eisenstein wrote extensively about the concept of dialectic, the synthesis of two seemingly opposing elements. We see this in plenty of Eisenstein’s films and, strictly from the point of view of entertainment, the audience is wrenched from one emotional state to another. In his most famous film, Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein precedes the massacre on the Odessa steps with images of celebration of the arrival of the rebellious crew of the Potemkin. The contrast between celebratory citizens and the gory images of innocents being gunned down makes the film that much more compelling. Likewise, an action film, at the very least, needs moments of calm in order to further elevate the moments of gunplay and fisticuffs. Spielberg has done wonders with this kind of contrast in other films. The famous caravan chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, comes after a grueling and atmospheric descent into the Well of Souls. It’s only because we have followed Indiana Jones through a pit of snakes that we are now ready to release all that built up tension by watching him slug some Nazis. These days Spielberg almost always excels when it comes to laying out the action, but he would be well served to pay as much attention to the part of the film where bullets aren’t whizzing by.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Black Keys - El Camino

The Black Keys – El Camino (4.5/5)

The commercial success of the Black Keys’s previous album, Brothers, came out of nowhere for a number of reasons. First, as a blues-rock duo from the “flyover state” of Ohio, the Black Keys hardly seemed destined for the Billboard charts. Second, the Black Keys had been laboring diligently in indie-world for so long that for most it seemed impossible that they would finally break out of those cloistered confines of thick rimed glasses and absurdist facial hair and into a broad audience. And, finally, Brothers served as an intriguing departure from the Black Keys’s usual sound, which normally consisted of them playing nothing more than guitar and drums that were then recorded in what sounded like a tin can. Instead, Brothers took cues from hip-hop production and included plenty of stylistic detours, including vocalist, Dan Auerbach, singing in a falsetto. Perhaps the success of Brothers shouldn’t have seemed like such a fluke. After all, years of listening to the songs of the Black Keys in credit card commercials may have softened up America to their sound, and as much as the production on Brothers seemed out of step from some of their earlier albums, the further emphasis on drums and bass is hardly a losing proposition on commercial radio.

So, if Brothers seemed like an unexpected win for the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, then the follow up album, El Camino, seems desperate to argue that their time in the spotlight isn’t over. Where Brothers was an expansive trip through many of the Black Keys’s outer stylistic influences, El Camino is a tightly structured album designed to deliver one pop thrill after another. The first salvo of songs, “Lonely Boy,” “Dead and Gone” and “Gold on the Ceiling,” prove to be an apt mission statement for the album. Each song is catchier than the last and impossibly danceable. The entire album attempts to keep up this high wire act, placing one potential single after another, and at times it feels like listening to a “best of” compilation rather than a proper studio release. Some might miss the minimalist charms of their early work, while others might yearn for another stylistic departure like Brothers, but for those who are merely looking for a good time, you’ll find it on El Camino. Besides, there are still interesting genre amalgams, from gospel and soul derived call and response to fat glam-rock beats, and, after all, writing eleven radio ready songs is hardly an easy task.

For El Camino, the Black Keys returned to producer Dangermouse, who also helmed their 2008 album Attack & Release. Since then Attack & Release has come to be known as the red headed stepchild in the Black Keys’s oeuvre. In hindsight it’s an obvious transition album, and, even if every track isn’t successful, it now seems like a necessary move on their way to recording Brothers. I’m happy to say that Dangermouse’s flourishes are more effortlessly folded into the Black Keys sound. On Attack & Release it too often felt as if the Black Keys had written solid songs that were dragged down by extra instruments and production tricks that were haphazardly bolted on. Here, Dangermouse’s contributions seem like a natural extension of the band, a backing chorus here, an extra guitar line there, and maybe a little more bass. In fact, despite the two principle members of the Black Keys, it’s quickly becoming impossible to refer to the band as a duo. El Camino cements the Black Keys’s place as stadium ready stars, and if the album often feels like an effortless victory lap, then it’s a well deserved one.

Monday, January 02, 2012

War Horse

War Horse (5/5)

“They don’t make them like they used to”: it’s what they say about movies. But the same can be said for directors themselves. This isn’t much of a surprise. As artists age their perspectives change. We aren’t the same person from year to year, and we are certainly not the same person in our twenties that we are in our fifties and sixties, for better and for worse. And yet people often expect artists to produce work reminiscent of what they made when they first started out. In part this may be because the audience for a director’s work carries around nostalgia for when they first encountered the artists. But artists also need to change. And it hardly seems fair to hold older artists to work they produced decades ago.

Perhaps no other director has had his early work shoved in his face by rabid fans than Stephen Spielberg. Fans of Spielberg, and cinema in general, can be protective of his early work and are often fiercely territorial when it comes to Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Jaw, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For these cinephiles, nothing Spielberg has done since can ever measure up to his output in the 70s and 80s. And I can relate. Spielberg came on the scene as the wunderkind from nowhere who reshaped the landscape of popular filmmaking and positioned himself as America’s storyteller. How can you compete with that kind of debut? Spielberg’s answer has largely been not to even try. Since the 90s he still pumps out the perfunctory actioner now again, whether it’s a Jurassic Park film or a War of the Worlds, but Spielberg’s “entertainments,” to borrow a phrase from Graham Greene, don’t have the same heart to them as his earlier work. Where Close Encounter was about fear of adult responsibility, represented in Roy’s escape to the stars, Jurassic Park was little more than a monster movie. It happened to be a well crafted monster movie, but, like all of his latter day adventure films, it also seemed impersonal compared to his earlier output. Instead, Spielberg chose to outsource the job of keeping America entertained to other directors, serving as a producer on the Transformer movies, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, and subsequent Jurassic Park sequels. Sure, he puts on his entertainer cap every now and then, but increasingly he seems to do so only to prove that he can still craft a better action sequence than most directors half his age.

As Spielberg’s career progressed, he became restless. No longer content with entertaining America, he started to make “important” films, films that won awards, films that told the world he was more than just an entertainer; he was an artist. But I’ll tell you a secret about Spielberg’s attempts to be taken seriously: these movies are as good, if not better, than his early output. For the past twenty years Spielberg has attempted to balance his need to entertain, to be loved, with his need to be accepted into the club of filmmaking greats. One might point to Schindler’s List as the obvious transition point between the two sides of Spielberg, but he had been building up to his dramatic opus and Oscar winner with Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple. The lazy critique against Spielberg is that he delves too often into sentimentalism, and while this may be true on occasion, times when his need to please a large swath of the America public is at odds with the story he is attempting to tell, on the whole Spielberg’s penchant for sentimentality is exaggerated. A.I., Schindler’s List and Catch Me If You Can, among others, take us to some rather dark places.

So just as Spielberg released both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the year of our lord, 1993, so too has he released The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse within a few weeks of each other in 2011. To quote another film, perhaps he is “trying to suggest something about the duality of man,” and that man is Spielberg himself. War Horse is destined to become an essential entry into Spielberg’s oeuvre, a sumptuous piece of filmmaking that forms part of a conversation between Spielberg and the epics from Hollywood’s golden age. If the film has a central protagonist, then it is Joey, the stallion who makes his way from pastoral England to the war torn continent. As the film begins, Ted Narracott, a well meaning drunkard, is searching for a suitable horse to plow an arid but rock filled plot of land. He travels into town with the intention of bidding on a solid work horse, but a little too much drink and a betting match between Ted and his seedy landlord leads him to buy a young stallion, a horse that, as his friends note, is completely unsuitable for the grueling work of plowing a field.

When Ted returns home to his wife, she, quite understandably, becomes upset and tells her husband he will have to return the horse immediately. Ted’s son, Albert, becomes taken with the horse and convinces his parents that he will be able to train the horse to take a harness and pull a plow. As Albert trains his horse, Joey, the two of them form a bond. Spielberg gets plenty of drama out of the nearly wordless communication necessary to teach Joey to eat out of a bucket, to stay or come on command, or to remain still as Albert fits a harness over his head. Of course, Spielberg has a distinct knack for communicating sans words. My guess is that if one were to watch War Horse with the sound off, it wouldn’t take much to follow the ups and downs of the story. Albert does manage to get Joey to plow the once useless plot, if only after the ground has been softened by the English rain. But this doesn’t end the hardships of the Narracotts. Shortly after planting their crops, a thunderstorm upends their crops, and Ted must find some way to make the rent. World War I has just broken out, and he decides to lease Joey to the English army. Joey will be returned, if he survives.

From here, Joey makes his way from owner to owner, crisscrossing a war ravaged Europe. He begins in the care of an English officer, but ends up in the hands of two underage German brothers, a young French girl and her grandfather, and a German caretaker. For a film that borrows so heavily from traditional Hollywood cinema, War Horse has a plenty of experimental elements. And while Joey serves as a constant, each new set of characters he encounters function as a kind of vignette, as if Spielberg had connected several short films into a full length. These vignettes allow the film to get away from the protagonist versus antagonist narrative found in most war films. Because Joey traverses borders, our sympathies lie not with nation-states, the English versus the Germans, but with individual characters. If there is a villain in the film, then it is the war itself. This structure seems especially suited to WWI, perhaps one of the most singularly idiotic wars ever waged.

Spielberg is borrowing heavily from the epics of the mid-twentieth century. There’s plenty of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Mikhail Kalatozishvili, David Lean, and early Stanley Kubrick in the DNA of War Horse. He takes from these artists a painter’s sense of how to fill up a canvas. Here Spielberg is painting every little corner of the screen, to the extent where seeing the film in your living room is a completely different experience from viewing the film on the big screen. Perhaps one of the most interesting choices in the film is the decision to obscure most of the violence when portraying one of the world’s goriest wars. This is an especially intriguing decision when you consider that Spielberg taught an entire generation how to recreate military violence in Saving Private Ryan. And yet, just as many people were enraptured by Ryan’s violence as were repulsed. One particular scene in War Horse is arguably a more effective representation of violence than all of Ryan’s gobs of blood. In what is most likely a scene influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Spielberg cuts back and forth between images of English cavalry charging, German machine guns firing, and a slew of riderless horses. The audience can easily fill in what occurs between each cut, perhaps more effectively than any filmmaker could.

In War Horse we have a perfect coalition between Spielberg the craftsman and Spielberg the student of film. Watching War Horse it becomes evident why the 1970s were the golden years of American cinema. These directors were formally trained in film school where they were introduced to criticism that dissected the classics. These directors didn’t watch movies; they studied them. And yet the movie isn’t just fodder for film buffs to pick apart. Any casual fan of Spielberg’s work will find plenty of affecting moments in War Horse. I saw the film over the holidays with my family, and at the conclusion of the movie, my mother turned to me and, rebuffing common assumptions, said, “He made it like they used to.” She’s absolutely right, in a way. This is a film that looks to the past for inspiration, but at the same time it cannot be mistaken for the work of anyone other than Spielberg himself.