Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Andy Kaufman and Harvey Pekar are in this entry.

My thoughts sometimes include thoughts like this:

The film American Splendor is more what I wanted Man on the Moon to be than what Man on the Moon was.

I'll explain. Man on the Moon is the 1999 biopic of actor-comedian Andy Kaufman, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who wrote Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and this year's American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson) and directed by Milos Forman. American Splendor is a 2003 film about writer and comics publisher Harvey Pekar, who started self-publishing his comic of the same name in the 1970s with such artists as R. Crumb doing the art. The film was made by documentary filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

Both films are about talented people expressing their talents...differently, unexpectedly. Andy Kaufman was willing to go very, very far for any reaction and for eventual, hoped-for laughs; he could annoy audiences on his way to this. Sometimes he failed spectacularly. Often he confused and/or angered people, like when he started wrestling women, taunted pro wrestlers, then stepped into a Memphis wrestling ring, fully embodying his role as heel so that the Memphis crowd would haaaaaaaaaaate him. (Kaufman and future WWE star Jerry "The King" Lawler planned all this, including Lawler, more than once, using a disqualifying pile driver on Kaufman. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, ANYBODY.)

Harvey Pekar, a VA file clerk and music reviewer, was inspired by outlandish underground comics to tell deliberately non-outlandish stories about being busy, creative and neurotic in Cleveland. It was a particular brand of autobiography that got Pekar attention (including from NBC-era David Letterman); Pekar also used his comics-writing as a coping mechanism, such as when he lived through a bout with cancer in the 1990s.

I admire both Andy Kaufman and Harvey Pekar, both gone now: Kaufman in 1984, Pekar in 2010. Both of them earned their biopics; both deserve to be remembered. But as I've said before, Man on the Moon felt too straightforward for as bent a talent as Kaufman's. The big exception to this, and my favorite scene, is the film's opening.

He messes with us (well, Jim Carrey, dead-on as Kaufman, does). Kaufman fully approved of messing with people: that's a big reason plenty of people still wonder if Kaufman faked his own death. (I've long loved Peter David's story idea inspired by that.) At some level, I wanted the film to keep messing with the audience, but I understand why it mostly didn't. What Andy Kaufman did was hard; plenty of times he screwed up doing it. Would Man on the Moon have worked if it kept stopping for Kaufman, say, to come back onscreen and complain how this thing was changed and that other thing was dropped and this still other thing was a joke? Could the film have had more scenes that were simply unexpected, messing with us for effect? If they had, how could the filmmakers have done so in a way that best honored Kaufman?

The film American Splendor had an ace in the hole that Man on the Moon didn't have: a still-alive Harvey Pekar, appearing onscreen to talk about both his life and his reactions to the film. He narrates it. The film rotates between reenactments — Paul Giamatti as Pekar, Hope Davis as his eventual personal and professional partner Joyce Brabner — and the real Pekar and Brabner commenting. There are even animated versions of Pekar that show up. This sounds confusing, but trust me it works very well in context. And is affecting in context; there's a monologue by Giamatti as Pekar where he talks about learning of two other men named Harvey Pekar:

Not being a high-profile, large-budget, star-driven film like Man on the Moon, the American Splendor movie likely had more room to be offbeat in its approach, and I admire the film for doing so. I likely am holding Man on the Moon to a standard it could not possibly reach; what it does, it does very well by talented filmmakers, but I can still imagine a more Andy Kaufman-ish film that would be my ideal Andy Kaufman-ish film. We can always imagine an ideal anything.

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