Our Movie Year, by Harvey Pekar

Our Movie Year

Our Movie Year is the second Harvey Pekar book I’ve read. My reaction to it is very similar to my reaction to the first: I like it, I’m a fan, but it feels like it’s somehow not as good as it could be or as I expected it to be, so I’m not a huge fan.

First off, the book would have been better—I think—if it were a coherent story from start to finish of Pekar’s experiences connected to the American Splendor movie. That might be what you’d expect from the title, but actually it’s a compilation of Pekar pieces previously published in various publications over the course of roughly a year coinciding with when the movie was made.

It’s not in chronological order. Not all, or even close to all, of the material is about the movie. Worse, there’s plenty of repetition. Since the pieces appeared in different places, multiple of them sometimes repeat the same background material. When it came time to put this book together, instead of reworking those items, it looks like they just tossed them all in, redundancies preserved.

Really though all this criticism boils down to is that this is a compilation of earlier work rather than fresh, book-length material. Because the repetition, lack of chronology, etc. is something I’ve picked up on and been disappointed by in other compilations by other writers. It seems to be more the exception than the rule that people substantially rework their compilation ingredients to form them into one standalone whole.

Evidently they had some Pekar material that hadn’t been published in book form before, it happened to have been created during a period that roughly coincided with when his movie was being made and was released, and so they stuck it all together and called it Our Movie Year.

I suspect many readers, especially those who are expecting Pekar to always fit the kvetching persona he embodied as a David Letterman guest, will be surprised, and maybe disappointed, how gracious he is toward just about everybody connected with the film. Evidently the on-camera people, the off-camera people, pretty much everyone, were salt of the earth types. He’s all praise and gratitude toward them.

I don’t know that that means he’s necessarily pulling his punches. It may well be quite sincere. This was an indie film, not some mainstream Hollywood greedfest, made by people genuinely interested in Pekar and his life. Probably for the most part they treated him well, and didn’t always just make whatever decisions along the way would generate the most money. They probably weren’t a bunch of lowlife show business weasels.

But still, you expect maybe a little more cynicism from Pekar, a little more tendency to see phoniness and hypocrisy around him and to expose them.

A common theme in these pieces is Pekar’s anxiety about money. Not so much in the present, but concerns about his future.

During the course of the period covered by the book, he retires from his job with the VA. He calculates that his government pension will leave him well short of what he needs for his retirement. So even though he won’t have his “regular” job any more, he’ll need to continue freelance writing or whatever else he can do to generate an income, if, that is, such opportunities exist for him.

He doesn’t give exact figures, but the movie evidently resulted in a decent payday for him. His concern, though, is that that’s a one time deal. His hope is to parlay his greater name recognition and such into other gigs—work that would ideally continue for as long as he needs it to.

I can see how some readers could find his obsessive worrying about money tiresome. I felt that way mildly here and there, but mostly I liked the honesty of it.

It’s a frequent reminder that we’re dealing with someone who, at least financially, is still very much a “regular guy” with regular guy problems and concerns.

When you’re worried about money—as a large percentage of people are a large percentage of the time—it can really dominate your consciousness. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or worse, it’s hard not to obsess about what you’ll do if hit with major medical expenses, or how you’re going to pay for your kid to go to college, or how you really aren’t putting aside as much for your retirement as you know you need to.

Pekar happens to be dealing with these worries while he’s hobnobbing at the Cannes Film Festival, but don’t be misled by that into thinking he’s a “celebrity” and so his money problems are all a thing of the past. One of the more striking passages in the book is when he converses with Wallace Shawn and discovers that Shawn is scrambling to make ends meet and to somehow finance his next project. That’s a “name” guy from movies, live theater and TV, and he’s far from a Hollywood millionaire.

Many, probably most, people in the entertainment field—actors, musicians, comedians, writers, etc.—that are famous to some degree are far from set for life financially. And of course that’s even more true for “fine arts” folks.

Pekar himself was a minor celebrity even before the movie, mostly from his appearances with Letterman, but that translated into very little money for him. Indeed, evidently putting out his comics cost him more money than he got paid for them. (I know the feeling. The prison oral history book I wrote and published—even leaving aside the massive amount of labor I put into it—cost me substantially more money than I ever recouped.)

Some stuff in show business is very lucrative. That’s why there’s such a temptation to “sell out” and take a regular gig on some lame, mainstream prime time TV show, for instance. For that matter there’s plenty more that’s very lucrative for middlemen and the various capitalists getting a cut of every deal, just not so much for the actual performers/artists. But most people working in the arts most of the time—including the ones you’ve heard of—are scraping to get by.

Comic book writer is definitely not one of the lucrative exceptions. That doesn’t change when you add occasional talk show guest to your resume. Evidently it only changes slightly and temporarily when somebody does a movie about your life.

So, yes, he has legitimate money concerns.

It’s interesting, by the way, that he always seems to assume that he’ll be around for a long time and thus will need plenty of money to sustain himself. By the time he wrote this material, he’d had two major bouts with cancer. And a third one subsequently did indeed end his life pretty early in his retirement.

It’s funny how the mundane so frequently intrudes on the extraordinary. He’s on a trip around the world to promote his movie, and he seems to spend half the time worrying about how much mail is piling up in his absence, and what bills it might include that will be past their due date by the time the Pekars return home.

A pretty good chunk of the book consists of Pekar’s illustrated jazz and blues reviews, mostly about historical figures, not contemporary acts. There are a smaller number of pieces about movies or books, again mostly from the past. All or almost all of these are positive. These aren’t opportunities for the cranky Pekar to expose frauds and phonies, but are more in the nature of celebrating artists and works of art that Pekar wants more people to know about and appreciate.

Which is admirable, but I suppose not as entertaining as if he were occasionally ripping someone to shreds.

I enjoyed those pieces to a modest degree. They show that there’s a lot more to him than the everyman shtick he’s known for. On average, though, I like the everyman shtick pieces more.

All-in-all, Pekar is a likable guy in his strange way, he has insightful and interesting things to say, and I think telling one’s autobiographical stories through the medium of comic books (an art form that even if he didn’t invent, he certainly counts as one of its pioneers) is an intriguing idea with a lot of potential. To me his stuff doesn’t live up to its potential consistently, but it gets close enough often enough that I’d give both of his books that I’ve read so far a thumbs up.

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