Mr. Beaks Interviews Harvey Freakin
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
As I said when he started this earlier in the week, I think Mr. Beaks does an ass-kicking job of getting great stuff out of the people who sit with him for interviews, and his AMERICAN SPLENDOR coverage has been aces all week long. Today, he’s got the source of the whole thing on the spot, and the result is the best piece he’s done on this film so far:
The day job. The dreary, nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, slow shuffle to the grave. Chances are, a good many of you are reading this article hunched over a tchotchke-cluttered desk in a narrow cubicle, or – if you’ve made that audacious, go-getter leap to the big time – an office, killing time whilst mind-numbingly banal work piles up in your inbox. Such was my life before I made my feather-headed great escape from New York City to Los Angeles to become a writer. Unfortunately, Herman Mankiewicz’s telegram got to me about eighty years too late; the competition isn’t so resoundingly idiotic anymore. As a result, while I made it to the City of Angels a little over a year ago, professionally I feel like I’ve tunneled a good twenty feet short of the woods. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to make a break, like Harvey Pekar did in the 1970’s when, through a fortuitous collaboration with the godfather of the alternative comic book movement, R. Crumb, he delivered unto the world his serialized document of working class drudgery, AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Since that initial 1976 publication, Pekar’s prickly observations, brought vividly to life by a number of gifted artists, have been something of a faithful companion to comic book readers with a taste for naturalism – a wittily empathetic voice from the workaday trenches helping to reinforce one’s sense of self-worth while toiling away for that desperately needed paycheck dangling like a carrot at the end of the week.
This is not to say, however, that Harvey Pekar’s outlook isn’t unremittingly bleak. The sixty-something writer doesn’t seem any happier now that he’s retired from that soul-snuffing job as a clerk at a Cleveland VA Hospital. To wit: at the end of the movie, Harvey undercuts his acknowledgement of the potential windfall from doing the movie by noting that there’s just a short window of opportunity left open to him after a life of hard work, lamenting that his family life isn’t any less contentious or complicated than it was ten years ago. But if Harvey’s reward is more tsuris, our reward, then, are more comics, which ain’t so bad for either of us.
And because I’m forever hustling at cut-rate prices (hey, what can I say; Harvey’s good-natured griping rubs off) to give you something to read during those brutally elongated hours between lunch and quitting time, my bonus was the chance to sit down with Harvey at the Four Seasons, and shoot the shit about the movie, music, literature, and the coveted Golden Buckeye card.
As a native Ohioan, I was thrilled to read that you finally scored the Golden Buckeye card, but I was also curious if you’ve now found yourself inexorably drawn to those “early bird”, 3:30-in-the-afternoon dinners at Bob Evans.
No, I just use it when we go to movies.
I’m going to trot out the old Socrates phrase, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” You’ve now had a comic book, a stage play, and, now, a movie. Your life has been pretty fully examined. Do you now feel like you’ve lived a full, worthy life?
No, not particularly. I don’t think in terms of “full” or “worthy”; I think in terms of “happy”, “pleasant”, “absence of pain”… stuff like that. I’ve got a kind of depressive personality, and I’m obsessive compulsive, so I’m still looking for the answer to that.
After all of the overtures, and all of the false starts on this movie, you finally got Shari (Springer Berman) and (Robert Pulcini) to do this. What was it that convinced you that they were the right people to do AMERICAN SPLENDOR?
Well, I didn’t really have the final say in the matter, but I will say that after I met them I felt pretty confident that they would do a good job. They seemed to be competent people… bright people. And it turns out that they were a lot more interested in innovation than I realized, and that’s good. I like that. So, I was very pleasantly surprised by how the movie came out.
This intersection of fiction and non-fiction: was that something that you had conceived of before, or thought possible?
Yeah, I thought it was possible, but I hadn’t read the script, and I didn’t realize how much stuff that they were going to do, like the multiple casting and stuff like that. But I approved of all of it. I thought it was really good. I think it really came together.
Do you think they treated you fairly without resorting to caricature?
Because someone like Toby, who we see in the movie, feels like a ready-drawn caricature.
Yeah. Well, Toby… actually, people told me that they went to see the movie, and when they saw Toby portrayed by an actor (Judah Friedlander), they thought the guy was maybe going over the top. But when they saw the real Toby, they thought he was being a little restrained. Toby’s kind of larger than life, but he’s always been one of my favorite people; I’ve always enjoyed him. I’ve hung out with him, and I don’t think I treat him condescendingly. Sometimes, weekend after weekend, we’d go out… I like to just drive around my part of Ohio looking for old books, and stuff like that, and he used to hang out with me… take him over to a White Castle, which he loves. He’s a solid guy. He knows what he’s doing. He’s intelligent. He’s just sort of… I think he’s a high functioning autistic. I don’t know that he’s ever been diagnosed, or anything like that, but that’s what I think he is because of the monotone, and the way he speaks, and everything like that. He’s real loud. But he’s capable of holding a job.
How true to life is your relationship with Toby in the movie, stealing White Castles from him and things like that?
Toby’s dead serious about White Castle hamburgers. (Laughs.) I was just up at a White Castle with him a few weeks ago, and he said (imitating Toby), “This still remains my favorite delicacy.” He thinks they’re great. And he’s really interested in junk food, and the history of junk food, and stuff like that. He just goes out on weekends on these long, solitary drives; sometimes he’ll go to the oldest White Castle in Ohio, or the oldest McDonalds, or something. He also goes and does all of this comparative shopping, so… if your T.V. suddenly conks out on you, or something, and you want to know where a good place to buy a T.V. is, chances are he’ll have some pretty good suggestions.
Speaking of the junk food fascination, Los Angeles is kind of a junk food paradise. You guys should really let him loose in this town.
They’re thinking about… Bob Pulcini is thinking about introducing him to the L.A. hamburger, the… what’s it, the “Inside Outside” burger?
The “In and Out” Burger.
“In and Out” Burger, yeah. Well, he’ll approach that like a scholar.
In terms of location shooting Cleveland, do you think they did the town justice?
Yeah, I think they picked a good location for my apartment, and shooting where they did. I think you get a good feel for the town. What it’s like.
Is that location anywhere near where you used to live?
No. The apartment building is very similar to the apartment building I used to live in. And, actually, there were a series of apartment buildings next to each other like there are in the movie. But it was on the other side of town… the west side of town. I live on the east side.
Aside from Toby, have you gotten a sense of how your other subjects have taken to being portrayed on film, and has it been any different from how you portrayed them in the comic?
I think they’ve been pretty faithful to the spirit of the film. I don’t think that Toby was shown condescendingly. As a matter of fact, I’m shown scolding him about that REVENGE OF THE NERDS thing, saying, “Toby, you identify with these people, but they’re going to college, and they’re going to be getting these good paying jobs while you’re still a file clerk. After a while, they’re not going to be known as nerds.” He laughed it off. It didn’t mean anything to him.
The whole idea of serializing everyday life in such minute detail is a very postmodern idea, and, then, you yourself living amidst that, knowing that every moment is potential grist for that straight-up depiction… that’s got to be strange.
No, it doesn’t feel strange to me. I just keep my eyes and ears open, and that’s it. See what I can see. I just try to come up with interesting things.
You say your inspirations are primarily prose writers. I know we see you reading Dreiser in the movie. What writers in particular influenced you?
Joyce, Henry Miller, George Ade – a late nineteenth century, early twentieth century realist who was really excellent at portraying everyday life, and, at one point, was extremely popular, but just kept on repeating himself and didn’t evolve after a while, and got forgotten about. Henry Roth, the guy who wrote CALL IT SLEEP. Daniel Fuchs, who wrote some really interesting novels about Brooklyn in the 30’s – three of them are called THE WILLIAMSBURG TRILOGY – and then he went out to Hollywood to try and make it out here; he wrote a few novels after that, but they weren’t as good. Those are some of them, but there have been tons. Maybe the first big influence on me was a kid’s writer that I read when I was ten or eleven years old. Her name was Eleanor Estes, and she wrote about a family called the Moffats, which was a single-parent led family in Connecticut. I was just astounded at how she was able to get into the minds of the kids, as an adult, and know what teenage and younger kids were thinking about. There were sisters and brothers in the family, and some of the stuff that she wrote about, like the brothers in the family… just blew me away. I remember this one episode where one of the kids, the youngest brother, Rufus Moffat, wanted to get a library card. It was a big deal for me when I was a kid to read. I used to have really close relationships with the librarians in my local library. I’d go there and ask them what I should be reading, and stuff like that. So, Rufus goes through all of these changes to get a library card. He takes the card home to get it signed, and when he brings it back, the library’s closed. So, he looks for a way to get in, and he falls down the coal chute. This one librarian is still there after hours, and she’s like, “What are you doing here?” And he’s all covered with soot. I just thought, “Man, how did she get that just right?” It’s fantastic. That was in a book called RUFUS M.
So, it felt almost naturalistic to you? Like it was capturing a part of your life.
Yeah! I just enjoyed it so much because I could identify so much with it. I could identify with some of the stuff that the little girl felt, and everything like that, so it’s really—
As opposed to Thomas Pynchon? (Laughs.) I read your review.
Eh, I don’t care much for that guy.
I tend to agree.
He’s just kind of sloppily put together elements that a whole lot of avant-garde writers… like William Burroughs is a big influence on him. I think Joseph Heller is, too. He just doesn’t have it together at all.
Now, Paul said that his portrayal of you was based on your comic book incarnation.
What do you think? Do you think he came close to capturing your essence using that method?
I think he came about as close as you can reasonably ask an actor to come. I thought he did a really good job.
Any misgivings at all?
No, I don’t have any problems at all. I’d never criticize him.
The ending of this movie, and where it leaves us… I was really blown away by it. I think it was an unusually honest depiction of the drudgery of working a day job – the working class life. And then you’ve got that monologue where you say, “Joyce and I still fight like crazy, the kid’s got ADD, and I just want to enjoy these years in between retirement and death.” (Laughing.) They didn’t sap it up too much for you, did they?
No. It was fine.
Because I know the normal tendency would be to pretty it up.
Well, it’s never “happily ever after” because “happily ever after” is you die. You know, it’s “long enough ever after.” You just deteriorate, and, then, you die. That’s one of the depressing things about being my age now, you know? I’m looking that square in the face, and there’s no getting around it. I’m not a spiritual person or anything like that. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Well, it’ll all go in the comic book, right?
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s the only kind of way I know how to do.
One thing I wanted to clear up is the last Letterman appearance, or the meltdown. Everything we see up until that point is the tape of your actual appearance, but—
Letterman wouldn’t allow the tape to be released.
Did it air?
Yes, but he wouldn’t allow it to be released. He allowed some of them, which I guess was a big deal by his standards, but he wouldn’t allow that and one other particular program in which I had a big argument with him about GE. I said, “David, I don’t understand why you try to stop me from talking about GE because when you do it you look like a shill for GE.” He got real mad about that.
You think it was a question of Letterman feeling like you made him look bad?
Either that, or that this stuff has no place on his show. He said, “If you want to do stuff like this, Harvey, go get your own program. This isn’t MEET THE PRESS.” That’s what he said on T.V. “You’re not getting away with it on my show.” He’s pretty territorial about his show.
Do you think there’s ever a chance of going back to the show? Would you have any interest in it?
Yeah, I’d have an interest in going back. But I don’t think he’s going to call me back because he’s had a tape of this movie ever since it won the Sundance award. I haven’t heard from him. I guess this would be about the time I would hear from him if I would hear from him at all. I don’t know… I actually should ask the publicists if they’ve been trying to get a hold of him, and what his response has been. People have been asking me, and I don’t know. I should get some more specific information. But I don’t think he’s going to get me back on his show. I think it really upset him, the idea of maybe losing control of the show. He’s a control freak, and he wants to be in charge all of the time.
The only other instance that I can remember where he felt upstaged was with Crispin Glover.
And he freaked out on that.
Walked right out.
Since you’re a big music fan, and a music critic, jazz in particular, how do you feel about the soundtrack to the movie? I know you picked two of the songs (Joe Maneri’s “Paniots Nine” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”).
I thought the choices were more or less appropriate. Bob Pulcini and Shari Berman had some idea of what I liked, and they put in some good stuff like Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, so I was happy with it.
What did you think of Chocolate Genius’s cover of “Ain’t That Peculiar” that plays over the closing credits?
I thought it was real good, but I still prefer Marvin Gaye’s version.
Chocolate Genius does some real far out covers. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything else he’s done.
I know musicians who’ve worked with him. I thought… slowing down the tempo and doing it like that really gives you a different perspective on the tune, but like I say, that real joyful “Ain’t That Peculiar” is the one that’s going to stick with me forever. The one that Marvin Gaye did.
It’s a great arrangement. Great band. The Funk Brothers backing him up.
You said you don’t really read comic books, but in terms of some of the alternative comic strips that seem to be influenced by your style, like perhaps “Tom Tomorrow” or GHOST WORLD… do you read any of those?
Yeah, I look at some of those. I shouldn’t say that I don’t pay any attention; I’ve just slowly gotten less and less access to them. People don’t send them to me. I think fewer of them are being published now. But I like guys like Joe Sacco a lot. I like Dan Clowes’s work.
In your review of jazz impresario George Wein’s autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, you wrote, “credit people like Wein, who attempt to do the decent thing whenever they have the opportunity, knowing that in the long run it'll be beneficial to them, knowing that ‘what goes around, comes around.’” Is that the ethic you’ve tried to live by?
Yeah. Well, it worked for Wein, and I’m trying to make it work for me. Like I say, we all die, so maybe it’s all futile. I don’t have the ability to sell out. I mean, I don’t have the kinds of skills it takes to be a commercial writer. For example, I have an awful lot of trouble with some editors because my prose writing isn’t fancy enough. I’d be writing for a jazz magazine, I’d be doing an article about a guy, and they’d say I wrote too much about his music, and not enough about what kind of guy he is – like how he dresses or how many kids he has… stuff like that. I just try and do what I do well, and I try to do it the best I can. I hope it pays off. Maybe it will this time. It’s scary to think about… I’m real scared. Maybe it’ll work out; maybe I’ll get more gigs. Maybe I’ll be alright.
Well, you retired from the day job. Did that feel like a relief?
I don’t know exactly why, but on the day job I was starting to get freaked out. I’d go to work real early in the morning, and get real nervous and shaky. Sometimes I’d have to go down to the (doctors’) and they’d have to give me medication, or something like that. It was pretty bad. I’m not exactly sure why that happened, but I was starting to lose it. I don’t know how much longer I could’ve done that. It just kept goin’ on.
Do you have any idea where the comic is headed once you’re done with this whole rigmarole?
Yeah, I have a few ideas. I’m going to try and write with my wife an OUR MOVIE YEAR. I’ll try to get… a comic book a year, an AMERICAN SPLENDOR comic book a year. But what I’ll want to do is make these comic books square-backs, so they can be put in book stores because… regular comic book fans have no interest in my work. They’re into, like, superheroes and stuff like that. My stuff isn’t doing in anything in those stores; the wrong people have access to it. So, I want to try and get it in regular book stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, places like that. I think that that’s where a larger potential audience lies.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR opens Friday in New York City, Los Angeles, and, of course, Cleveland. See it.
Fantastic stuff. All that’s left is seeing the flick this weekend. Thanks, man.
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Aug. 15, 2003, 3:19 a.m. CST
Aug. 15, 2003, 3:41 a.m. CST
by Ed McBain
Who the hell is this Harvey Pikear?
Aug. 15, 2003, 6:29 a.m. CST
by Uncle Stan
Aug. 15, 2003, 8:50 a.m. CST
What kinda fucken system is this? What the fuck do these people do? how do you NOT know what the hell happened?
Aug. 15, 2003, 9:14 a.m. CST
by Ed McBain
Because you have a moron incharge of your country who thinks a "Blackout", is Mike Tyson hitting the deck.
Aug. 15, 2003, 9:29 a.m. CST
that was a failed attempt to be funny buddy..try again.
Aug. 15, 2003, 1:28 p.m. CST
Harry, et al, please keep givin' us this kind of stuff. I've dug Pekar's comics for a long time and it's fantastic to see the press he & this movie are getting now. I hope folks who come to this site who aren't SPLENDOR fans or even comics fans in general, will check out this movie -- it's very good and should appeal to the outsider sensibilities of all us nerds, college-edjumacated or not.
Aug. 15, 2003, 1:34 p.m. CST
by Fflewddur Fflam
I think it's easy to see from his own Mason & Dixon article (linked to above) that Pekar actually has little to say about Pynchon's writing, other than to repeatedly claim (without much evidence) that it isn't good (i.e., Pekar doesn't like it, which is fine--but he seems to have understood little of it). Readers should of course decide for themselves whether Pynchon is for them. (As for me, I love a good deal of it--Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, M&D--without being fanatical; V and Vineland leave me cold, even as they impress me for various technical reasons. And on some days I can't stomach any of the man's works, as is true of most artists I like.) But I'll take Pekar's bait and reply, since I think he's missed (and misleadingly described) much of what many critics find interesting about Pynchon's books. (I'll ignore Pekar's less serious objections.) This will necessarily be too brief, but I don't have my books in front of me (they're on a different continent than I am). I would be happy to discuss any of this at further length if you care to email me. 1. Even a casual reader of Pynchon can tell that the man has engaged serious topics and has some interesting things to say about them. Some of Pynchon's repeated areas of focus are: A. the troubled origins of the U.S. and how those origins have resulted in a society tremendously confused as to its own identity as well as its role in the world (e.g., that the supposedly heroic and typically "American" "race to the moon" was in fact enabled by Nazi scientists protected after WWII by the U.S. government, or how the purely abstract, empowering scientific ideals underlying the drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line in fact at least partially resulted in determining whether very many African-Americans lived free or as slaves); B. the dehumanization caused by technology, bureaucratization, and the international consolidation of corporations. (If one objects that these themes are not original to Pynchon, I would reply that a writer's themes need not be original: what matters is what the author says about those themes, and how he/she does so.) 2. Pynchon's work, rather than clumsy, is mostly elegant, both in its prose and structures. Both "Lot 49" and "Gravity's Rainbow" are gorgeous. (I'd gladly quote examples but, as I said, I don't have the books handy. I'd encourage you again to look for yourself.) 3. Pynchon does indeed include obscure info in his books, but why is that bad? I wouldn't agree that "no one knows what he's trying to do;" there's plenty of interesting criticism written on the novels (as well as good guides that explicate the more difficult allusions). Pynchon is hardly as unreadable as some complain: you don't have to get every reference to understand a great deal of the books, and Mason & Dixon is fairly easy to get into, once you get used to the style (which took me about twenty pages). (Gravity's Rainbow and V are more difficult.) When Pekar complains that no one understands Pynchon, I believe he's confusing his own lack of understanding for everyone else, a common but amateurish logical error. (We shouldn't be surprised when critics misunderstand writers they dislike, since they rarely seriously approach such writers' books.) 4. Pekar misunderstands what (if anything) is "avant-garde" in Pynchon's novels. Suffice to say, it's not Pynchon's blending forms, nor is it his mixing of "fact and fantasy," nor is it his heavy (not occasional, as Pekar claims) uses of absurdism, nor his creation of encyclopedic novels. Instead, one major innovation of Pynchon's is his handling of hierarchies of narration, and how the various levels collapse into one another (a now-common postmodern effect strategy). In any case, a writer hardly need be avant-garde to be good (whatever "avant-garde" and "good" might happen to mean for you); Pynchon clearly has precedents in Joyce, Woolf, and Gaddis. Among what makes Pynchon's books interesting and beautiful are his ability to synthesize into coherent themes and arguments wildly disparate elements (all those forms and bits of trivia Pekar mentions--one does get credit for being able to work with such complex and abundant material, regardless of whether Pekar thinks artists should do so); his mastery of Modernist perspective techniques (e.g., fluidly switching between POVs and subjective prose styles); and (my favorite) his utterly dead-on and always magnificent scene/narrative transitions; Pynchon has never written an unnecessary scene, nor one that overstays its welcome by as much as a sentence. In summary: dislike the guy's work--someone has to--but don't think that you can so easily dismiss it (which isn't to say that people shouldn't criticize it: but do so *seriously*). Pynchon may be overrated (it depends on who's praising him), but calling his work stupid--especially if you haven't really read it--will quickly earn you the indignation of anyone who knows something about it. Cheers, FF.
Aug. 15, 2003, 2:08 p.m. CST
Is the second best talkback name ever. Congrats.
Aug. 16, 2003, 2:25 a.m. CST
These interviews have almost made up for the asshole pop-up Freddy Vs. Jason bullshit. This would be a better site with more of this intelligent material. Mr. Beaks, I thank you.
Aug. 16, 2003, 2:42 a.m. CST
by Trav McGee
You just saved me a buncha peeved typing. Pekar, I like your stuff too, but on Pynchon you're coming up far, far short. Excellent interview, Beaks, but chop the prologue by 3/4 next time, eh? Like the kid who interviewd HST and wanted so bad to write like HST, it felt self-indulgent, and not in the goofy Harry-Knowles-Movie-Review way. Hope you're not starting to buy Mo's hype, is all. Just keep taping and typing the good interviews like these, you have a knack for the conversational query. Looking forward to this movie, big-time.
Aug. 16, 2003, 2:55 a.m. CST
"Thank you for correcting my English which stinks!"
Aug. 16, 2003, 3:13 a.m. CST
by Robert K S
Aug. 17, 2003, 1:41 p.m. CST
by Roj Blake
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