Real Stories: American Splendor, The Secret Lives of Dentists, The Weather Underground

I spent much of my last post complaining about the lack of exceptional, heart-stopping, borderline brilliant films in theaters this year. Since then, I’ve seen three new movies, all of them good-to-spectacular—one an adaptation of a novella, another a documentary, and a third that blurs boundaries between documentary and fiction to create a strikingly original composite.

That third film is American Splendor, an adaptation (of sorts) of a comic book of the same name. The comic's author is Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland file clerk and jazz aficionado whom, in the mid-70s, came across this simple but significant theorem: “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”. Seeking a creative outlet, he began writing an underground comic about the beauty and ugliness he saw around him, all of life’s irritations and mendacities (and occasional pleasures) rendered in sort of a plain-spoken poetry. He couldn’t draw, but was fortunate enough to have a friend like Robert Crumb to visually translate his prose.

In adapting Pekar’s life to the screen, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini create a universe true to their subject’s spirit while opening it up in fresh, illuminating ways not entirely possible on the page. The bulk of the film is a biopic, with Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis (unrecognizable in oversize glasses and a long black wig) as his third wife, Joyce Brabner. However, in this film the real world interacts. Pekar himself not only narrates, he appears throughout; sometimes on a sound stage where we witness him narrating or viewing the filming of a scene, other times as a substitute for Giamatti in the re-telling of his life. That’s not to mention the occasional animated Pekar who has seemingly been cut out of one of his comics, or the two stage actors whom portray Pekar and Brabner in a mid-80’s LA stage production of the comic.

This blending of fact and fiction, what’s real and what’s invented, is handled with such grace, wit and discovery that the result never approaches the cheapness of a stunt. I found myself often on the edge of my seat, giddy to the point of tears to see what would happen next. There’s one scene with Giamatti playing Pekar carrying on conversation about jellybeans with Toby (Judah Friedlander), his unapologetically nerdy co-worker. The scene ends, and Giamatti and Friedlander walk off the set, its artificiality revealed as the camera pulls away. However, the real Harvey and Toby are on the sound stage. As Giamatti and Friedlander take their seats in the background, they observe the persons they’ve been portraying having their own conversation about jellybeans. This set-up proposes a sea of questions: What’s scripted? What’s improvised? What is the essence of reality as a basis for art?

These are questions American Splendor explores, if not necessarily provides concrete answers for. This alone makes for a fascinating film. But don’t forget the lead’s pitch perfect performances (Giamatti and Davis have never been better) and a great supporting cast (who knew James Urbaniak would make such a superb Crumb?). American Splendor more than lives up to the ideal of Pekar’s comic; it finds transcendence and complexity in most commonplace things, and it’s as entertaining as it is provocative.


Davis also stars in The Secret Lives of Dentists, Alan Rudolph’s smart, harrowing adaptation of Jane Smiley’s novella, The Age of Grief. Campbell Scott and her are husband and wife dentists who have their own successful practice and three young daughters. When Scott accidentally witnesses her kissing another man (without her knowing what he saw), it sets in motion much anguish and tension, mounting, exploding, and simmering in phases as in everyday life, with all of its family dinners and influenza epidemics. Davis is fine and brings subtlety to the difficult role of a woman obviously cheating on her husband and, as we discover, obviously disillusioned with her marriage and seemingly perfect life.

However, this is clearly Scott’s film. He gives a breakthrough performance as a man hurt and humiliated when he finds out more information than he needed to know. The stiffness of Scott’s earlier performances gives way here to rationality coupled with stubbornness and an all-too-real vulnerability. The script is intelligent and honest enough to keep everything from devolving into TV Movie of The Week territory; the most cathartic moments are never overblown but often liberating. The only time it threatens to veer off course is when Denis Leary appears as one of Scott’s patients, who gradually surfaces as a projection of Scott’s superego. Leary is well cast, and his sardonic humor is much appreciated at particular moments, but hebecomes a distraction by the film’s final third. No matter; the rest of The Secret Lives of Dentists is always honest and often thrilling, its hallucinations and sobering stretches in tandem with a creatively employed soundtrack that swells and levels off in fittingly operatic proportions.


With an abundance of archival footage and captivating interviews, The Weather Underground documents the radical/terrorist group of the same name. Lashing out first against the US involvement in Vietnam in the late ‘60s, then against general injustice to the counterculture and minorities throughout the ‘70s, the group sidestepped the nonviolent protests of Martin Luther King and aspired to the action and anger of the Black Panthers, only to fail to find widespread support and become increasingly muddled in their moral capacity, and eventually, disillusioned in what they could accomplish. The film, with its liberal amount of graphic, anti-war footage, is unquestionably on the group’s side, although it doesn’t shy away from or examine their more unsavory tactics and practices either. What’s most interesting about the film is how prescient it all is. The country is arguably as divided today as it was 30-35 years ago, only a group like the Weathermen seem strictly of their own time. You watch The Weather Underground wandering how much has really changed, and how much of the zeitgeist has simply gone beneath the radar of a still homogenous press and culture.


Dog Days of American Boredom

I am dying to see American Splendor like no other film that’s opened in the last six months. Man, it’s been an off year for movies so far. I can count the number of flat-out brilliant new films I’ve seen on one hand, and two of ‘em are documentaries (and I still have reservations about Capturing The Friedmans).

Paging through EW’s annual fall movie preview, I’m just not feeling the love. Last year we had so much stuff to look forward to: Bowling For Columbine, Punch-Drunk Love, About Schmidt, Far From Heaven, The Hours even. So what’s on tap for this fall? Well, Terry Zwigoff, Jane Campion, Richard Linklater and Robert Altman all have new stuff on the schedule (though I’m sure Altman’s won’t open here ‘til January). And while all four directors have at least one spectacular film on their resume, it’s just not the same as the promise of a new one from Todd Haynes or PT Anderson, is it? Well, I’m just hoping for some surprises, and something that’s half as inventive, touching, and unique as Y Tu Mama Tambien or Rushmore (which I saw again last night; it’s still as good as ever and hasn’t reached the Trainspotting curse where you can recite every line by heart and pick out every single flaw.)

Speaking of Y Tu Mama Tambien, I found the soundtrack at the library yesterday, and it’s nearly as essential as the movie itself. It’s always nice to hear a soundtrack where you recognize every single song from the film. It’s worth owning for Eagle-Eye Cherry’s impassioned cover of “To Love Somebody” and Brian Eno’s sparse, superb “By This River” alone. But it’s true—the best movies really have the best soundtracks; they’re often just as integral to the film’s success as the direction, story, acting, etc;

I’m listening to Ani DiFranco’s guitar and voice self-titled debut, and although she’s made better records, I have to admit her talent and energy and genius was present right from the beginning. However, I still hesitate on the genius tag, since if she really was one, she’d have made a flawless record by now.

The only recent new film I’ve seen is Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without A Past, which has been flittering through my must-see consciousness since it played Cannes in 2002. It’s a fable of sorts about a man who suffers amnesia after getting mugged and brutally beaten by thugs. Instead of trying to search out his past life, he takes up with a collective of homeless people. The film is a parable about the worth of one’s inner identity. It’s as bleak as it is deadpan funny, a combination I always adore. Kaurismaki is obviously a Finnish equivalent to Jim Jarmusch, without the in-joke pretentiousness that occasionally mars the latter’s less successful films (essentially, everything but Stranger Than Paradise.) He has a taste for weirdos, although he renders them in the most humane ways, like the walrus-mustached businessman who holds up the bank, or the landlord who attempts to threaten his tenants with his sweet, cuddly dog. And the soundtrack, packed with a lot of ‘50s/’60s rockabilly/blues (much of it played by the film’s revamped Salvation Army Band) is great, too.

Well, tonight the second most entertaining reality TV show (do you even have to ask what the most entertaining show is? Hint: five gay men) comes to a close. I got hooked to The Amazing Race back in mid-June, and although it provides more thrills and intelligence than twelve whole seasons of The Real World combined, most people seem to prefer Big Brother. The only problem I’m having with TAR is that I don’t really care for the final three couples. Who would you want to win? An uptight, humorless, impossibly Aryan-youth looking gay male couple whose names are actually Reichen and Chip??? A boring, bland pair o’ straight male friends/surfers whose names I believe are Steve and Dave (that’s how indelible an impression they’ve left)? Or Kelly and Jon, an irritating, bickering engaged couple who have already used up ten of their nine lives? I always root for the underdogs, so Kelly and Jon it is, although this race lost a little momentum when Millie and Chuck, virgins who had been dating for twelve years! (which the show rarely failed to point out) got eliminated a few weeks ago.

Other great pop artifacts of the moment (besides the wondrous Queer Eye For The Straight Guy):

VH1’s I Love The ‘70s. Sure it’s pointless trashy nostalgia, but some of the tastiest comfort/junk food available.

The failure of Gigli and the implosion of the whole Bennifer debacle.

Season 3 of Mr. Show hits DVD next week! (“Take it from me, I luv you!”)

Junior Senior’s irresistible song (+ video) “Move Your Feet”. Why isn’t this as popular and overplayed as “Crazy In Love”?

That crazy woman who gave birth on the red line, plopping the baby right out before she reached JFK/UMASS and stuffin’ the afterbirth in her purse (eewwhhh). “HEY, GIMME YO’ PAPER!”


I spent a few days listening to very little but Ani DiFranco in preparation for an essay about her back catalogue. I’ve revisited everything from Out of Range on, except for the Swing Set EP, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter (which I started last night), and that most difficult of DiFranco discs, the sullen, navel-gazing Reckoning. I haven’t tired of her yet, but I could never, ever, live on one artist alone, which is why I own 500+ discs (+ god knows how many more tapes.) I know, I should go out and buy her first six albums to get a more complete impression/analysis, but I have more than enough music to listen to and revisit. The other day, I was thinking of my beloved Avalanches CD, and how I haven’t played it in over six weeks.

At the moment, I’m listening to Billy Bragg’s Talking With The Taxman About Poetry for the first time, on loan from the Newton Free Library (as opposed to ones where you hafta pay for everything), and I still have four discs of Richard Thompson and two of Nick Drake to contend with. But I’d rather have too much music to listen to than not enough. When I moved to Boston six years ago, whilst waiting three weeks for all my stuff to arrive I had but less than 20 cassette tapes (most of ‘em dubs) with me. I remember listening an Ella Fitzgerald mix as I made my first jaunt over to the Esplanade on an impossibly sparkling Friday afternoon. The other two tapes that stand out from that time are Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Ani DiFranco’s Dilate, albums that I’d enjoy and fully absorb over those first six months.

I remember all the strolls I took through Brookline, on my way home back to grungy Allston from a flick at the Coolidge Corner (possibly Underground or Never Met Picasso). Rain fell in sheets on my way there, but later in the night, the air was moist and calm. I’d walk up Beals Street, past JFK’s birthplace, the final, ethereal moans concluding “Joyful Girl” (the final track on Dilate) all around me and only me. In those moments, I felt so lost and found without a lattice of local friends for support. Everything was gradually turning familiar but still felt new and unmarked.

I now work near my first Boston neighborhood, and at times I feel like I never left it. I don’t consciously think about it much when I walk through it in the mornings or on my lunch break, but on occasion, memories of my 23-year-old self surface on these same streets. All the hours I’d escape my shitbox apartment to sit in the idyllic park off of St. Paul Street, or the moment when, a few blocks away, I ran into a guy whose apartment I had looked at while trying to get out of said shitbox. In his mid-thirties, he owned a home in nearby Washington Square and was looking for two roommates. Two steps into the place and I knew I’d never be comfortable there; it had the consummate air of a unquestionably straight, slightly sleazy, mullet and Metallica-friendly bachelor pad, right down to the leather couches in the dark, dark living room and the maid service that frequented once a week.

I didn’t want to lie to his face and say, “No way in HELL am I moving in with you dude.” More timid than I am now, I lied to him over the phone a few nights later and told him I had found another place (and I did--or would, in two weeks time). So, some time later, I’m walking down St. Paul and he drives up in a vintage blue Beetle, sticks his head out the window and says, “Hey Chris, how are you enjoying the new place?” I hadn’t actually moved yet, so I managed a weak smile and said something along the lines of, “Um, it’s great.” Fortunately, I didn’t have a stalker on my hands; thankfully I never ran into him again, and spent a safe, if for other reasons abso-lively, posi-tutely crazy year ‘cross town in North Cambridge.

And, I moved into that very apartment five years ago today! (See how neatly it all ties in?)


Steve Wynn, Static Transmission

Twenty-one years after The Days of Wine & Roses, former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn should be settling into a sweet, irrelevant decline. Instead, he’s making some of the best music of his career. After a decade of good but not entirely great solo albums, he released Here Comes The Miracles in 2001. An honest-to-god double album, it could’ve all fit onto one CD with a little editing (the two discs clock in at a total of 82 minutes). However, to do so would seem sacrilegious. As loose and alive as it was consistent and complete, Miracles was a penultimate career record, finding space for all corridors of Wynn’s psyche. Every one of its nineteen tracks was a keeper.

As follow-ups to monumental double albums go, Static Transmission is frighteningly good. Credited to Wynn and the Miracle 3 (although among the core three members, from Miracles it only retains drummer Linda Pitmon), it’s a keen companion piece to Miracles, reprising its diversity and breadth while aiming for a cleaner, less feedback-drenched sound (minus the slight overproduction that now dates Wynn’s early ‘90s records Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display.) Wynn shows he’s still capable of taking risks by opening with “What Comes After”, a slow, sobering ballad, and a death-themed one at that. But rather than setting the tone, it gives way to the six-note guitar riff and “bang, bang, bang” chorus of “Candy Machine”, the sloppiest, loudest, and most fun (and Miracles-like) song here.

Unlike his earlier, more genre-thematic solo work, every song here could come from a different album. With its electric piano, cool acoustic guitar solo, and utter lack of blue-eyed soul clichés, “The Ambassador of Soul” is the kind of effortless pop song you wish spiritual godfather Lou Reed was still capable of. The bracing, road-trip ready, six-minute “Amphetamine” pays roguish tribute to Easy Rider, but its ingenuity lies in both the urgency and simplicity of its one-note bass lines and “na-na-na, nah-na-na-yeah” outro vocals. “California Style” packs nearly as many gleaming hooks into its three minutes as, say, The New Pornographers do, while its hazy backing vocals and mewling guitars add a sinister sheen to all the handclaps and Eagles quotes (“We’re gonna take it to the limit / in a New York minute). The concise, head-bobbing “Hollywood” comes from the same place as Concrete Blonde’s “Still In Hollywood”, only with a less anger and frustration and more observation (remember that Wynn was once a journalist), reflection, and irony. “Maybe Tomorrow” perfects the minor key, Neil Young-with-gliding-strings ballad Wynn’s been working on for years, and “A Fond Farwell” strikes a most delicate, delicious balance between his ominous vocal, an industrial-sounding guitar and the sweet, spine-tingling bells on the catchy chorus.

Like Miracles, what makes Static Transmission so remarkable is not so much how strong each of its (initially simple-sounding) songs is, but more how well they all coalesce with each subsequent play. And, if you’re tired of lame unlisted bonus tracks, stick around for the song that follows “A Fond Farewell”. Delightfully ramshackle and sly, it boasts this irresistible line in its chorus: “If it was easy, everybody would do it”. It recalls that one of Wynn’s (and any musician’s) greatest assets is a sense of humor. With that in mind, Static Transmission works because it doesn’t try to top its predecessor; it just, on a smaller scale, captures the same qualities and quirks that made it great.

(Although it obviously pales a little in comparison, the eight-track bonus disc of outtakes from the album's sessions included with the American release is worth hearing and owning. Highlights include “Riverside”, which reprises the template of “Maybe Tomorrow” with a little more oomph and menace; “Timing” and “Again”, both of which could be Bachman-Turner Overdrive in a spry mood; “Survival Blues”, which succinctly captures the hedonism of ‘70s California-style rock with its organ and sitar; and a minimalist, eight-minute, tremolo-heavy noir cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.)


Five Film Grab Bag

1. Capturing The Friedmans
(7/21, Oriental Theater, Milwaukee)

I’ve rarely felt so perplexed after watching a documentary. Andrew Jarecki’s account of the pedophilia and molestation charges that rocked and eventually destroyed a suburban Long Island family is no less unsettling or provocative than Bowling For Columbine; what makes it a superior film is that it never cheapens or smirks at what it exposes and dissects. The Friedman’s case itself is presented as a layered tapestry, with shrewdly placed revelations that tend to excite, illuminated and sicken—often all at once. The vintage video and audiotapes (mostly taken by eldest son David) overplay the tragic aspects of the case, but are harrowingly effective. The film is a quest to uncover the truth of what went on at Arthur Friedman’s computer classes, and although it is frustratingly unable to provide an answer, it reveals worlds on hysteria and the culture of fear that Michael Moore acknowledges but doesn’t have a whole lot to say about. I could have done without the sentimental music montages, and question the placement of a few revelations (especially one involving the patriarch’s brother), but the film leaves such an unshakable impression that you wish the bulk of “reality TV” could reach this shining potential.

2. Whale Rider
(7/24, Downer Theater, Milwaukee)

This New Zealand import is the summer’s breakout art house hit. It concerns Pai, a young Maori girl who tries to overcome the prejudices and sexist traditions of her tribe to prove she can be a “Whale Rider”, a warrior of sorts who has the gift to communicate with and train the great aquatic mammals, a designation originally meant for her twin brother (who died at birth) to achieve. Fortunately, it’s not nearly as hokey as it sounds. It does get off to a slow start, however, that all the idyllic, exotic scenery in the world can’t mask. It works best when Pai’s onscreen, for Keisha castle-Hughes gives a wonderfully unaffected performance, almost the Maori equivalent of Raven Goodwin, the plump black girl in Lovely and Amazing. I think I need to see this one again; I remember dozing off through most of it, only really getting caught up in the riveting conclusion and former Dead Can Dance-ster Lisa Gerrard’s fluid, ethereal score.

3. Finding Nemo
(7/25, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, Whitefish Bay (how appropriate), WI)

I tend to avoid most things with Disney stamped on it (and to prove my point, I can’t think of a single current ABC show that I watch on a regular basis). This is their fifth CGI film, and only the second I’ve seen, next to Toy Story, which I haven’t seen in seven years. So, top-ten-grossing-film-of-all-time and all, why did I go to a theater to see this one? Ellen DeGeneres. I heard she was brilliant as the voice of Dorrie, a forgetful blue-fin, and she sure was. She’s as funny and nuanced in delivery here as in any of her stand-up performances, and it’s further proof that she needn’t have to do a sitcom ever again. Plus, there are no songs. Hallelujah! The plot’s grand outline is predictable and old-Mickey-Mouse-hat, but the way it gets there is really inventive, almost breathtaking at times. The CGI animation just keeps on getting better, so much so that the once groundbreaking Antz seems like Underdog in comparison. And, it’s appealing to both kids and adults without condescending to either; I even liked the surfer dude-talking turtle. But, if they should decide to do a sequel, please, please bring Ellen back.

4. Northfork
(7/28, Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA)

Without a doubt the strangest film I’ve seen all year, it also has the best cinematography. Imagine a Montana drained of most of its color, until you’re left with lots of white and gray and faded out neutral greens, yellows and browns, and you’ve got Northfork, the third film by Mark and Michael Polish. It’s more ingenuous and less exploitative than Twin Falls, Idaho; it has something to do with a small town that is about to be flooded by an ominous irrigation project, and follows a band of six black-suited evacuators who are promised prime “lakefront property” it they meet their quotas. There’s also Nick Nolte as a tender but possibly mad preacher and the sickly ten-year-old boy whose dreams of consorting with a band of otherworldly eccentrics (including Anthony Edwards and Darryl Hannah!) may be more than visions. Not weird enough yet? How about a heapin’ helpin’ of David Lynch/Coen Brothers surreal deadpan? Northfork is a film someone like Ebert loves to call “startlingly original”, and while it’s a little too smugly precious for its own good at times, it’s also unquestionably like no other film at the art house multiplexes right now. Time will tell how well this bizarre but oddly beautiful fable ages, but I can already imagine getting at least a little pleasure out of subsequent viewings.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl
(8/3, Loews Boston Common)

Just as Finding Nemo wouldn’t seem so fine without DeGeneres, The Pirate Movie (as Kate Sullivan calls it) would seem like an abomination without Depp (or something akin to The Time Machine with Guy Pearce, who could use another Memento right about now). Depp, chameleonic and vivid as always, makes the thrill ride watchable as Captain Jack Sparrow, a fey, foppy and uproariously funny fixture who crosses Jagger and Richards for all its worth and gets away with it. As for the rest of the well-shot, shoddily directed extravaganza? Well, it’s not the disaster months of nondescript theatrical trailers suggested, or even all that bad--just kind of unexceptional. Sharp as he looks, Orlando Bloom makes you remember why he has more pretty face than personality, and I don’t even know (or care to look up) the female lead’s name. Geoffrey Rush is OK, but he’s been much better (and much worse) elsewhere. Oh well, it’s probably the first bearable pirate movie in cinema history, but not as much fun as the much-maligned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.