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‘American Splendor’is a quirky delight

Restored ‘My Fair Lady’ a treat for fans. By Michael Ventre
/ Source: contributor

“American Splendor”There are lots of guys like Harvey Pekar among us. Odd, neurotic, fascinating, insecure, gifted and even a little paranoid, they toil away at mundane jobs in relative obscurity. Occasionally, one of them does something to capture the world’s attention.

Pekar is from Cleveland, Ohio, and ordinarily such a man might not be the subject of a motion picture. Yet the filmmakers behind “American Splendor” recognized that there is a little Harvey Pekar in all of us, and therefore his story might resonate with mass audiences. They were right.

“American Splendor” is a bizarre concoction of realism, fiction and comic-strip mirth. It tells the story of how Pekar developed a cult following as writer of underground comics. While penning his offbeat takes on the agonies of everyday life, he worked as a file clerk at a V.A. hospital, but eventually linked up and collaborated with quirky illustrator R. Crumb. Along the way, Pekar found time for romance, albeit an unconventional one, with Joyce Brabner, a fan who worked in a comic book store.

Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini do a commendable job of blending storytelling techniques that work perfectly with this strange journey. Paul Giamatti, who plays Harvey, and Hope Davis, who portrays Joyce, are perfectly cast and carry off their roles with both dignity and absurdity. There is even an appearance by the real Harvey, and for some reason, it seems perfectly natural matched against his fictional counterpart in this unusual but captivating tale. This picture loaded up on awards in the independent world, including big wins at Cannes and Sundance.

The DVD includes enough extras to keep even a grouch like Harvey from grumbling. There is a fine group audio commentary, including Giamatti, Pekar and the real Joyce Brabner. There is also a “Road to Splendor” feature that chronicles the film’s journey through the film festival circuit.

Just when you thought filmmaking had become entrenched in formulaic Hollywood drivel, along comes something as innovative, delightful and original as “American Splendor” to make you believe again.

Check out this special feature: Naturally, this DVD would not be complete without a comic book. This comes with a cool six-page insert called “My Movie Year,” written by Pekar himself, that serves as a memoir for the making of the film and its subsequent release to the public. It successfully completes the “American Splendor” experience.

HBO Video, $27.95

The story is familiar now. It originated with an old Greek folk tale, “Pygmalion and Galatea,” and later was done by George Bernard Shaw as a play, “Pygmalion,” then a 1938 movie, and a stage musical, and finally “My Fair Lady” the Hollywood release in 1964, which went on to win eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Even though the film seems as fresh today as a basket of Eliza’s fresh-plucked flowers, it has been 40 years. During that time, “My Fair Lady” has taken a beating — not from critics or fans, but from Father Time. An extensive restoration process had to take place before it could be brought back for its anniversary in all its former glory. Thankfully, the effort was a rousing success.

Everything about “My Fair Lady,” now out on DVD in a two-disc package, is terrific. After a high-definition transfer of the 1994 restoration of picture and sound, it has come through with its dignity and magnificence intact. Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza, along with a terrific supporting cast led by Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Gladys Cooper, make this a rich experience. Even though there is a running time of almost three hours, there isn’t a lull to be had. Even the brief intermission is pleasing.

And while the film will keep you singing, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” the DVD set has plenty to keep you watching all night. Disc One has commentary by art director Gene Allen, singer Marni Nixon (who dubbed Audrey Hepburn's songs) and film restorers Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz.

On Disc Two, there is a documentary called “More Loverly Than Ever: My Fair Lady Then and Now,” which is above average and informative. Included on Disc Two is an explanation of just what elements of sound and picture needed to be reconstructed and restored. There are also comments from Martin Scorsese and Andrew Lloyd Webber, although Scorsese talks about film preservation while Webber discusses his friendship with Alan Jay Lerner, who penned the book and lyrics. Still, it’s an education in film history and a fun ride rolled into one.

Check out this special feature: A segment of the documentary shows archival footage of the film’s premiere as well as the Academy Awards. There are also many other delightful tidbits about the major players, including director George Cukor and the casting of Harrison and Hepburn. The film’s cinematographer, Harry Stradling Sr., who won an Oscar for “My Fair Lady,” also shot the 1938 version, “Pygmalion.”

Warner Home Video, $26.99