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Strove to find a way to punch people in the face by using the Internet.

9/21/2003

MOVIES
Mysterious Object at Noon
Grainy black-and-white flick from Thailand, and an audiacious experiment. The dauntingly named filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul starts out with the skeleton of a story, travels around sections of Thailand and, using a strategy inspired by the old Surrealist game exquisite corpse, assembles the loose narrative by asking unrelated groups of people to add to wherever the last group left off. So you watch documentary-style footage of people in Thailand talking about their lives a little and doing their daily thing (seems like buying fish sauce, mostly) interspersed with non-pro actors acting out the raggedy story (something about a kid from space with transforming powers - it unfolds like a cross between ye olde folktale and bad comic book) as people pick up where the last group or person left off and just make it up. Scenes with a group of entertainers acting the story out and a group of rowdy fat kids shoving each other are pretty charming. Conceptually, it's bad-ass, but ultimately the movie works more as an experiment than a riveting cinema experience. Unless you're the kind of cultural-studies sissy who read a lot of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin.

American Splendor
Offbeat bio-pic about Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland curmudgeon, music/book critic and lifelong file clerk who pioneered autobiographical comic books. Pekar recognized the medium's potential to depict something other than superhero fantasies and enlisted Robert Crumb's help back in the '70s. He's since garnered plenty of critical acclaim, appeared on Letterman a handful of times and worked with a metric buttload of notable illustrators.

Pekar portrays himself as a neurotic crank, but there's an element of self-aware schtick to what he does that adds a lot of humor to his work. I used to work at a fairly wretched magazine called JAZZIZ that published Pekar's reviews, and I used to talk to him on the phone pretty regularly. He came off pretty much like he does in his comics - grumpy, disdainful of technology (he used to type out his reviews and have someone fax them in, and it was my job to re-type them into the computer), anxiety-stricken and cheap as a motherfucker, but also intelligent, funny, self-deprecating and curious about the minutiae of everyday life. The editors (poncey English-major creeps) would always groan over Pekar's sober, straightforward and descriptive writing, but I thought it was solid and a nice break from all the pretentious bullshit they liked.

Anyway, the movie covers major events of Pekar's life (starting his comics, getting married, his feud with Letterman, adopting a daughter) in a way that's slightly fictionalized. To a person the cast does a bang-up job of nailing the essence of their character, and we know this because their real-life counterparts frequently show up, in interviews and archival footage. Pekar himself does the narration, occasionally adding funny counterpoint to the action ("That guy doesn't look nuthin' like me"). The filmmakers also mix in plenty of panels and elements from Pekar's comics, and a few of these turn up animated.

One of the things I really enjoyed is that the mixture of straight-ahead film narrative, interview footage and comic art never feels showy or tricky. It's integrated in a way that feels natural, with the different elements illuminating each other rather than calling attention to the cleverness of the director.

And the story itself, which will be familiar to fans of the comic, is great. It's warm, funny, bittersweet, sad - human; no rough edges smoothed over. It's that rare flick that depicts authentic human experience, with all its attendant speed bumps and little victories. Highly recommended.

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