[Marxism] Anthony Bourdain on Harvey Pekar

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 16 08:43:18 MDT 2010

(Anthony Bourdain has a show on the travel cable channel 
specializing on local cuisines, more or less in line with the sort 
of thing that Calvin Trillin does in print.)


The Original (Goodbye Splendor)

A few days ago, the city of Cleveland lost a truly great and 
important man. And I'm not talking about LeBron James. A hundred 
years from now, few--other than a few sports nerds--will remember 
him as much more than statistics on a long ago basketball court.

They will, however, remember Harvey Pekar, whose life and works 
will surely remain an enduring reference point of late 20th and 
early 21st century cultural history. Like those other giants of 
their eras, Twain, Whitman, Dos Passos, Kerouac, Kesey, the times 
he lived in cannot adequately be remembered without him.

It is true enough to say that he was the "poet laureate of 
Cleveland" or to describe his American Splendor as "Homeric", but 
those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man 
for his times, straddling...everything: the underground comic 
revolution of the 60's, the creation and transformation of the 
graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic 
jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life).

He was famed as a "curmudgeon", a "crank" and a "misanthrope" yet 
found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. 
In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last 
romantic--his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious 
and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, 
"what happened here?"

His continuing compulsion to wonder what's wrong with everybody 
else was both source of entertainment and the only position of 
conscience a man could take.

After all, Cleveland, the city he lived in and loved, had, he 
reminded us, lost half it's population since the 1950s. A place 
whose great buildings and bridges and factories had once 
exemplified 20th century optimism needed its Harvey Pekar.

"What went wrong here?" is an unpopular question with the type of 
city fathers and civic boosters for whom convention centers and 
pedestrian malls are the answers to all society's ills but Harvey 
captured and chronicled every day what was--and will always 
be--beautiful about Cleveland: the still majestic gorgeousness of 
what once was--the uniquely quirky charm of what remains, the 
delightfully offbeat attitude of those who struggle to go on in a 
city they love and would never dream of leaving.

What a two minute overview might depict as a dying, 
post-industrial town, Harvey celebrated as a living, breathing, 
richly textured society.

A place so incongruously and uniquely...seductive that I often 
fantasize about making my home there. Though I've made television 
all over the world, often in faraway and "exotic" places, it's the 
Cleveland episode that is my favorite--and one about which I am 
most proud.

That show was unique among over a hundred others in that 
everything--absolutely everything--went perfectly and exactly as 
planned. Unlike every other episode, pretty much everything had 
been "written" (or at least planned out) in advance: the look, the 
American Splendor graphics, destinations, subjects and content. In 
the middle of a blizzard in the dead of winter, we got exactly 
what we were looking for. We wanted American Splendor and that's 
what we got.

This is due entirely to Harvey (and the incredible Joyce). Harvey 
may have had a reputation as cantankerous, TV-averse and difficult 
but from the very first minute he and his family were a delight. 
They opened up their lives to us in every way they could. They 
were exactly as they appeared in the great graphic novels and in 
the film--only warmer and even nicer.

The look, the tone, the sound, the whole feel of the episode that 
followed was Harvey's. There was a moment at Sokolowski's I'll 
always remember as quintessential Pekar--that perfectly 
encapsulated the way we all felt absorbed in to PekarWorld. We'd 
just finished shooting a scene with Harvey, Toby Radloff and 
Michael Ruhlman--and Danielle, Harvey's daughter, who'd been 
hanging out off- camera, temporarily went missing--out of Harvey's 
watchful gaze. I remember looking at him, swiveling his head 
frantically, the very picture of parental concern and exasperation 
and actually SEEING comic book curlicues, exclamation points, 
question marks and smoke emanating from his head. He had made the 
world around him his world. We were--all of us-- just passing through.

A few great artists come to "own" their territory.

As Joseph Mitchell once owned New York and Zola owned Paris, 
Harvey Pekar owned not just Cleveland but all those places in the 
American Heartland where people wake up every day, go to work, do 
the best they can--and in spite of the vast and overwhelming 
forces that conspire to disappoint them--go on, try as best as 
possible to do right by the people around them, to attain that 
most difficult of ideals: to be "good" people.

"Our man" as Harvey often referred to himself in his work, was a 
good man. An important man. A "great American" is an expression 
that has been cheapened with over-use, but if these words ever 
meant anything, they surely describe Harvey Pekar.

He was great. He was American.

For him to have come from anywhere else would be unthinkable. He 
will be remembered. He will be missed.

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