Posts Tagged ‘american splendor’

COVER8

 

One thing about making a movie for five or six thousand bucks — it isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) that hard to make a tidy little profit.

Evidently, 1991 shot-on-video shlock horror/comedy Killer Nerd, which we reviewed on this very site awhile back , did just that, because exactly one year later, co-directors/writers/producers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne Alan Harold were back behind the Sony Betacam with “star” Toby Radloff, best known as Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor sidekick, back in front of it for a sequel, Bride Of Killer Nerd —a movie which, at its core, is basically more of the same (honestly, what else would you expect?) but is no less fun for that fact. Truth be told, one could even make the argument that this is a superior picture, but it’s not like it matters all that much since it’s basically a six of one, half a dozen of another comparison when we’re talking about these two flicks.

After evading the law in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, titular Killer Nerd Harold Kunkle (Radloff, essentially playing himself, and not “acting” per se so much as simply reciting lines) has moved his base of operations to the bright lights of Cleveland — his “operations” consisting, once again, of being stuck in a dead-end office job where he’s the butt of everyone’s cruel jokes. Harold’s feeling pretty damn depressed about his eat, work, sleep routine, though, and vows that if his life doesn’t somehow change significantly within a month, he’s going to relieve the tedium by committing suicide.

The fickle hand of destiny, however, seems to have other things in mind for everyone’s favorite psychotic geek — yes, friends, none other than Cupid himself has set his sights on the forlorn Harold, and has arranged to have his solitary path in life cross that of one Thelma Crump, a bespectacled, awkward, clumsy, off-kilter high school girl who is at the very least his equal by every standard of measurement on the social outcast scale — when they meet at church one fateful morning it’s love at first four-eyed sight, and nothing, as the saying goes, will ever be the same for either of them.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking — it sure sounds like ol’ Kunkle’s chasing after jailbait here. Before you spend too much time thinking about that angle, though ( which would be a monumental waste of energy on your part since the filmmakers obviously didn’t) it should be pointed out that Thelma is portrayed by Heidi Lohr (the same actress who played Sally, the woman who rebuffed Harold’s advances in the original Killer Nerd), who’s gotta be at least  35 years old if she’s a day. So let’s all just relax and let these two love-struck losers have their day in the sun, shall we?

Obviously, though, the good times can’t last forever, and when a group of popular kids at Thelma’s school invite her and her new beau to a party they’re having as a paper-thin pretext for extracting several ounces’ worth of revenge on her for a  laundry list of perceived transgressions she’s supposedly committed against their clique, it’s not long before the legendary of battle cry of “nerd nerd nerd NERD NERD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” once again issues forth from Harold’s — ahem! — dentally-challenged mouth and he unleashes the beast within to save his lady-love from the twisted machinations of the jocks and jock-ettes.

You know the drill — the red Karo syrup’s gonna flow generously as Kunkle hacks and chops his way through those who would dare sully his fair maid’s honor, but once the slaughter begins in earnest it becomes pretty clear that the object of his affections is every bit as unhinged as he is, if not more so!

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I won’t kid you, this is pretty low-grade stuff, even for late-’80s/early-’90s SOV fare. But what the fuck — it’s fun low-grade stuff that never for one instant sets its sights any higher than what it knows it can realistically (or unrealistically, as the case may be) achieve. Bosko and Harold are keenly aware of the limitations of both themselves and what and who they’ve got to work with, and proceed accordingly. If you or I made this thing we’d probably be too goddamn embarrassed at the final result to show it to anyone but our closest friends and family — and we’d make sure they were good and drunk first — but these guys had the balls to show the world (well, okay, an admittedly very small segment of the world) the fruits of their labors, and that’s pretty admirable in my book. If you don’t have much by way of brains or ability, balls alone can still take you a long way.

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Bride Of Killer Nerd is available on DVD paired with the movie from whose cam-corded loins it sprang in a one-two punch Troma bills as a “Killer Kollector’s Edition.” Besides the always-annoying-but-strangely-welcome Lloud Kaufman self-promotional intros and assorted crap, there are decent commentaries for both films featuring Radloff and Harold, an on-camera interview with Radloff where he reminisces further about his days as the original bullying-victim-getting-even, and a smattering of trailers for other Troma product. The flicks are presented full-frame with mono sound, and if any remastering of either the audio or video variety has been done it’s been pretty cleverly disguised since they both look and sound like crap, but no matter —that’s the way it should be.

Underneath all the thoroughly (but charmingly) unconvincing blood and stiffly-intoned angst, Bride Of Killer Nerd is, in this reviewer’s opinion, an unrelentingly optimistic work, with a message of hope for us all — after all, if Toby Radloff can find true love, anyone can.

 

Like many of you, I thought that the posthumously-published Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was going to be the final work from this truly seminal American writer to ever see print, but happily we’ve all been proven wrong as publishers Hill & Wang have just released, in hardback no less, the stunning (in both literary and visual terms) Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, the late, great Mr. Pekar’s examination of the state of Israel’s complex past, present, and potential futures, his evolving views on/relationship with that country as an American Jew (admittedly one with a thoroughly iconoclastic perspective), and hey, to top it all off, it even serves as a bit of an abbreviated history of the Jewish people themselves, all bound together by a Ulysses-style afternoon spent wandering and driving through the streets of his hometown (Cleveland, Ohio in case you didn’t know — but I’m sure you did) in the company of the book’s illustrator, renowned Jewish graphic artist J.T. Waldman.

Pekar’s parents were ardent Zionists even though his mother was decidedly non-religious (she was even — gasp! — a Communist!), and the driving narrative force behind this blue-collar Joycean work of visual essay, if you will, is following the trajectory of evolving thought “our man” (as Harvey himself would no doubt put it) goes through from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age as he explains why and how his views on what he once considered to be, naturally enough, “The Promised Land,” changed from those of an ardent and uncritical supporter to those of someone not only disillusioned with the nation itself, but with the entire religious-intellectual ediffice of Zionism that gave rise to its birth and forms the basis of its continuing existence to this day.

 

I think it’s telling that a work of this magnitude and scope, from two Jewish artists no less, isn’t getting anywhere near the publicity that Pekar’s Cleveland did, even though it is, if anything, an even more engrossing read than that admittedly fine volume was,  even though it’s exceptionally well-illustrated, with Waldman employing a wide array of visual styles (astute readers may pick up on a definite hint of Craig Thompson’s Habibi in some of the pages dealing with the Jewish people’s struggles in times of antiquity, so be on the lookout for that!) all with a fine eye for detail and expression throughout, even though it contains a fine epilogue scripted by Pekar’s widow and frequent collaborator, Joyce Brabner, that serves a very moving tribute to both the man and his work,  and even though this represents arguably the most compelling writing, from a socio-political perspective, of Pekar’s entire career — and frankly, it’s also unsurprising. The debate around the state of Israel has been framed in such narrow terms by the mainstream media here in America that you literally run the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism for voicing even a modestly critical opinion of any of the Israeli government’s actions.

And you know what? You can’t blame “Jewish political power,” or any other such nonsense, for that. You can’t even lay the responsibility for this intellectually stifling state of affairs on the most hard-core Zionists. Within the Jewish community itself — yes, even and especially within the nation of Israel — there is heated, intense debate on the course the country has taken in recent decades, and continues to take. The parameters of the discussion among people of the Jewish faith of all stripes are much more wide-open than they are in the corporate-owned American press, to the point where the reviews I’ve found of this book, critical as it is of both Israel and Zionism,  in the Jewish press and on various Jewish websites have largely been quite positive, even ones written by authors who disagree with Pekar’s conclusions. Spirited, vigorous debate, pursued in a spirit of intellectual openness and honesty, has always been highly valued by Jewish people, all over the world, throughout their history.

 

Who’s to blame, then, for the “you either support Israel 100% all the time or you’re a Nazi” mentality that prevails among the “elite” media class in the US, then? How about the Christian Right? Their warped relationship with the state of Israel — essentially they support it full-throatedly and without exception because, you can’t make this stuff up, they think Biblical prophecy can only be fulfilled when all the Jews return home and then Jesus is gonna come back and kill every last one of them that refuses to accept him as the Messiah (I wish more Zionist groups would keep this in mind when forming political marriages of convenience with these people — seriously with friends like that, who needs enemies?) — and the extent to which they’ve co-opted our political process,  while simultaneously causing the press to be scared shitless of potentially offending them, forms the basis of the decidedly one-sided nature of the debate on Israel here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and it seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Against that backdrop of moral and intellectual cowardice, works like this one stand out for their stark and unflinching honesty all the more. Harvey Pekar’s fellow American Jews, as well as Israelis, are well used to this sort of entirely-heartfelt polemic, and even those who feel that Israel is, indeed, all that their parents promised them are willing, by and large, to listen to the other side of the argument, as presented in works like this, and have at it. Yet thanks to the noise-machine on the American right, and their cowed stooges in the press, the arguments put forth in this book are something “the rest of us” almost never get to hear. Do yourself a favor — reject this false, black-and-white/with-us-or-against-us dichotomy. Pick up Harvey Pekar’s Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, examine all the issues relevant to the state of Israel fully and from all sides, and then — shock! horror! — think for yourself and form your own opinions.

It’s been nearly two years since the America’s unofficial poet laureate of the working class, Cleveland’s own Harvey Pekar, passed away, but thanks to the estimable folks at Top Shelf Comics, we’ve been given one last glimpse at his creative genius via their publication, in hardcover no less, of what’s apparently his last complete work, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a book that serves as both a semi-mournful look back at a once-great city’s heyday and a final, and comprehensive, autobiographical sketch of its narrator’s life and an analysis of his admittedly complex relationship with the place that he called home for all of his 70 years.

For those of you out there unfamiliar with Pekar’s American Splendor (what, you mean you haven’t seen the movie?), it was a (mostly) self-published anthology series of short stories in comics form written by Pekar, a VA hospital file clerk and blue-collar intellectual, and illustrated by a bevy of the finest sequential artists of its day (most notably underground legend Robert Crumb) that ran for well over a quarter century. Although largely viewed (and categorized) as an autobiographical series, in truth it’s probably more accurate to say it was a “slice-of-life” series, since Harvey was just as likely to include stories about things that happened to people he knew as he was to relate stories about his own life and experiences in its pages, and often brief snippets of overheard conversations formed the basis for some of his most memorable strips. In short, it wasn’t always so much about Harvey Pekar himself as it was about events he witnessed, or that were related to him by others he knew.This presumably final work seamlessly blends the two, as it bobs and weaves downright seamlessly between tales of the city of Cleveland proper and Pekar’s life  and times within it. While he’s unarguably the main character, in truth his geographic locale as his “co-star,” as he both recounts straight narrative chronology of the city and gives detailed background on some of his favorite establishments within it. The net effect is a sort of historical odyssey through Cleveland, with detours chosen for specific purposes by our guide, who writes  with both the appreciation and disgust of someone who knows  his subject well (some might say too well). With painstakingly detailed art by the talented Joseph Remnant (a name I’d previously been unfamiliar with, but that I will definitely look for in the future) that conveys both the actual, physical reality of the city as well as the mood and atmosphere that permeates its environs, and a wide-ranging story that spans decades of the author’s life and even takes care to accurately relate events that happened over a century before his birth, the phrase “labor of love” would definitely apply here — except for the fact that Harvey makes it perfectly clear that he’s had a love/hate relationship with his hometown almost from the word go.

Longtime American Splendor fans will be glad to know that stalwart characters such as Toby Radloff and Mr. Boats are present and accounted for, but for those unfamiliar with Pekar’s previous work and the real people who populate it there’s no reason to be put off from reading this — in fact, even though it’s his final piece of graphic nonfiction, the truth is that serves as an excellent “jumping-on” point for new readers, as it’s such a comprehensive (yet conversational and frankly uncomplicated) work that one needn’t know anything about the city itself, or even who Harvey Pekar is for that matter, to find it a thoroughly engrossing and evocative work.

In fairness, however, it’s incumbent upon me to state that Pekar was never what one would call a “feel-good” author, and if the observations of a major metropolis that’s been on the decline for at least 50 years written by a guy with a definite curmudgeon’s perspective (and speaking of lovable, intellectual curmudgeons, Alan Moore provides the introduction) aren’t your cup of tea, then you’re going to find the tone of this book rather off-putting from the outset. Sugar-coating harsh realities was never Harvey’s “bag,” and while thos of us who are in tune with his wavelength will appreciate the rare form we find him in here, folks who like things a bit sunnier and less nonchalantly harrowing might be well advised to give this book a pass since it’s many things to be sure, but positive and uplifting aren’t among them.

I loved it, of course, and immediately read through the entire thing from start to finish a second time before putting it down. The only downside is that it made me miss Harvey’s distinctive, authentic, and altogether necessary voice more than ever.

RIP Harvey

Two weeks.

Two fucking weeks.

That’s how long it’s taken me to get my head together enough to write something about the life, work — and passing — of a guy I never knew, but who had a more profound impact on my existence than most people I’ve known really well. I can count the actual heroes in my life on one hand (and don’t worry, Dad, if you’re ever reading this — you’re one of them). Now I can count them on four fingers.

In the overall scheme of things, Harvey Pekar could probably  be truthfully described as  neurotic, obsessive,  unkempt, curmudgeonly, disheveled, fatalistic, compulsive, and manic.

He could also be described as unflinchingly honest, enormously talented, creative, humane, brave, hyperintelligent, unpretentious, and in possession of more out-and-out integrity than the next hundred, the next thousand, the next million people you’re likely to meet — combined.

Chances are the character “attributes” I listed first could just as easily be laid at the doorstep of you, me, or anyone else when our time comes to shake off this mortal coil. Those in the second list? Not so much.

In a world full of showbiz phonies and jive Hollywood fast-talkers, Harvey Pekar never sold out. Not to David Letterman. Not to HBO. Not to Time Warner. Not to anyone.

Presented with one opportunity after another to turn his groundbreaking autobiographical comic series American Splendor into some kind of cash-cow, he hesitated. Not that he was opposed to finally, after decades of toiling in near-obscurity (despite the fact that dozens of his stories were illustrated by Robert Crumb, for crying out loud!), making a buck off his work. Far from it. Providing security to his wife Joyce and his adopted daughter Danielle was high on his list of things to do. But not if he had to compromise the essential integrity of his work in any way, shape, or form.

Harvey by R. Crumb

When American Splendor finally did make the leap from the printed page to the silver screen in 2003, it was exactly the type of film those of us who had followed Harvey’s work for years had hoped for — it was honest, insightful, intelligent, and innovative. Just as wed’ always known it could and should be, but maybe better than we’d dared hope. We should have had more faith in Harvey. If it was anything ever in danger of being anything less, he never would have had anything to do with it.

He shook off the easy trappings of fame not out of some high-and-mighty sense of self-importance, but because that whole scene just never even interested him. Even at the height of his Hollywood flavor-of-the-monthness, he’d rather be at home listening to an old jazz LP than be the center of attention at Sundance or Tribeca. He was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, he didn’t care.

"American Splendor" Movie Poster

For my part, I first encountered Pekar’s work in my late teens, still a hopeless comic book addict but well past being interested in the four-color “adventures” of men in tights and women in even-less-than-tights. The sheer banality of Harvey’s work, focused as it was on the most absolutely mundane aspects of his life as a VA hospital file clerk, hit me like a sledgehammer blow to the head. Here was reality in all its unvarnished non-glory — comics really could be about anything at all, as I’d been telling everyone for so long.

There will never be another

My favorite stories were those concerned with the quiet dramas that make up the average person’s life — the small setbacks that feel for all the world like monumental defeats, and the even smaller victories that feel like — well, like just that. Stories like “Rip-Off Chick, ” “A Semi-Bummer Weekend,” “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies In The Supermarket,” and my personal favorite, “Stetson Shoes,” were in so many ways about nothing at all — yet they somehow managed to encompass almost all the ups and downs of human existence into their pictures and word balloons.

Harvey Pekar didn’t lead a life markedly different from you, me, or anyone else we might know. He didn’t possess some mystical sense of clarity that allowed him to see things in some amazingly profound way. He just had the balls, and the writing skill, to look at himself, and those around him, with honesty, wit, and a fair degree of compassion. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t faultless, and often he wasn’t fair. I’m sure he wasn’t easy to live, or even to be around for an extended period of time. But he was the genuine article.  He had something to say about his life, the lives of those he knew, and the society we live in, and he said it. He said it with the simple unrestrained eloquence of an equal. He never thought of himself as being “above” those around him, or as even being in any special or remarkable.

And that’s what was most remarkable about him. He was our voice, and our mirror — our best friend and our fiercest critic. He was , in the words of the front-page, top-of-the-fold article about his death in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, our “bard of the banal.” He was us, and we were him.

He was Harvey Pekar. An everyman. A working stiff. A regular schmuck. And we’ll never see his like again. Mr. Boats. Toby Radloff, Joyce, Danielle — there were so many great characters in Harvey’s stories, but he was always the heart and soul, even in the tales that didn’t feature him.  He was the voice. Our voice. Our guide through our own world. That voice is gone now, and the world itself seems to be missing its voice-over interpreter.

Harvey was only 70 when he died, although let’s be honest — it seems like he’s been 70, or older, for along time now. Youthful vigor was never one of his strong suits, even though in his later years, between his regular American Splendor series and his historical graphic novels, his work output was more prolific than ever. And those later years weren’t easy for Harvey. After retirement from the VA, he was lost without his work routine, He slipped into manic depression and received electroshock “therapy.”  Cancer, which almost took his life a decade earlier (as detailed in the superb Our Cancer Year graphic novel co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) made a return appearance. And his blood pressure was off the charts. So I can’t say that I was completely surprised by his death — but I was still shocked by it. I saw it coming, but still wasn’t ready.

Who are we kidding? I’m still not ready.

I don’t know what happens when we die, although all available evidence seems to suggest we end up as worm food and that’s it. I do, however, know a thing or two about life here on Earth — and I know that it was better two weeks ago, when Harvey Pekar was still a part of it.

"Killer Nerd/Bride Of Killer Nerd" Double Feature DVD from Troma

Hey, Troma, where’s my kickbacks?

I mean, seriously — this is my third review of a Troma DVD in less than a month. Considering that this blog gets, according to the WordPress stats count, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 views per day, that kind of free pub has to be worth at least a freebie DVD or some other  swag, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

Okay, I didn’t think so, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

So let’s talk about “Killer Nerd.” Like the other Troma DVD releases I’ve covered recently, namely “Pigs” and “Story of a Junkie,” this isn’t actually a product of the Troma “studio.” It was shot in 1991 by Ohio filmmakers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne A. Harold on video for the princely sum of about five or six hundred bucks and picked up by Troma for VHS and, later, DVD release. The movie’s main selling point — hell, it’s only selling point — is that it stars Toby Radloff of “American Splendor” fame. Toby is a friend and co-worker of AS’s Harvey Pekar, and essentially serves as his sidekick in the AS film (Toby both appears as himself and is portrayed by Judah Friedlander — if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about). And folks, Toby’s the real deal.

Thick glasses taped in the middle? Check.

Bow tie? Check.

Bizarre speech patterns? Check.

Pocket protector full of pens? Check.

Yes, friends, Toby’s a nerd and darn proud of it. His self-appointed moniker is that of the “genuine nerd” (co-director Harold has even made a documentary about Toby that bears this title). There’s no slack in his act. It’s not a con or a put-on. He’s as legit as it gets.

And damnit, in “Killer Nerd” he’s mad. Toby portrays hapless loser Harold Kunkle, and  he’s got the hots for a girl at work named Jenny (Lori Scarlett), but while she’s friendly enough toward him on a superficial level, she’s really got the hots for another officemate, a slick yuppie douchebag named Jeff (Richard Zaynor) who delights in tormenting poor Harold.

Our guy Harold eventually learns firsthand that the two of them are sleeping together, so he goes out to drown his sorrows at a local Cleveland-area watering hole ,whereupon he gets lured by a couple of ladies into a trap where some punk dudes who harassed him earlier at the bus stop rob him and beat him up.

That’s when Toby — excuse me, Harold — finally snaps and decides to get violent revenge on the society that has treated him like an outcast.

I don’t mean to give away too much of the plot here, but — oh, what the hell, I do, it’s not like it really matters anyway, the title gives it all away from the get-go. Toby/Harold goes back and gets payment for his humiliation in blood from the girls who set him up, the punks who beat him up, the woman who rejected his clumsy advances, and the smooth-talking slickster she’s fucking. He even kills his mom (while dressed in a diaper — an image you’ll never be able to get out of your mind) for good measure. Nobody that’s ever said or done anything mean to him is safe.

The kills are actually pretty creative for the most part, so I won’t give away any of the details )apart from the aforementioned diaper bit).  The ultra-cheap blood and gore effects are good, cheesy fun. The movie looks every bit as cheap as it is, and that’s satisfying for fans of trashy shit like myself.

The real joy of “Killer Nerd,” though, is just watching Toby essentially play himself. There’s no real “acting” required. He just has to read his lines and go through the motions while being who he is. Filmmaking doesn’t get any mor naturalistic than this, folks.

Toby on the loose!

Even the script essentially follows what you’d expect Toby to do in real life (up to the point where he becomes a mass-murdering maniac, of course). When he tries to get a date with Jenny, he invites her out to a church picnic he’s taking his mother to. He likes going to comic shows. He displays no social skills or any concern about what the fuck anyone else thinks of him. He talks the exact same way he does in real life. In short, Harold is Toby and Toby is Harold.

“Killer Nerd” is like watching the nerd Elvis or nerd Michael Jordan in his prime — at the top of his game and in full possession of all his nerdly powers. He is who he is, couldn’t be anything else if he tried, and isn’t interested in trying anyway. Take him as he is or get the fuck out of his way.

Or, you know, get killed. The choice is yours.

Oh, and it’s got one of the greatest lines in movie history — “Roses are red, violets are placid, you screwed me over — have a face full of acid!”

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t give away any of the details of Toby/Harold’s kill-spree. Oh well.

Anyway, let’s be honest — you go into a flick like this because you know exactly what you’re in for, not because you want a story full of plot twists and dramatic surprises.

Followed a year later by a sequel, “Bride of Killer Nerd,” where Harold finally meets the girl of his dreams, an equally-picked-on and equally-revenge-minded high school girl, which might actually be the “better” (and yes, I use that term very loosely) of the two films, both are available one one swell double-feature DVD package from Troma. In addition to the films, you get commentary from Toby and Wayne A. Harold, an exclusive interview with Toby s he “really” is (again, no real difference), a tour around Akron, Ohio with Toby and Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman, and the usual Troma stuff like Kaufman intros to the films and a Kaufman-directed music video, this one for a band called Purple Pam.

In a world full of posers, fakes, phonies, and pretenders, Toby Radloff is the genuine article. He’s probably been picked on and shunned and ridiculed and made fun of his whole life. And in “Killer Nerd” he gets to play out the type of revenge fantasies he’s probably entertained in private for years. For everyone to see.

I don’t know if that makes this film a form of  accidental therapy or what, but I suppose we ought to hope so. Because there are a lot of Toby Radloffs out there, who are probably one good shove or insult away from snapping and giving the slick, smooth-talking assholes of this world what they feel they deserve.

So hell yes, laugh all you want to at “Killer Nerd.” That’s what the movie is for. But depending on how you’ve treated the nerds in your life, it might be nervous laughter.

“Killer Nerd” — harmless ultra-cheesy straight-to-video schlock or advanced psychotherapy on a budget for a tormented outcast?

I leave it for you to decide. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing if every picked-on, eccentric, socially inept weirdo could have the kind of outlet that Toby Radloff has here.