Director: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Robert Crumb
An odd documentary by an odd filmmaker about an odd artist. If you don’t expect Crumb to be a little bit off-kilter, you’re not paying attention.
Crumb is Zwigoff’s examination of underground cult comic artist Robert Crumb. Following Crumb around immediately prior to his retirement in the south of France, the movie explores several aspects of Crumb’s life, focusing mostly on his family and his upbringing, but also discussing his sexual appetite, the rise of his work, critical reaction to his work, and his past and present relationships.
One of the first things we learn of Robert Crumb comes from his wife Aline. She tells the camera that Crumb is shy, very shy, and tends to clam up around people he doesn’t know. If he feels more comfortable with someone, however, he will talk more. Given this fact, I wonder at Terry Zwigoff’s relationship with Robert Crumb; when Crumb is on camera, he does not flinch at talking about his past and discussing humiliating personal anecdotes. Granted, many of these are tales or obsessions that he had illustrated in his works, but he talks about them freely as well. To have someone described as “uncommunicative” prattle on about stories from his childhood – I wonder. Crumb seems to eschew mainstream culture entirely, refusing associations with famous bands and invitations from Saturday Night Live, and flat out turning down the possibility of creating animated films from his comics. For him to agree to a documentary about his life, I can only imagine he must have felt that Terry Zwigoff, the director, was a kindred spirit. I cannot see him agreeing to be filmed, agreeing to talk at such lengths about his personal history in such a public art form, without some sense of spiritual connectedness. Indeed, Zwigoff himself is hardly mainstream Hollywood, having only five directorial credits to his name. According to Wikipedia (so take it with a grain of salt), Crumb did not initially want to make the film, but Zwigoff must have worn him down somehow.
The biggest focus of the film is undoubtedly on Crumb and his relationship with his family. We meet his two brother, Charles and Maxon (his sisters declined to be interviewed for the film), and his mother. Given what an oddball character Robert Crumb is, it’s surprising to slowly discover over the course of the film that he is easily the most well-adjusted person to emerge from his family. His brother Charles is a total recluse, living in his mother’s house and so shut up that he hangs blankets over every square inch of outside light. Taking a constant stream of tranquilizers, he talks about his suicidal and homicidal tendencies. His mother is hardly any better, yelling at Charles to put the blanket up in just the right way. Robert’s brother Maxon lives in a transient hotel in San Francisco and spends his days meditating on a bed of nails or sitting in the streets. Zwigoff doesn’t jump into these revelations, but wisely holds them back. We meet Charles Crumb early in the film, but at first he only seems a bit quirky. Much later, when he talks with a shocking honesty about wanting to kill his brother then kill himself, you start to realize just how deeply troubled he is, and it is much the same way with Maxon. When Zwigoff has made perfectly clear just how maladjusted Crumb’s family is, the intercutting with Robert’s wife Aline making a pasta dinner for Robert and their daughter is a picture of strange normality for a man so often seen as unconventional. How sad is it, truly, that Robert is easily the most well adjusted member of the family shown in this film.
After Robert’s family, the next largest focus of Crumb is Crumb’s work. Zwigoff spends a great deal of time interviewing people about Crumb’s art and showing Crumb’s art. My response to this film is deeply linked with what I think of Crumb’s art. Prior to watching Crumb, my knowledge of Robert Crumb was this: he was an underground comic artist. Full stop. I had never seen anything of his before. My reaction to his work is well-summarized by some of the women interviewed in this film: intriguing but also disturbing. If that’s what Crumb wanted, then goal accomplished. I find his portrayal of women both positive and negative. Positive, because Crumb is clearly fetishistic about strong, Amazonian women, women who buck the trend of what is considered “beautiful” in Western civilization. I like his celebration of thick, strapping women. That’s empowering. But when Crumb indulges in his sexual fantasies in his work, we see the total sexual subservience of these women in extraordinarily demeaning situations, and I am disgusted and disturbed. Crumb argues that it is just his own id coming out on the page, but I am prone to agree with one of the women in the film who says, essentially, that the fact of this being a representation of id doesn’t necessarily make it okay to broadcast and publish, as there are people who will undoubtedly use it as an excuse to act irresponsibly. Is it contributing to a society that has yet to accept women fully as equals to men? Is this this start of a much deeper conversation without any easy answers? Yes, absolutely. So I’m torn about Crumb. His work is interesting, it’s unique, and it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of style with story(early 1930s animation style telling shocking and unexpected stories), but many times, it goes too far for my taste and I am distinctly turned off. Go ahead, call me a fuddy-duddy, I don’t care.
Early on in the movie, an art critic speaking about Crumb called him the Breugel of the second half of the twentieth century, and at the end of the film, I found that a very apt comparison. The raw passion in his work, presented along with horror, is certainly akin to Breugel. Crumb as a film brings this sort of raw extreme to life. Robert Crumb is an interesting character and an interesting artist, and I don’t mind having spent some time getting to know him and his family. He’s not my style, however, and I do not feel compelled go out to find his comics, or, for that matter, watch this film again.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10.