Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Director Report Card: Terry Zwigoff (1994)

2. Crumb

Terry Zwigoff and R. Crumb are friends. Zwigoff has been a member of Crumb’s band, the Cheap Suit Serenders, since the mid-seventies. Considering Zwigoff previously made a documentary about an early blues musician, and would next adapt some underground comics, it would seem the two share some interests. Robert Crumb’s status as an internationally recognized artists clearly wasn’t the only reason Zwigoff decided to turn his camera on his friend. Filmed over a period of six years, “Crumb” doesn’t just chronicle R. Crumb’s own career. The film also focuses on the artist’s equally dysfunctional brothers. When released in 1994, “Crumb” was greeted by unanimous critical enthusiasm. Some even consider it the greatest documentary ever made.

In the sixties, R. Crumb would become one of the pioneers of underground comix: Sequential art featuring subversive themes, explicit content, breaks from traditional formats, and psychedelic styles. Crumb’s “Keep On Truckin’” illustration would be widely printed and imitated. His “Fritz the Cat” comics would be adapted into a cult classic by Ralph Bakshi. Crumb’s work would attract worldwide attention. Despite his success, Crumb’s misanthropic world-view hasn’t changed much. Zwigoff’s film tracks Crumb and his mentally ill brothers as they discuss their lives, their art, and the world they live in.

“Crumb,” naturally, spends a lot of time discussing Robert Crumb’s artwork. Some of the documentary’s most compelling moments are devoted to Crumb to working on his illustrations. He sketches the girls he had crushes on in high school, recalling the various sexual fantasies he had about them. Another scene shows him reading through an especially explicit comic of his. Naturally, such work attracts condemnation from cultural critics, who think of Crumb’s work as pornographic or sexist. Yet it’s not all headless women and girls with big asses. “Crumb” gets into the minutia of comictry, when Crumb discusses taking pictures of street corners so he can master drawing the mundane details of city living. “Crumb” gives you a good look into the creative process.

Of course, “Crumb” probably wouldn’t have attract the critical acclaim it did if it was only about Crumb’s artwork. Instead, the documentary gives the viewer an unflinching, frequently unflattering peek into the artist’s personal life. Robert Crumb is, unquestionably, a misanthrope. He hates the “Fritz the Cat” movie. He hates the Grateful Dead. He hates hippies. He hates rap and rock music. He hates people who wear t-shirts with logos on them. He hates suburbia. He hates his neighbors. He hates the political direction of America, which is why he’s planning a move to France throughout the film. There doesn’t’ seem to be very much that Robert Crumb likes, aside from his weirdo comic books, old jazz music, and his family, I guess.

Moreover, there seems to be some debate over how Robert Crumb feels about women. Early on, we hear his ex-wife discuss Crumb’s early comics. How she felt they showed a positive attitude towards women, especially those who didn’t display classically beautiful bodies. Another girlfriend notes how Crumb drew women that reflected her body type. However, over the course of the film, Crumb’s work grows in hostile and pornographic direction, which leads to accusations of misogyny. Crumb himself casually admits to hating women during one conversation with an ex-girlfriend. It’s interesting that somebody could get two totally different readings out of the same artist’s work.

Sex seems to be something Robert Crumb is especially stuck on. An ex-girlfriend says that Crumb masturbates seven or eight times a day. The most commonly reoccurring element of his artwork are women with thick thighs, muscular legs, and big asses. His drawings and comics show an obvious, fetishistic obsession with this body type. That obsession seems to exclude what we think of “traditional” sex. Piggy back rides seems to be the most common way for Crumb to get off. It’s surprising that Rob’s been married twice and actually fathered a child. Despite having such an intense interest in these types of bodies, when a friend sets up a photo shoot with women fitting his type, Crumb seems to enter a withdrawn state. His incredibly neurotic world view is deeply intertwined with his various sexual hang-ups.

In the Crumb family, sexual perversion is not solely Robert’s domain. Zwigoff purposely named the documentary “Crumb” because he intended the film to focus on all three brothers. As deeply neurotic as R. Crumb is, he’s actually the most well adjusted member of his family. Charles Crumb lives at home with his mother and hasn’t been employed since he was a teenager. He’s on a number of medications for a cornucopia of mental illnesses. He expresses a childhood desire to stab Robert in the heart. Late in the film, it’s revealed that Charles had a pedophilic obsession with Bobby Driscoll, feelings he refused to act on. Despite his issues, Charles was actually the first artist in the family, pushing Robert and the others to work on comics with him. He was talented too but eventually his artwork was consumed by an obsession with cycling lines and text. Before the film was finished, Charles committed suicide. “Crumb” is dedicated to his memory.

Robert’s other brother, Maxon, has his problems as well. He’s introduced kneeling on the floor, wearing only a bathrobe, showing his distressingly malnourished body. He panhandles for money, sitting on a literal bed of nails. He performs a bizarre ritual where he chews and swallows a shoe lace, which he describes as cleansing his digestive system. Maxon suffers from epileptic seizures. He’s got his own sexual hang ups too. He describes being driven into intense bouts of arousal which caused him to grope and molest women in public. Once again, mental illness and artistic talent seems linked in the Crumb family. Maxon shows off his own artwork, impressive and abstract paintings. (Maxon, as of this writing, is still alive.)

With such a collection of disturbed individuals, you’d expect the childhood Crumb household to be extremely abusive or dysfunctional. Well, not exactly. Crumb’s mother apparently had an addiction to weight loss pills – which basically amounted to speed – and is said to have coddle all three boys. Their father, meanwhile, is referred to as a suffocatingly average man, who wrote training manuals. Otherwise,  there are few indications that the Crumb family would’ve produced such messed up people, a family were a deeply fetishistic and self-admited weirdo like Robert Crumb can be considered the normal one.

“Crumb” doesn’t focus exclusively on Crumb’s creepy sex fetishes and his family’s history of mental illness. The film also occasionally pauses to focus on his home life. He has been married to Aline Kominsky, a fellow underground artist, since the late seventies. Aline seems to have come to tolerate Crumb’s eccentricities and misanthropy. The two have a daughter, Sophie, who was a precocious young girl at the time of filming. It’s somewhat jarring to see R. Crumb talk about how much he hates the world and his odd sexual proclivities in one scene and play or hug his daughter in another. Near the movie’s end, Crumb is mocking the movers handling his records. In the next scene, he’s shown being affectionate with his wife and child. Seems that even as hardened a misanthrope as R. Crumb has a soft spot.

“Crumb” clearly isn’t meant to just be a cinematic freak show. Zwigoff and Crumb are friends, so I imagine his interest in this deeply dysfunctional family is probably entirely sincere. Crumb is also a classically Zwigoff-ian outsider, someone who excludes himself from society almost entirely by choice. R. Crumb’s work has connected with a wide audience. The film cements this, with interviews from critics and scholars who appreciate and love his work. Crumb, meanwhile, is mostly disgusted with everything around him and most pointedly with himself. The main point of the documentary seems to be this: Art emerges out of strife.

“Crumb” is a slightly more polished film then “Louie Bluie.” The two have a lot in common, stylistically. Both are primarily composed of interview segments where Zwigoff’s free roaming camera catches the interviewees in honest, unrehearsed moments. Narration frequently plays over artwork. “Crumb” is so unrehearsed that the film frequently leaves in what would otherwise be considered gaffs. A camera trips over a chair while watching Crumb and an ex-girlfriend talk. Charles pauses an interview so he can yell at his mother, who’s confused by the camera equipment. It certainly gives the movie an immediate, lived-in quality.

Rumors persist that Robert Crumb hated the movie bearing his name. It wouldn’t shock anyone, considering he hates everything else. However, this is apparently not true, as Zwigoff and Crumb remain friends to this day. After all, a man who made a career exposing his deepest, weirdest, seediest secrets as comics would be unlikely to bulk at a film doing the same. “Crumb” is definitely a classic in certain circles, both a cult favorite and a critical darling. It’s not the most inviting film. A two hour trip into a collection of ill minds was never going to be. However, it’s valuable as a fascinating look at a famous artist’s psyche and the place where art and mental illness intertwine. [Grade: A-]

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