(1994) Directed by Terry Zwigoff; Starring: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky and Charles Crumb;
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Rating: **** ½
Provocative, controversial and darkly humorous – these are just a few ways to describe the work of underground comic strip artist Robert Crumb. Terry Zwigoff presents an unflinching profile of the often maligned artist, who’s perhaps best known for the ubiquitous “Keep on Truckin’” meme and “Fritz the Cat” character. It’s a portrait of an immensely talented but flawed individual, shaped by his troubled past. We have an unprecedented window into Crumb’s current life, past loves, and artistic inspiration.
Zwigoff follows Crumb around as he traces his artistic steps. The documentary is framed by scenes of Crumb and his family as they prepare to move from their northern California home to southern France. Zwigoff plays the fly on the wall, affording us a relatively unobtrusive glimpse of some of the key people in Crumb’s life, as well as a peek at his artistic process. At times, Zwigoff steps back from talking head interviews and scenes of Crumb interacting with friends and family members, letting his artwork speak for itself. We see a representative sample of Crumb’s work, which is no small feat, considering that it has spanned several decades and undergone many evolutionary changes.
Probably the best adjective to describe Crumb’s work is “polarizing.” It’s the kind of art that doesn’t invite apathy. It represents a uniquely warped vision that’s rarely safe. Much of the samples presented in Crumb appear id-driven, seemingly issuing forth from the artist’s unconscious. As a result, there are a few times when a perplexed Crumb can’t always articulate what a specific piece means to him. We hear from a couple of Crumb’s most ardent admirers (Time Magazine’s Robert Hughes and art gallery owner Martin Muller) as they attempt to explain the cultural significance of his work, but they only manage to over-intellectualize his intent and obfuscate any meaning.
The film suggests that Robert Crumb is a product of his childhood environment, which inevitably shaped his artistic inspiration. Unfortunately, Crumb’s sisters declined to be interviewed for the film, so we never get to hear their perspective. The other party that remains unheard is Crumb’s father, who was deceased at the time of the documentary. His domineering presence still looms over the family like an unseen antagonist. Interviews with his mother and two brothers provide valuable insight into his formative years. Through their recollections, we’re able to construct a rich mosaic of his chaotic early years, and how that affected his outlook on life and future relationships. The most tragic family figure is his older brother Charles, middle-aged and living at home with his mother, who was instrumental in pushing Robert into cartooning in the first place. Brief glimpses of Charles’ artwork indicate a formidable, but unrealized talent. He’s numbed by tranquilizers and antidepressants and afraid to leave the house, but his intelligence and wit manage to shine through. We learn about the progression of his artwork and writing, as his mental state began to steadily deteriorate over time and he became less in tune with reality. * Crumb’s younger brother Maxon is briefly seen. He lives a quasi-monastic existence in a dingy hotel room in San Francisco, with a regimen that involves meditation and sitting on a bed of nails. He has also built a name for himself, with his abstract, oddly fascinating paintings.
* As a tragic but not entirely surprising footnote, Charles committed suicide shortly after Crumb was filmed.
Compared to his siblings, Crumb has been able to confront his inner demons, to lead a reasonably normal existence. We get the feeling that his painfully autobiographical artwork is a form of self-administered therapy. He taps into the things that are usually left hidden away in a corner of our minds. Most of us would rather keep our base fears and anxieties bottled up, but Crumb honestly confronts the darker confines of his psyche. His art doesn’t invite apathy. Because of his fearless approach, he’s invited equal amounts of praise and scorn. Some critics have accused him of being misogynistic or borderline racist, and Zwigoff acknowledges this. We hear from one of his detractors, Deidre English, who dissects one of his more contentious pieces, “Joe Blow,” labeling it “over the line.”
Crumb never puts its subject on a pedestal, nor condemns him, but does what exceptional documentaries do. We see the artist as a human being instead of a caricature. His work appears superficially offensive, but there’s a deeper context, even if it’s only apparent to Crumb himself. His aesthetic is driven by his fetishistic vision of the ideal woman, simultaneously reflecting his fear and reverence of the opposite sex. He’s a man of many contradictions, helping to usher in a modern era of comic art, but displaying contempt for the new (He seems like someone from another era, wearing a straw hat and collecting ancient jazz 78s.). It’s virtually impossible to adequately represent anyone in two hours, but Crumb probably serves as the most complete primer we’re likely to ever see. The misanthropic, cantankerous and reclusive Robert Crumb is a true original, who doesn’t beg for our pity or understanding.