Crumb (1994)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

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Crumb is a mostly uncensored look into the life and work of cartoonist Robert Crumb as he prepares to move from Northern California to the south of France, eager to get out of America.  When the topic comes up in conversation with a young man behind the counter in a comic book store, Robert explains that, “France isn’t perfect or anything, but it’s slightly less evil than the United States.”

Robert expresses a great deal of frustration with contemporary culture, and it’s plain to see in his cartoons, which helped carry him to fame in the 1970s counterculture movement.  More than anything he is anti-establishment, and we have a hard time sensing that he is pro anything.

The documentary is memorable because of how unflinching it is in getting to the heart of Robert’s own experience, both now and growing up.  We hear from multiple past wives and lovers, one of whom explains quite casually how well-endowed he is and in a late night party conversation even dissects his fascination with women’s legs and asses.

Much of Robert’s work deals with sexuality, often reducing the female caricatures to little more then legs, asses and chest.  In one cartoon, which he breaks down for the interviewer, a woman with no head is brought to a man to do with what he may until he feels remorse, returns the woman to the witch doctor from whence she came and then suffers the punishment when the woman’s consciousness is restored.  It is as vulgar as you might expect.

Some will defend his perspective (including one friend who says she felt self-conscious about her body until Robert made her see it in a more positive light) and others will express disgust at the clear objectification of women.  Robert himself is quite candid about his art and his interest in drawing a woman’s body as well as his apathy for drawing the male form.  In one of the most hilarious, perhaps unsettling but certainly honest, moments of the film a friend assures us that Robert has indeed masturbated with the aid of one of his cartoons.  Or maybe it’s Robert who tells us himself, I can’t remember.

Robert’s interest in women and sex seems a strange, unhealthy consequence of turmoil from his childhood.  He had an overbearing, depressed father and a mother who developed an addiction to weight-loss drugs, in a sense speed.  We see the devastating effect this had on his brothers Charles and Max, and their candor with the camera is both troubling and eye-opening.  It helps make Robert look like the most ordinary of the bunch, even though in the context of the broader world he seems to be a tangle of insecurity, pride, narcissism and talent.

Certain stories are shared between the brothers that may fill you with dismay but are told with a certain detachment.  What I will remember most from the film is listening to these increasingly troubled stories told while Robert laughs in the background.  At first it seems to be his good sense of humor about life’s darkness, but as the stories grow darker, his amusement suggests that maybe he can’t comprehend how horrifying the story being told really is.

Robert Crumb seems, by the end of the film, to be an alien leaving the planet.  He is clear about what he finds troubling in the world, and yet the things we as the audience are likely to find the most troubling don’t seem to phase him.  It might just be, understandably, that he has grown up in this world and that the things that ail his brothers ail him as well.

The film suggests a fine line between madness and expression.  To have something to say, I suppose, you have to be a little mad, and it’s Robert’s ability to express some of his darker impulses that must’ve helped him survive.  It’s a release his brothers don’t seem to have, though we see how they have all demonstrated some level of artistic skill.

Crumb is just quite amazing.  I have a hard time saying Robert is exactly a likable figure, but he’s an honest one.  He’s jovial enough when we first meet him, and since we’re about to spend two hours in his head it would make sense that we’re meant to like this guy.  The documentary then chips away at him and reveals someone with ego, talent and various other issues that are surely not all that different from our own.  It’s not that you or I may be a cartoonist with unique fetishes but that we’re all uniquely tied to our past, our family, and we’re looking for ways to express such things.  We are a product of our circumstance, and no matter how nice your life may be, there’s something you’re holding onto and grappling with, maybe for the rest of your life.

So Crumb is just kind of amazing.  It’s thought provoking, unsettling and heartbreaking, with the conversation ranging to suicide, homicidal thoughts and the degree to which molestation gives way to rape.  People talk about things that are very much taboo and with an openness that might be the result of nervousness in front of the camera or a disregard (or apathy) for good societal manners.  The end result, at least, is that we see so clearly behind the curtain and learn what influences contribute to Robert’s work.  Now maybe we look at any other forms of art and wonder what influences and impulses, no matter how extreme, went into their creation.

Up Next: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

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