Crumb (1995)

crumb film review

Crumb (1995) Directed by Terry Zwigoff

With bizarrely sympathetic, candid encomium to the art of Robert Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s incisively quirky 1995 documentary begins its brief introductory minutes into the bohemian spirit and controversial cartoon world of Crumb’s comics. An exordium that I don’t intend to generalize as an introduction to a single artist and his creations, but to a family cursed by the Crumb surname. Ambiguity in art is so intrinsic that it lends itself to being over-interpreted and consequently misinterpreted; and under those rules of interpretation Terry Zwigoff strives to stimulate ambivalence in Crumb’s life as well as demand an effort on the part of the audience to be neutral with respect to Crumb’s tormented life. I am enthusiastic to believe that this phenomenal study of an artist’s mind and his most salacious obsessions is an essay that pronounces an intellectual endeavor on the part of the filmmakers to treat objective reality without altering it with preconceptions, prejudice, or moral judgments. The formal complexity in this film lies in its flawless grasp of documentary fluidity and unaltered perception of the facts, be they uncomfortable or unsavory, Zwigoff does not seek to romanticize the artist but to let him be as he is no matter how improper the artist’s amorality may be.  

When neutralizing the life of a person, in this case the life of Robert Crumb, the possibilities of the documentary lens are vast and powerful to conjure a veristic space-time that is hard-hitting and moving for the right reasons, and the wrong ones as well. Making this significant opus for Zwigoff proved to be a cinematic odyssey of many years of laborious and creative effort to compact the eccentric life of Robert Crumb into just 2 hours of film. The final product is something extraordinary, not only because it gives psychoanalytic textures to Crumb’s art but also because it makes a fierce, caustic X-ray of American culture from many different time spectrums. Zwigoff is an old friend of Crumb’s, the two met in the tumultuous years of the sexual revolution in the 1970s. Crumb at the time had a musical band called R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders; a band that Zwigoff would later join. This friendly relationship and correspondence in tastes and peculiarities has surely influenced a lot in the fact that this documentary is filmed with an unflappable frankness.  

The cartoonish corpus of Crumb’s comics today will be demonized by any moralist incapable of paying attention to the deeper details. It is all too easy to see the politically incorrect in Crumb’s imagery, and that simplicity lends itself to an inept interpretation of a controversial artist who is much more than mere polemic. Based on his oeuvre alone, we can say that Robert Crumb is a misogynistic, racist, compulsively talented idiot who can’t see beyond sociocultural stereotypes. At least that is the basic, colloquial description anyone could have of his abstract humor. I must warn you beforehand that with this writing I am not defending or extolling his personality and his work, but rather I am proposing a modification of perspective to understand such a complicated mind. In this documentary, we meet an already famous Crumb, an accomplished cartoonist, with no financial or professional problems, but in one way or another his pathological issues remain with him in an everlasting struggle with his troubled past.   

The Crumb family consists of three brothers and two sisters, the latter we do not know because they did not agree to be filmed or interviewed. Nevertheless, I believe that knowing the three Crumb brothers is more than enough to know the degenerate hell of their obsessive proclivities and family traumas. The Crumb patriarch was a neuralgic point of origin for the twisted development of the psychology of these three brothers. His severe and tyrannical way of raising them left a lacerating mark on each of them; an insurmountable trauma that follows them like a lurking shadow behind them. The mother and her problem with amphetamines certainly also played a fundamental role in the paranoid, self-destructive and frenetic behavior of the three brothers. Charles Crumb, Robert’s older brother, lives with his mother and has not worked for many years, he lives locked up with his books, comics and antidepressants. He is a funny and extremely weird guy, there is no middle ground to describe him. Maxon Crumb, the younger brother, lives in a state of seclusion where he meditates sitting on a board with nails and practices an ascetic lifestyle. Robert Crumb is the opposite of them, he is sociable and successful, yet they share the same inner nightmare.  

Crumb’s maddening art overlaps with his life. The austere but arresting visual setup for documenting Crumb’s day-to-day life becomes an exercise in juxtapositions of fiction and reality. Robert Crumb’s celebrated comics such as Fritz The Cat or Zap Comix contextualize his fervent fascination with drawing, comedy and the art of storytelling through the comic format; though in reality, as the minutes of this film progress we realize that there are other, darker and far more crude and raunchy comics that can tell us much more about Crumb than any other. Crumb’s style, in his early days, remained quite traditional, reminiscent of American animation of the 1930’s, yet his artwork began to evolve and transform into something more idiosyncratic and provocative, quasi-pornographic. His LSD consumption had a lot to do with it.  

There are pieces in his hypersexualized period of suggestive and voluptuous cartoons where his sexual proclivities became apparent. Indeed, Crumb has always been shameless, and showing it in his comics is a pleasure rather than an ignominy for him. Angelfood McSpade is one of his most infamous and scurrilous satirical creations, where he stereotypically depicts a black woman. If we want to go even deeper into the juicy details, in many of her deliriously lustful characters he displays an unhealthy fixation on incestuousness and profanity. Basically, an assault on the conservative society of the 50’s. Although paradoxically, Robert Crumb was an old-fashioned guy, an artist in love with the old and the utopian tranquility of an American society where capitalism was not a rapacious monster. His body of work illustrates who Crumb is on the inside. His flaws are so blatantly caricatured that we can feel unsettled, disgusted and queasy at his superlative audacity. That makes him a bad guy? I’m not an omniscient being to judge anyone but I do distinguish right from wrong, and manifestly Crumb is a bad guy, but as passionate as any other correct artist.   

His outspoken misogyny and racism may be a symbolic way of loathing the society in which he lives, and connotatively it may elucidate his moral decadence that has been fiercely forming since the abuses he suffered with his family. This is the psychoanalytic component that can justify his irrational and provocative humor. The impulsive vulgarity is an externalization of the perversities he inherited involuntarily. This itself can exemplify why the Crumb brothers live with an insane dependence on their drawings. For Robert, sublimating his depravities and obsessions through drawing worked for him, at least that is what he reveals in his daily life. For his brothers it was the opposite. I have never seen such a vicious portrait of the artist’s relationship with his work as infectious as Crumb; I think Crumb as a piece of cinema can teach us a lot about channeling our traumas through artistic expression. It is shocking, mystifying and thought-provoking, awkward and disturbing to unscrupulous levels, but to reject the veracity of this savage form of filmmaking is an unacceptable crime. This is cinema in its most grotesque diversity, life is strange and here it is proven.  

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching films, I'm writing about them.
Editor and Official Film Critic at Celluloid Dimension

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