Robert Crumb is one of the most acclaimed comic artists in history. His stories and artwork were bizarre, obtuse, and bordered on caricature. Of course, in the 1960s, his is exactly what the public clamored for. It got to the point that his work became co opted by producers looking to make money on the psychedelic movement (see the terrible adaptation of Fritz the Cat). But was Crumb just co opting that same movement for himself?
What is shocking is just how autobiographical the work was. Crumb was not an artist who was responding to public taste. He was responding to his own insecurities, sexual fantasies, and family life. His childhood was an abusive one – turning into a joke was the only way he could escape it.
The film Crumb is a documentary. It is not about his comics – it is about his family dynamic. He has two brothers – Charles and Max. Both of them underwent the same treatment as Robert but came out far worse. Charles (at the time of the filming) was living a reclusive lifestyle in the same bedroom he grew up in. He no longer takes care of himself and is surrounded by twenty year old paper back novels that he reads compulsively because “there is nothing else to do.” We find at the end that he committed suicide a year after he was filmed. Max at least managed to move out and is living in San Francisco. That is about all that can be said – he too lives an eccentric lifestyle in which one of his few pieces of furniture is a bed of nails he meditates on daily and he swallows long pieces of linen “to clean his intestines.” We see Crumb develop his work based upon the people around him. Eventually, he grows to tired of it and decides to relocate to France.
First, it is an examination of Crumb’s work. It is controversial to say the least – most of it involves Crumb’s sexual fantasies. The men are weak willed and tiny, often requesting piggy backs from their amazonian companions. At an art show, we see Crumb doing the same thing. One comic that Crumb narrates involves a man who is given a woman with no head. He promptly fornicates with the body. Perhaps most controversially of all, Crumb drew a comic satirizing the modern advertising culture. It shows two kids stating that they want to eat “n*gger hearts for lunch.” (Note: it is not censored in the film. I simply cannot bring myself to type the full word.)
What is the point of this work? A part of it is to get a reaction from the public at large. Crumb discusses the aforementioned comic by stating that “only white liberals ever complained about it.” But there is something more profound – this art is merely a way for Crumb to address his insecurities. We see him with a high school year book describing the people he knew and in some cases despised. Then we see them as they appear in his art. Like Chaucer, Crumb wishes to immortalize the people he hated in the most unflattering way imaginable. He hated his adolescence and barely survived it. Without his art, he could end up like his brothers.
And his brothers are horror stories in and of themselves. They were simply unable to recover the same damaged adolescence – even if they had art as an outlet. Charlie’s work became a far more frightening affair. He sent away for a test (which he has kept) to see if he was eligible for a specific class. It is a nightmarish landscape – full of deformities and oddities. Max only recently discovered his artistic abilities – and they do not appear to be helping him at all. Crumb, despite the odds, managed to become the only one who still maintained a semblance of sanity.
So why was it made? Well, the director, Terry Zwigoff (who would later go on to make Bad Santa) was apparently in the same state himself during the production of the film. Crumb essentially saved Zwigoff by finally allowing him to perfect his art. Zwigoff is not seen in the film (except for one portrait Crumb has done) but that essence is visible throughout the film. In many ways, the art of Crumb is not about Crumb – it is about all artists trying to come to terms with their art and their lives.
This film is one of the best documentaries of all time, simply because this story could never be told in a fictional movie. There would be an enormous temptation to sanitize is. That would be unnecessary and besides the point. Crumb is a unique individual that will never be replicated. This documentary captures his essence better than any way possible.