Crumb: directed by Terry Zwigoff; starring Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Charles Crumb, and Max Crumb (1994): Zwigoff’s labour-of-love documentary, filmed over the course of nearly a decade, lays bare some of the tortured family and personal history of the great American writer-artist Robert Crumb. It also dwells too much upon the psychosexual aspects of Crumb’s artistic output, leaving about 90% of his body of work underexplored.
I can see why this happens — the psychosexual stuff is definitely the most provocative work for an audience that may not know Crumb or his output. Though they might have sat still for half-an-hour of Crumb’s in-depth musings on music, ‘authentic’ culture, pop culture, or psychoanalysis. I guess we’ll never know.
Crumb’s interactions with his two brothers form the core of the movie’s (unspoken) thesis — that Crumb’s ability to write and draw, and more importantly his ability to get that artistic output into the public eye, saved him from a life of psychological horror and isolated squalor. His two brothers are tragic wrecks — highly intelligent, idiosyncratic artists themselves, and utterly damned by some combination of nature and nurture to lead secluded lives of quiet desperation. They are, quite simply, Robert Crumb as through a glass darkly.
Meanwhile, Crumb bops along, sometimes tortured himself but perpetually in motion, perpetually drawing (some of the most riveting scenes in the documentary simply show Crumb drawing — and boy, is he fast and precise when he wants to be! His dialogue with his son comes across as a quick explanation of how an experienced cartoonist ‘cheats’ in order to create a specific effect, and should probably be required viewing for anyone with serious designs on being an artist).
Present and former girlfriends and wives show up to interact with Crumb and to delve into their relationships with him. Critics praise his work, or condemn it as being hateful of women and thus potentially dangerous (this was the height of McKinnon/Dworkin group-think about how pornography was in and of itself rape, as indeed were all heterosexual sex acts regardless of consent, because all male/female sex is rape…good times!).
Crumb himself comes across as seemingly disingenuous about the content of some of his work until one realizes that he simply can’t afford the luxury of self-editing because people may get offended — as he says at one point, if he doesn’t draw and write out his thoughts, he starts to go crazy. In some cases, what’s on the page seems to be spewed forth directly from his Id. Is it offensive? Oh, yeah, sometimes.
Is it Art? Oh, yeah — the greatest body of work of any American writer-artist, ever. I’m not even sure if anyone is even close to Crumb’s body of work and the now-fifty-year-long level of achievement therein. The gap between him and everyone else in his field in the United States is as great as the gap between Shakespeare and everyone else in English literature. Maybe greater. And all of it done singing out of darkness. Highly recommended.