Bucket List Movie #457: Crumb (1994)
Director Terry Zwigoff has a soft spot for outcasts, as evidenced by his relatively small roster of films. He directed the coming-of-age (or maybe it's anti-coming-of-age, depending on your point of view) classic Ghost World, in which a bespectacled iconoclast named Enid (that's right, she's not the love interest or just the token girl) tries to find her way in the world after high school. In another classic of sorts, Bad Santa, a belligerent convict who works as a mall Santa once a year for quick cash takes a hapless kid who dares to believe in him under his wing.
But before either of those films, Zwigoff directed Crumb, a massively-acclaimed documentary about a real, honest-to-God eccentric, comic book artist Robert Crumb. The creator of the loopy, "Keep on Truckin'" characters and the libidinous Fritz the Cat (which was adapted into the divisive, X-rated animated film of the same name by Ralph Bakshi), Crumb's cartoons range from innocently warped, to sickening and perverse, to horrifically racist. Yet there's no denying the fascination that's inherent to his work, no matter how occasionally (all right, often) repugnant it is. Crumb is a genuine talent, and truly compelling person as well.
Tiresome Disclaimer of the Day:
If you're a fan of, or only know Crumb's work associated with Fritz the Cat and "Keep on Truckin'", prepare to be disappointed. The movie only lightly touches upon them with the first few minutes of Crumb, and they're never brought up again. Understandable, as Crumb has become disillusioned with those two characters and probably wanted to discuss them as little as possible.
Filmed a few years before the movie's actual release, Crumb chronicles Robert Crumb's life, work, loved ones, his philosophies, and most notably his brothers, in which he might actually be "the normal one". A lanky, toothy man who could pass for a seedy, distant relative of John Waters's, Crumb is strangely charming, and his oddball sense of humor, brutal honesty, and blunt observations are juxtaposed by his gentle manner and thick glasses that magnify his eyes to Disney proportions.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1943, one of five children and the second of three sons (Crumb's sisters, Sandra and Carol, declined to be interviewed for this film), Crumb grew up during the antiseptic, suburban 1950s, which you'd think would stifle a naturally quirky person, but in fact fueled his imagination as he rebelled against the oppressive wholesomeness of pop culture at that time. Crumb talks about his bizarre early interests, such as his boyhood crush on… Bugs Bunny, as related below (retrieved from IMDb):
When I - what was it - about five or six? - I was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny. And I - I cut out this Bugs Bunny off the cover of a comic book and carried it around with me. Carried it around in my pocket and took it out and looked at it periodically, and - and it got all wrinkled up from handling it so much that I asked my mother to iron it on the ironing board to flatten it out, and - and she did, and I was deeply disappointed 'cause it got all brown when she ironed it, and brittle, and crumbled apart.
We also learn how his love of drawing was born (obsessed with the Disney version of Treasure Island, brother Charles drew comics featuring Bobby Driscoll's Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton's Long John Silver, and Robert soon joined in), and how his signature style was created (LSD, plain and simple).
We see portions of Crumb's work, and while there's no denying his talent and unique sensibilities, there is also no denying the unsavory tone, especially regarding women and black people. One involved the violation of an African woman, and if you can watch it without cringing, you're made of sterner stuff than I. Crumb is called out on this many times, and while he doesn't apologize for it, he also makes it clear that he is constantly driven to exorcise his creative demons. He has the decency to own the ickier aspects of his work. As for the misogyny, it's evident in his work, but certainly not in his personal life. We meet his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, and they don't exactly have horror stories, and it's made clear he is a devoted father to daughter Sophie and a loving husband to Aline (open marriage and all). Like any good director, Zwigoff acts as a clinical observer, so we the audience are able to draw our own conclusions.
To Crumb's credit, he dares to draw people with imperfections, and he seems attracted to women who don't fit the accepted standard of beauty. Never drawing them as flawless stick figures, he favors women with thick legs and ample curves (real curves, not the fakey, Kate Upton kind). Aline is his favorite subject, so for every ugly depiction of women Crumb draws, he also creates plenty of beauty.
The real emotional force of Crumb is Robert's relationship with his two brothers. We meet Charles, a misanthropic recluse who still lives at home with their mother, who yells up the stairs at him as though he's still in grade school. Charles is haunted by his own demons, claiming a personality disorder prevented him from fitting in at school. When old Mrs. Crumb (herself a touch offbeat) casually says that it's better for Charles to be at home staying out of trouble, we can't help but agree. We are informed at the end of the film that Charles committed suicide a year before Crumb's release.
We then meet Max Crumb, also an artist, as he lives a lifestyle of sparse, painful abnegation that rivals most ancient religions: he sits and meditates on a cushion of nails twice a day, and, ahem, cleans himself out by devouring a long, thin rag (we're thankfully spared the destination of that little journey). His attitude is understandable, as he reveals his past history of molesting women, and he now lives a life of penance. Robert is the middle brother, but he acts as the oldest, both teasing and protective of his difficult siblings.
Whether you like the man in question or not, Crumb does what every great documentary should do: it allows us to think for ourselves and make up our own minds, it never insults our intelligence by making up our minds for us. Crumb is a gifted, colorful, sometimes affable, sometimes frustrating man, but still a man. We are all flawed and damaged in our own way, and some are able to channel their pain and peculiarities into something memorable and lasting. He's a tricky character to place: the furthest thing from a Conservative (he talks about the image of the nuclear family of the 1950s with bitter disdain), he's also no aging hippie (he laughingly gripes about how boring he finds the Grateful Dead). He loves women, even though his artwork might suggest otherwise. He has published truly beautiful artwork (an illustrated take on the Book of Genesis), but he seems to prefer the madcap style with which he's most closely associated.
Will this movie make you understand Robert Crumb better? Maybe, but even if it doesn't, I'm sure Mr. Crumb would prefer it that way.