Crumb is one of my all-time favorite documentaries. I saw it in the theater when it came out in the ’90s, and I’ve watched it maybe four times since then, including again just recently.
The subject of the documentary is celebrated cult cartoonist Robert Crumb, though you could also make the case (and I believe I read a long time ago that the filmmaker himself Terry Zwigoff said something like this) that the true center of the film is his brother Charles Crumb, or that it’s about the Crumb boys—Charles, Robert, and Maxon—collectively.
It was certainly not an easy film to make (I’ve read some things about it over the years). Crumb (Robert) was only minimally cooperative, eventually agreeing to be filmed but not in any “staged” way, which limited Zwigoff to whatever he happened to be able to pick up naturally as he followed him around (for years). Maxon is hardly in it, so I suspect he refused to be filmed beyond what we see. Charles is a recluse who opens up once you get him going and can be a bit of a ham, but I would think it was hard to initially get him to cooperate. The other surviving family members all refused to participate in the project.
In addition to the human problems, Zwigoff was broke and had serious difficulties scaring up the money to keep the project going. It was a true labor of love, but one that for a long time looked like it might never come to fruition, sending him—I’ve read—into bouts of depression so bad that he was suicidal.
I’ve read that when Crumb saw the finished product he walked out of the theater in anger and regretted ever agreeing to it, but I’ve also read that that is a myth or exaggeration.
Crumb is certainly unusual, eccentric, arguably mentally ill, but then you meet his brothers and you realize he is by far the least mentally ill of the bunch.
You’d think they must have had a truly bizarre upbringing to end up the way they did, but it sounds like they had a quite conventional childhood relative to the society in which they were born: Suburban household in the ’40s and ’50s, with a dictatorial, right wing, white collar dad, and a somewhat ditzy, housewife mom. Utterly normal.
Now, to me, that kind of normality is extremely unhealthy. It’s “normal” in the sense of being statistically common, not in the sense of being sane. I’m much more surprised when people raised that way aren’t severely damaged and unfit to live with others in a civilized manner. But I expect them to be fucked up in “normal” ways that enable them to fit in quite well with our fucked up mainstream society.
Instead, the three Crumb boys all became nonconformist, artistic, nerdy, sexually obsessed or at least sexually unconventional, socially inept, weirdos (surely, Crumb notes, to the utter horror of their father). Charles and Maxon are unable or unwilling to work, subsisting off of government programs or handouts. At least Robert has made his art into a career that enabled him to support himself, manifested some ability to establish relationships with women, raised children, and had friendships. As I say, odd as he undeniably is, he’s clearly the least mentally ill of the three.
I see the ways that Crumb is different, is “weird,” as maybe 60% positive, 30% neutral, and 10% negative. He’s highly self-directed, and more principled than most people. His takes on consumer society and the like fit my own social and political views reasonably well.
Though he’s quite humble and at times almost painfully self-conscious, he’s remarkably frank in his way, which is one of his best traits. It’s not even like he’s making a conscious decision to be honest and to be himself without any façade; it’s more like he knows no other way to be.
And he’s the same way as an artist as he is as a human being, which is a big part of what draws people to his art. He has the courage, the audacity, to bare his soul in his work, to give you whatever is going on in his highly unusual conscious and unconscious mind.
It’s hilarious, it’s intelligent, it’s disturbing, it’s crude, it’s insightful social commentary, it’s pornographic, it’s often many or all of these things at once, because that’s what’s going on inside this complex man. He’s unable or unwilling to filter it.
I think it’s wonderful that he won’t filter it, but I understand why it bothers some people, why some feminists and others want to say that there’s a moral imperative to not express all that is going on inside you when doing so can be hurtful to others.
One woman, for example, attempts to impress upon him that if a child, especially a girl, were to see some of his work (like where he draws women in highly sexualized ways, and depicts them being overcome and brutalized in surreal ways by horny guys like him who are completely intimidated by women in real life—though they usually triumph in the end in his stories and reassert their dominance and put such guys in their place—or where he satirizes the kind of repressed American culture he grew up in with tales of incestuous orgies and the like), she might well be traumatized by it. The implication being that he is, therefore, in the wrong to create such material.
He starts with the obvious response that not all art is suitable for children, and we certainly don’t want to say that anything that isn’t suitable for children shouldn’t exist at all. But beyond that, he basically takes the position that he doesn’t know if what he’s doing is good or bad for society. It’s not like he thinks it’s good and he might be mistaken; it just doesn’t enter into his motivation. He doesn’t make art based on some utilitarian calculation.
He does art the way he does, he says, because in some sense he has to. And maybe what he creates is indeed harmful and so no one should consume it. Or maybe it’s harmful and so he should be forcibly prevented from creating it. But for as long as he is allowed to, this is how he needs to express himself: just put it all out there, bare his soul, whatever anyone thinks of it, whatever the consequences are.
He’s OK monetizing his work in very modest ways—creating completely sincere underground comics that only a few other weirdos buy and thereby making enough money to scrape by—but any time he has taken a step into greater commercialization and made any kind of a name for himself with the wider public it has been a ghastly, soul-killing experience that he regrets.
Crumb is by no means someone I agree with a hundred percent, someone I’d look to as a role model across the board. But there are certain respects—his individuality, his critical thinking, his commitment to being utterly genuine in his life and his work—in which I very much admire him.
He’s a misfit, but I’d say that’s to his credit. All else being equal, someone who is able to smoothly fit into mainstream society worries me a lot more than someone who is not.
There are a lot of specific lines, specific scenes, from this movie that I’m tempted to describe and comment on, but I’d end up repeating almost the whole thing, since just about everything here is fascinating in its way. Like I say, it’s one of my all-time favorite documentaries.
I highly recommend Crumb, though I know many wouldn’t appreciate it if they did watch it. They’d either see him as very offensive (for reasons that overlap considerably with why I think highly of him), or would just treat the film as a trip to the circus sideshow to laugh at the freak, and the even freakier other folks in his family.