Friday, March 27, 2009

Crumb: Misanthropy in Pen & Ink

Crumb (1994)
Sony // 120 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening shot
A portrait of the artist as an insane man.

This documentary explores the tortured psyche of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, whose family history is gradually revealed to be more psychotic than anything he committed to paper with ink and pen. As Crumb’s sad life is revealed layer by layer, it becomes clear that art was his salvation. But only by a matter of degrees.

Crumb won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.

Our story…
Robert Crumb gained fame in the late 1960s for his hallucinatory cartoons, which were by turns satirical, misogynistic, racist, and almost always unsettling. Two concurrent factors propelled his popularity and modest financial success: Crumb discovered LSD in the late 1960s, using the drug, he says, to tap his dark subconscious; and the simultaneous rise of underground newspapers devoted to the psychedelic experience created new markets for his drawings. His most famous work from this period includes the wizened Mr. Natural (and his motto “Keep on Truckin’), Fritz the Cat (iconoclastic animator Ralph Bakshi adapted this character into the first X-rated cartoon), and the cover art for “Cheap Thrills,” Janis Joplin’s classic album with Big Brother and the Holding Company (above).

People who’ve known Crumb for 40 years discuss his art, speculate on his mental state, and ponder his hideously misogynistic depiction of women as voluptuous, often lizard-headed sex objects—when he draws a woman with any head at all.

The documentary encourages no overt conclusions about an obviously disturbed mind — Crumb is what he is — although filmmaker Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa, Art School Confidential), who was a friend of Crumb’s for some years, clearly wants compassion to rule viewers’ reactions.

Context and Significance
If Hell is other people, as Jean Paul Sartre said, Crumb was immersed in the madness, domestic violence, and psychic torments of his own family almost from birth. His father was a brutal, sadistic man. Crumb’s mother almost defies description (she bears some similarities to Edith Massey, the egg woman in John Waters’ repellent Pink Flamingoes). Crumb the cartoonist and his two brothers speak candidly of their childhood years with an ironic detachment that is both devastating and almost always appalling (Crumb’s two sisters declined to participate in this documentary). His brother Max talks about his youth while sitting Lotus-style on a bed of nails. In-between comments, Max Crumb slowly swallows a great length of white cloth cut into a thin strip, washing down the material a few inches at a time with a glass of water. He says he does this to “cleanse my colon.” Crumb’s older brother Charles lives as a recluse in their mother’s house. His back story will stun and sadden the most jaded curiosity seekers. Perhaps that’s the thin line that separates the artist from his horrid family life. Crumb’s brothers are emotional train wrecks, hollow men who seem to be passively jaded observers to their own lives.

But this documentary is not just a freak show to gratify prurient curiosity. Director Zwigoff brings a gentle humanity to the project, helping us understand the demons rumbling around in Crumb’s mind — his formative years as an abused child in a hideously dysfunctional family — without once encouraging our pity. Following in brother Charles’s footsteps, R. Crumb starts drawing comics. This obsession with illustrations would seem to become purgation for his soul.

Presented by David Lynch, which should be a sufficient caveat to the hesitant viewer, the film opens with an enthusiastic look at Crumb’s radical, satirical, and hugely influential work in his late-1960s heyday, gradually peeling apart like an artichoke to reveal the mind behind the acid-drenched imagery. We see that Crumb is a twitchy nebbish of a man, laughing nervously at odd moments while condemning strangers he observes on the streets of San Francisco — people who are no better or worse than this caustic artist drawing degenerate caricatures of anyone who irritates him in the slightest. Crumb ultimately comes across as a bitter man, less deserving of our pity than vague sadness.

What really makes this worth watching, at least once, is Zwigoff’s careful organization of his footage. R. Crumb’s life and worldview unfold gradually so that his importance as an artist is established early. His rather unpleasant outlook on life comes later, but by then the audience harbors at least a small measure of respect for his talent. He’s not a likeable guy; definitely not someone you’d want to be alone with (which would probably suit Crumb just fine). Zwigoff wisely concentrates on Crumb’s influence as an artist for the first part of the film before he corkscrews into the dark abyss. Tellingly, Crumb would later tell the director that he hated the picture.

What’s on the DVD, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Film critic Roger Ebert, who joins the director in a commentary track for this disc, clearly remains in awe of the picture years later. His observations are worth a listen. Beyond that, extra content is limited to an assortment of trailers for other Sony Pictures Classics.

My review disc of this special edition DVD came in a full-screen version (1.33:1), although cursory research reveals the film was originally presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Because this is a documentary with images dwelling mainly on individual interviews in medium and close-up shots, the full screen version is sufficient. Crumb and his odd banter occupy front and center stage. Video is clean and free of annoying pixilation. The mono soundtrack is unremarkable, but adequate for this material.

Fans of the artist have probably seen this film in the 15 years since its original theatrical release. They will glean insight from the commentary track with Zwigoff and Ebert, who heralds Crumb as one of the great modern documentaries.

For those who know in advance what they’re in for, this would make a fascinating double-bill with Titicutt Follies (1967). Crumb, truly, is one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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