When Crumb appeared in 1994, the world of documentary cinema was under the ascendancy of a certain very self-conscious and sophisticated form – sometimes called the essay-film – supposedly standing somewhere between documentary and fiction. While I have seen outstanding films of this sort, I'm also suspicious of the claims made for them, partly because the rhetoric which elevates this genre often does so at the cost of old-fashioned, less self-conscious forms, like the simple 'observational' documentary. In this context, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb proved to be a triumphant reassertion of the older form.
Crumb, about the famous American comic artist Robert Crumb, is an extraordinarily intimate and revealing observational documentary that brings back sweet memories of the best cinéma-vérité portraits of the 1960s. Here is a film that takes its sweet time revealing to us its slightly taciturn subject; a film where the director, for the most part, holds back, keeping his presence off-screen, although you feel at every moment the trust and closeness that have built up between Zwigoff and Crumb over many years before the camera started rolling. It turns to be an amazingly revealing film, not only about Crumb, but also about many of the people in his life, especially his family members and ex-lovers.
There is very little obvious structure in this documentary. Near the beginning, Zwigoff finds a clever way to introduce Crumb to those unfamiliar with his work. We see Crumb at an art college somewhere, giving an artist's talk. He obligingly flashes up slides of the 'keep on truckin' logo, of his character Fritz the Cat, and of his cover for a Janis Joplin album. These are the most visible landmarks of Crumb's career, the ones that have become an indelible part of mass, mainstream culture. But no sooner has Crumb flashed these images up, than he is disowning the whole horrible commercial system which ripped him off, changed and destroyed his work, and reduced him to these few piddling icons. As we are about to learn, Crumb's art is incredibly rich and prodigious.
Much of the movie follows Crumb in his daily, creative life, as he gets around with his sketch pads, in which are the drawings that form what he calls his 'archive'. These doodlings are where everything starts for Crumb – every expression, story, graphic style, and fantasy that he plumbs and works through elsewhere. Crumb is an amazing movie about the creative process, even more spellbinding than Rivette's version of the painter's slow labour in La Belle Noiseuse (1991).
Many of the details of Crumb's life are refracted through these sketch books. At one point he flips through an old pad with an ex-girlfriend. There are drawings by him of her, drawings by her of him. Just two pages later, there is another woman's face, and another woman's hand at work – she turned out to be his second and current wife, Aline. The ex-girlfriend switches back and forth between the pages, shocked at the speed of the turnover in Crumb's life. "How did that happen?" she asks incredulously. "Well, it was a crazy time", mumbles Crumb, in that half-evasive, half-little-boy-snickering tone we come to know so well by the end of the film.
What about the more public manifestations of Crumb's art, like the Zap Comix, the book collections and magazines, or the art gallery exhibitions? Here, the film resorts to the traditional talking head, and solicits a number of expert opinions, most of them from people who have known Crumb personally. There's a frankly pornographic element in Crumb's art, along with everything that is challenging, outrageous, satirical, surreal and just plain nutty in it.
Zwigoff lines up two kinds of opinion about this art: on the one hand, the art critic Robert Hughes, who tells us that Crumb is a modern Brueghel; on the other, a feminist analysis that questions Crumb's extreme objectification, fetishism and violence against women. It's an extreme stand-off, like having Camille Paglia and the Australian anti-pornography feminist Jocelyn Scutt debate the virtue or vice of porno movies.
It might be easy for viewers to take sides in this semi-public debate about Crumb, but it's far less easy for anyone to be certain once we plunge into the intimate details of Crumb's daily doings. This movie appears to spare us nothing of the sex life, and especially the family life of Crumb. Sex drives, creative drives, drives for love and connection, passionate convictions, beliefs and no less passionate hatreds – all these are tangled together in Crumb's real life in a way no distanced talking head expert could ever successfully explicate.
Crumb, like most of us, lives inside his own fantasy world. He hates the present day and commercial mass culture; at one point he fiddles with the TV cartoons his young daughter is watching and changes them to black and white. She squeals indignantly: "Everything's got to be black and white, and old-fashioned!" He envelops everyone around him in the living fantasy of drawing and cartooning. His outrageous erotic fantasies, disturbing sometimes even to himself, are compared to his wife Aline's, whose early comics expressed her intense physical and emotional self-loathing. Both these fantasy expressions of course, somehow get channelled and worked through in bed. "In sex", Aline matter-of-factly tells us, "he keeps his shirt on and we both pretty much concentrate on my body".
Art, sex, violence and longing tangle in other, even murkier ways, in Crumb's past family history. 'Dysfunctional family' is too sentimental and normative a term to describe this history, which the film goes into in frightening detail. Both of Robert's brothers are artists, who could also perhaps have been famous. Ground down in childhood by a brutal father, one is a deep depressive who spends his days in a pleasantly tranquillised state, and the other practices intense solitude and punishing meditation on a bed of nails.
We learn that the first brother, Charles, once drew but descended into a 'graphomania', filling book after book with one unending squiggle. The other brother, Max, has had to quell a violent erotomania that had him chasing women into toilets and pulling down their pants on the street. Their father, long dead, is summed up in a single absolutely chilling detail: a photograph of him, wearing a fake, strained smile, in a book that he wrote and self-published about good management practices in business.
Crumb is, in many ways, the ultimate anti-New Age testament, stuffed with reminiscences of drug experiences, twisted sexual fantasies real and imagined, bad parenting and a wide range of 'negative emotions', from hatred and cynicism to cowardly defensiveness. Yet it is not a depressing or moralistic film, and it's certainly not judgemental. Despite every horrible, hard thing it shows, the film, and the people in it, are warm, loving and extremely funny. Like the very best observational documentaries, it really does just observe, and what it observes, it presents as the stuff of normal, everyday life. Crumb is a film that truly disarms you, putting you into a mental and emotional space where reflex opinions and prejudices are no longer of any use at all. It's a precious and profound film, a testament to a thoroughly dirty and mixed-up life.
MORE Zwigoff: Bad Santa
© Adrian Martin September 1995