Directed By: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Charles Crumb
Tag line: "Weird Sex...Obsession...Comic Books"
Trivia: Crumb was filmed over a period of six years
There’s nothing quite like a good documentary, and throughout the history of motion pictures, there have been some great ones. From the early days, when Robert Flaherty took his camera deep into rough terrain to record Eskimo life in Nanook of the North, the documentary has provided its audience with a fresh outlook on real life. I’m a fan of documentary films, from the observant and inquisitive Errol Morris to the shocking and scandalous exposes of Nick Broomfield.
Yet Crumb is unlike any I’ve seen before.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, Crumb is a look at the life and times of Robert Crumb, the man credited with giving birth to the underground comic movement. An accomplished artist, Crumb has been criticized over the years for the controversial nature of his works, yet as we learn in this film, controversy is merely an extension of the man’s very nature. We meet many people who are (or were) close to Robert Crumb, and even tag along as the artist pays a visit to his reclusive mother and two brothers. At times difficult to watch, Crumb nonetheless provides an authentic, unflinching portrait of the man, even if the inspiration behind his unusual artwork remain a mystery to us in the end.
As we discover in this film, Robert Crumb is more than a little unusual. His wife, Aline, states that her mother, upon meeting her future son-in-law, initially believed he was mentally retarted. Yet, strange though he may be, Crumb finds a way to express himself through his art, even if it isn’t always a pleasant experience for him. In fact, as we learn in this film, the act of creating doesn’t give Robert Crumb much pleasure at all. He avoids all questions that attempt to probe into the ‘deeper meaning’ of his work, as if the very notion that his art might reveal something about himself is an embarrassment to him (at a gala presentation of his more popular works, including Fritz the Cat and the “Keep on Truckin’” logo, Crumb can only reflect on how little money he made off of them). We do eventually learn that Crumb isn’t devoid of pleasure; he enjoys music, calling the time he spends with his old Blues records “one of the few times I actually have a kind of a love for humanity”. Yet rarely does this love find its way into his art.
Many words can be used to describe Robert Crumb’s artistic output over the years, ranging from “genius”, “brilliant” and “revolutionary” to “pornographic”, “racist” and “violent”. Crumb does its best to delve into its subject as completely as possible, searching high and low for the force that drives the man, even though the artist himself denies his art has any connection to his personal life; it simply leaps from the corners of his mind, sometimes in a manner Crumb himself seems unable to control.
Crumb the artist has given us many works to enjoy and discuss, yet which ones speak for Crumb the man? All of them? None of them? It's really anybody’s guess.