Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#242. Crumb (1994)

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

From the early days of the cinema, when Robert Flaherty took his camera deep into rough terrain to record Eskimo life in Nanook of the North, the documentary form has provided audience with a fresh outlook on real life. I’m a fan of documentaries, from the observant and inquisitive films of Errol Morris to the shocking and scandalous exposes of Nick Broomfield.

Yet Crumb is unlike any I have seen before.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff, Crumb centers on 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 something that comes quite naturally to him. 

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 true inspiration behind his unusual artwork remain a mystery 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 backward. 

Yet as strange as he can be, Crumb usually 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 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” 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 if 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 Robert Crumb 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.

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