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DVD Movie Review

Crumb - Directed by Terry Zwigoff
• Dan Schnieder review

I recently came across a DVD version of Terry Zwigoff’s lauded documentary Crumb, and bought it because I recall how perversely fascinating I found it on a first go-round, when I saw it in the theaters with a pal of mine over a decade ago. However, upon rewatching the film, the first thing that stands out about it is how poorly it has held up as a filmic ‘portrait of an artist’.
In the intervening years, documentaries such as The Kid Stays In The Picture, American Splendor, & Mayor Of The Sunset Strip have used narrative and filmic techniques that make Crumb seem downright quaint and formulaic, by comparison. From the technique of highlighting the bizarre and uninteresting people that inhabit mumbling cartoonist Robert Crumb’s life, to having statically placed talking head experts- such as Femininazi journalist Peggy Orenstein and Deirdre English, a former editor of Mother Jones magazine, who decry Crumb’s alleged misogyny and racism, to egghead elitists like Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes who enthuses over the most inane and puerile of Crumb’s work, to ending the film with a text-laden write-up of what happened after the cameras stopped rolling, Crumb seems to be a relic from another age; which is ironic since many in the film seem to already - by then, associate him with the bygone psychedelia of the 1960s. But that’s what it is-a pre-Internet ideal of the classic Junior High School approach to its subject matter. Its only deviance from formula is the deviance of its subject.

There is the requisite trotting out of Crumb’s fucked up Jabba The Hut-like mother, Beatrice, who declares of her reclusive mentally ill son Charles, ‘At least he’s not out taking illegal drugs or making some woman miserable;’ reminiscences of his vicious dead father; excessive scenes of Crumb with his two psychotic brothers, Charles- a drug addict who committed suicide after the filming ended, and who lived in the New Jersey family home they all grew up in with their mother, and Maxon, an epileptic and pervert who lotuses on a small bed of nails, chews on a long cloth strip, then eats it and washes it after its three week journey through his innards, only to do it all again. There is the fetishizing of ugly women, and shots of Crumb at a porno magazine shoot with Juggs and Leg Show magazine editor Dian Hanson, but little of substance is learned. Hanson, though, raves about how Crumb ‘never exaggerates’ in his art, which shows just how effective it is to rely on a porno magazine editor as an art critic, and how little the layety ever get of even the simplest art.

There are undeniable moments of brilliance in the man and the film, for Robert Crumb is certainly the comic book pop cultural equivalent of Howard Stern. However, Hughes’ over the top assertions that Crumb is some great artist- ‘the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th Century’, only show how silly critics can look when they prattle on about their pet artists, and are quickly deflated by even a cursory glance at the artist’s notebooks. Yes, Crumb does have a biting humor that few others have had, but his actual artistic drawing talent is simply at the same level that dozens of high school age kids I went to school with possessed. The difference is that, like Stern, Crumb’s arrested psychosexual development proved to be his boon, whereas most outgrow it.

In short, we are not dealing with high art, and once the man is dead there will be a steep bottoming out of his work, unlike that of the great painters and photographers of the last century. There is an alarming tendency to equate mere bizarreness in art with greatness. This is an offshoot of the silly ‘madness is genius’ trope. Yet, this film conclusively debunks that myth, for the three Crumb brothers (Crumb’s two sisters, Sandra and Carol, declined to be filmed) all had a bit of artistic talent, and one might argue the two more insane brothers had potential equal to or greater than Robert Crumb’s. They were just too insane to do a thing about it. Yet, none of their meager paintings nor doodles ever rises to the level of great art, just as the insane novel and drawings of Henry Darger were not high art, but sheer insanity; and just as the ‘pop art’ of Ray Johnson, detailed in the more recent documentary, How To Draw A Bunny, is not great art. To prove the point, Charles eventually started ‘drawing’ comics that had only unreadable text in them- very akin to Henry Darger’s failed ‘novel’.

Is Crumb an interesting figure? To an extent, and for a conversation or two, but we are not dealing with one of the great minds here. And at almost two hours, the documentary could have lost a good thirty to forty minutes in editing. Crumb does seem to be a common sensical guy, even though he seems to hate financial success- having turned down big deals to make money on his art, and he loathes his Keep On Truckin’ iconography, as well his Fritz The Cat comic.

The film itself took nine years to make, and ends with Robert Crumb packing up to live in France- which he claims is slightly less evil than the U.S.; perhaps the best and most relevant line in the film in these days of French-American tensions over Iraq- with his wife Aline Kominsky, and their young daughter Sophie, after an art dealer bought some of Crumb’s sketchbooks. His teenaged son, Jesse, from an earlier marriage to Dana Crumb, is an afterthought in his life, as Crumb seems to be recapitulating his father’s own ignorance and loathing of him and his brothers. In some ways, Crumb- the film, is a documentary equivalent of such fictive character study films as Tod Browning’s Freaks, Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, and Robert Altman’s Three Women.

The trouble with documentaries, however, is that they are always judged by their relevance to the current society, and in this new century, and even though the film is only a dozen years old, there is a hermetic quality about it that far greater documentaries, such as Michael Apted’s Up! Series, never take on. Reputedly, when he first saw the film, Crumb himself said, ‘After I saw it I had to go for a walk in the woods, just to clear my head. I took my favorite hat off, this hat that I’ve had for 25 years, and I threw it off a cliff. I don’t want to be R. Crumb anymore.’ But, like many things in the Crumb universe, this has proved to be an urban legend, just like the idea Roger Ebert promoted that Zwigoff got Crumb to do the film by threatening to suicide.

The DVD is as bare bones as one can get- just the film. Not even a trailer. There is supposedly a Special Edition version released this year that features a commentary track by Zwigoff and Ebert, but it reputedly is very poor, in terms of insight. The actual film is not bad, merely adequate, which given its hype, is quite disappointing. In rewatching the film, too, there just seemed to be many moments where things were staged for effect, such as when Crumb is confronted in a coffee shop by a young female who objects to his work, and weakly defends himself by stating, ‘not everything is for everyone,’ or when Orenstein and English pontificate against Crumb, only demonstrating their stolidity, while Hughes bloviates in his defense over minutia that Crumb does not even buy.
That anyone with an intellect can take such lowbrow and transitory work with such seriousness says far more about the decline in art and critical thought than anything satirical or lampooning from Crumb’s pen. Robert Crumb may be a great comic book illustrator, but he is not a great artist, for technically his work never rises to a visual sense that moves nor provokes the deepest and highest ideas and ideals, and there is no profound message, nor joy, to his work. In short, it and this film are not nearly as great as its hagiographers claim- which seems about right, for that is just like the man himself.

©  Dan Schneider July 2007
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