Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Brothers Crumb

Here’s a question that's 12 or 13 years late: Have you seen the movie Crumb? If you're interested in art, genetics, or human psychology, then director Terry Zwigoff's documentary about controversial cartoonist Robert ("R.") Crumb is a must. By the end, the movie is more a dysfunctional family portrait than the story of one artist.

Zwigoff, with the help of critic Robert Hughes, makes a strong case for Crumb's talent. Even though his drawings can be grotesque and blatantly misogynistic, by focusing on so many of them in detail, the camera shows the skill and consistent vision with which they're created.

Crumb comes across as having all the violent potential of a Kleenex, much more likely to be stomped by his muscular wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, than to do any damage himself. Whatever forceful feelings spur his outsize and provocative images of women, they couldn't be less evident in 3D life. Given the manner in which he moves through the world, he's barely even 3D. He makes Alvy Singer look like Ike Turner. He does admit to having psychological issues with women, which would be pretty foolish to deny. In one touching scene, pressed by a young female journalist to discuss his work's potential effects on people's treatment of the opposite sex, he suggests that perhaps he shouldn't be allowed to do what he does. All he knows is that this is what comes out of him. In a separate scene, in his role as talking head, Hughes mounts a spirited defense on Crumb's behalf:
Quite a number of people these days would like this sort of nice, milky vision of culture in which it's all rather improving and leads us all toward this... moral heaven where nobody's nasty to anybody else. But the only thing is that literature, culture, art isn't put there in order to have that pleasant, normative effect. Conservatives like to think that great works of art lead us towards democracy. Bull. There are speeches in Shakespeare that are so full of hatred for the mob, they're passionately elitist, passionately anti-democratic. What do you do with somebody like Celine, who was a Nazi sympathizer, but at the same time a great novelist? What do you do with ... well, what do you with practically anybody who's got a vision of the world that doesn't accord with the present standards of Berkeley?

What seems miraculous, after meeting Crumb's brothers, Charles and Maxon, is how relatively normal Robert is. The two brothers both share his artistic ability, but have more profound emotional disturbances. Charles is deeply asocial and depressive, grimly humorous around Robert but certainly approaching full-fledged anhedonia, if in an asymptotic way. In one funny scene, Robert describes the perverse manner in which Charles filled out an application for art lessons when they were kids. Maxon shows the clearest outward signs of imbalance and admits to having grabbed and otherwise harassed women in public. The movie briefly showcases his artistic gifts and disturbing images. (I won't soon forget his depiction of Van Gogh shooting himself in a corn field.) And journalistic pieces like this one have kept the world informed of his life's progress. Throughout, Robert appears aware of his brothers' more extreme forms of trouble, but not so aware of what allowed him to build a (somewhat) more traditional life. It's a bit like the brothers were born with, collectively, about one half of what one person would need to feel comfortable in this world, and Robert got 95% of even that meager allotment.

Zwigoff received some criticism for turning the movie into a voyeuristic leer at deeply troubled men, but it becomes clear that that is the story of Crumb, at least as much as his art. The movie even made its subject see himself differently, which speaks to both his complexity and his lack of a protective, established sense of himself. It's been reported that Crumb wrote the following to Zwigoff, a friend, after he saw the finished product for the first time:
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.


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