Crumb is one of the most profoundly disturbing horror films ever made. That it is a documentary about a comic book artist makes no difference. If anything, the fact that what the films shows us is real only deepens the level of discomfort, and the opening title card, attributing the film first not to the director or the subject but producer David Lynch is but the first clue that this story will bring with it the sort of homegrown horror lurking beneath the surfaces of all of Lynch's work.
The actual director, Terry Zwigoff, made a film about Robert Crumb, iconic (and iconoclastic) underground comics pioneer, solely off the back of his standing relationship with Crumb. Had Zwigoff not already been friends with the artist, there's no way he could have so completely captured the life of such a fame-averse man. (One of the film's first scenes, after all, shows the mustachioed, cheap-suited man speaking before a group of students and slamming his own work for becoming adopted by the mainstream -- specifically his Fritz the Cat comic, his album cover for Big Brother and Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, and his "Keep on Truckin'" panel that became a bumper sticker.)
Or maybe not. Part of what's both compelling and repelling about Crumb's art is how completely candid it is. As he notes in the film, he draws what comes to his mind as it comes to mind, and a great deal of his work features an interpretation of himself, an interpretation that always depicts the poor man as a wiry, unloved freak scarcely capable of controlling his sexual desires. Indeed, in the flesh, the seeming recluse opens up without provocation. He calmly discusses his sexual hangups, his process, his traumatic upbringing, and Zwigoff slowly pieces together not simply a portrait of a loopy counterculture figure but a complex rumination on the nature of art as both a therapeutic tool and a sign of psychological implosion.
"If I don't draw for a while I get crazy. Depressed and suicidal.," Crumb says of his need to work. "But then, some nights when I'm drawing, I feel suicidal too, so..." That paradox is immediately evident in his work, so filled with contradictions that Zwigoff cannot hope to unpack them all. Is his work empowering or misogynistic? Liberating or repressed? Is R. Crumb "the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century" as a Time art critic asserts (or "the Daumier of our time" as another admirer gushes) or is he simply a skeevy outcast sketching cartoon pornography, unable to move past a childhood fixation and fetishization of Bugs Bunny?
Zwigoff attempts to dig into these questions for a time, setting up Robert Hughes, the art critic, on one end of the spectrum defending Crumb's work with veracity, and placing Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones magazine, on the opposite end. Though he does include one wry cutaway from Crumb dismissing the charges that his work is racist by attributing such remarks entirely to white liberals to the white, middle-class English ranting about Crumb, the director refreshingly does not set up opposition to his friend's work as the screeching whines of the P.C. police. English is articulate, prepared and, most importantly, measured, not lambasting Crumb but speaking of his work with an almost sadness, as if she feels that, were he to change just a few things, he truly would be as brilliant as his supporters think.
Monetary problems limited the range of Zwigoff's talking heads, but English and Hughes make for terrific counterweights, and only those with continued personal relationships with Crumb pass in-between them. Old girlfriends and his wife, Aline, speak gratefully of Robert's art, thrilled that Crumb, with his extreme fixation on Amazonian women with big thighs and buttocks, depicting a vision of female beauty outside stick figures with DD racks. But even they occasionally question some aspects of Crumb's work, and their conflicted feelings over Crumb's style provide a more wholesome idea of the beauty and revulsion in his oeuvre than proposed celebrity fans could have elaborated upon (though I share in Roger Ebert's disappointment that Steve Martin, with his deep knowledge of comedy and satire, could not appear to speak of how much Crumb's comics influenced him).
Without the clutter of too many talking heads, however, Zwigoff can simply follow Robert around town, and in the process he avoids falling into the trap of endlessly debating and celebrating the artwork and focus on what drives the man. Crumb, always clad in a tacky suit and a straw spring hat, looks as if he's spent his life following Tom Waits around on tour, and he laughs off any association with the hippie movement. One can scarcely imagine this man, seemingly trapped in some satiric costume of '50s life, hanging out with the freaks around the Haight-Ashbury, and he even slams the Grateful Dead's sonic ramblings, preferring to kick back with his extensive collection of moldy 78s of early-20th century blues. For him, the hippies were just as subject to herd mentality as the conformist society they supposedly rejected, and he feels similarly about the modern rap culture, which he feels manipulates the righteous anger of its consumer base into buying all sorts of brand clothing instead of inspiring them.
Crumb comes off as deliciously sarcastic about the whole affair, deadpanning his wife's mention of his shyness and discomfort with strangers with, "That's what makes me such a great subject for a movie." Despite his goofy, awkward charm, Crumb reveals a great deal of loathing, not just at all those aforementioned trends he trashes but toward himself. One of the most deeply uncomfortable moments of the film shows the artist in a photo shoot surrounded by nubile young models. Zwigoff reveals in the commentary that the studio was hot and most of the women were lesbians, but Crumb likely would have looked as strained and disinterested had they all been infatuated with him. He prefers to handle his repression through his art rather than confront it directly; all of his former partners plainly discuss how strange he is in bed.
And yet, Crumb doesn't look so bad when compared to his family, who in many ways are the focal point of the documentary more than Robert. Having spent some time in Crumb's family home in the '70s, Zwigoff manages to get a camera in there to document Robert's older brother Charles, who got Robert and youngest brother Maxon drawing as children to deal with their abusive father and drugged-out mother. The director clearly wanted Charles as much as he did Robert, and the image we get of Robert's older brother serves to deepen the film's survey of art as a means of expression.
Just like the underground icon, both Charles and Maxon are incredible artists, and just like Robert their work is infused with their sexual hangups. Charles started drawing Disney cartoons before moving on to more perverted subjects, and Maxon also turned to painting his fetishes. As Zwigoff spends time with them, a question arises: how could one family be so warped? Even Robert's two sisters, who declined to be interviewed for the film, carry their sexual scars, Robert having described one as a "separatist lesbian," so militantly misandrist that the only man she allows in her home is her son. One cannot look upon Robert's brothers without horror: Maxon turned to molestation in his teens to act out his repression, and now he practices celibacy altogether because the prospect of sex sends him into epileptic seizures. He also engages in an insane form of ritual, sitting on a bed of nails for hours each day, begging not for money but as part of the routine, and passing a long strip of cloth through his digestive system once a month. Though he does not belong to any faith, his lifestyle mirrors that of a disturbingly devoted monk.
And then there's Charles. The snippets of information we receive of the Crumb brothers' father hints at trauma the boys faced -- his career as a military man and as a employee motivation trainer suggests a genesis for Robert's hatred of Establishment conformity. But we also sense that Charles, as much as being the child most tortured by the upbringing, also enacted brutality of his own. He forced his brothers to draw to match his own childhood passion for comics, and Maxon appears to be as uncomfortable thinking about his elder brother as he does his parents. Robert, too, bears some scars, and he titters nervously in Charles' presence as the man, practically catatonic from tranquilizers and antidepressants, flatly discusses old fantasies of murdering his younger brother with an axe. Trapped in his mother's home, having never left, Charles still tries to live a bit off his status as the eldest brother, teasing Robert for never getting any dates in high school even though he himself has never had sex. Charles notes that he used to be handsome, but now he sports greasy hair, stubble and rotted teeth, skin clammy from unwashed sweat. At last all becomes clear: for all the legitimate, intriguing debates over the merits and madness in Robert Crumb's art, he's the only one in the family who managed to adequately get a handle on his mental instability. As he lovingly watches over his young daughter Sophie and proudly advises Jesse, his son from his first marriage, over the boy's drawing, Robert looks normal and fairly contented, more so when he trades some sketchbooks for a house in France.
Charles is the counterpoint, not only to Robert but to the idea that art is a means of therapy. Looking over Charles' old sketchbooks without the man nearby, Robert drops his nervous giggle and speaks with deep sadness as he scans over his brother's childhood brilliance. Charles was cleverer, more driven and a better drawer, but he never progressed, returning over and over to his love of the movie Treasure Island and his sexual obsession with young Bobby Driscoll. Reflecting his childlike fixation, Charles never moved on to ink, sticking with pencil and crayon etchings. Then, something went wrong. As Robert flips through the final book Charles penciled, the drawings begin to feature a wrinkle effect in every panel, concentric lines wrapping around each object. Robert continues flipping, and the words in the speech bubbles begin dominating the panels, edging out all white space not already filled by the wrinkles. Finally, the book becomes just text, then simply coiled scribbles of asemic writing. It is one of the single most haunting shots I've ever seen: if the final shot of Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up was as beautiful and poetic a summary of art's capacity to heal, inspire and better, then this close-up, on a sheet of gibberish, is the flip-side. Sometimes, art isn't the release of madness but the exhibition of it, a solar flare that belches some of the artist's insanity out of him before being reabsorbed as the effects of the aberration disturb the surrounding area. Crumb is a hopeful and witty film, spotlighting a man who fought his way to sanity through psychosis, but it also demonstrates how art can consume its vessel, leaving him or her worse off than before. Charles Crumb committed suicide before the film's release.