Keep on Buckin’… the System: Crumb (1994)

Crumb (1994)  Directed by Terry Zwigoff Shown: Robert Crumb

Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb enters FilmStruck at roughly 8:00pm ET today.

Near the end of the 1994 documentary Crumb, directed by Terry Zwigoff, we see Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, in their home supervising movers as they get ready to head out. Out of the country, that is. They’re moving to France and Crumb wonders if the “football jocks” can handle moving his delicate records. This leads Aline to relate a story of some people in Eureka that she visited who had a big football helmet chair and a “fat teenager” sitting in it in front of the tv playing Nintendo. Crumb says, rather condescendingly, “You don’t see much of that in France.” Crumb never had much regard for people leading lives mapped out for them by corporate culture and mass media. He even rants at an earlier point about people walking around with logos on their hats and shirts, paying corporations to advertise for them.  In many ways, it’s the most fitting possible coda to an examination of Robert Crumb, an artist whose adult life could be adequately described as an endless fight against copyright infringement, artistic mediocrity, and anything that might make him acceptable to the public at large.

Robert Crumb first gained notoriety in his twenties with a cartoon he created in his teens. The cartoon was Fritz the Cat and it became famous, or notorious depending on your point of view, for its unabashedly adult, satirical nature. When the cartoon was later made into a movie by animator Ralph Bakshi in 1972, Crumb hated it and responded by killing off Fritz in his next comic appearance. In the movie, Crumb felt Bakshi threw all of the meaning out the window and focused on the profane, as if that was the whole point. Which, it kind of was but not in that way. Or was it? It’s hard to explain. Crumb himself would have trouble defining it, and why he did what he did, or how he sometimes drew cartoons many people would consider revoltingly racist and/or sexist, seemingly just to get a reaction from his readers. Or was he making a point about the cravenness of the mass media industry? Or is it simply safer to draw the work, wait for the response, and then, if the response is too critical, say it was all a joke? The great thing about Crumb, the documentary, is that it doesn’t have the answer for a single one of these questions. How could it if the artist himself isn’t sure? What it does have is an extraordinary entry way into the mind of Crumb via his family, particularly his two brothers, Maxon and Charles, and through this collection of characters, we can at least begin to draw our own picture of what might be going on.

Crumb (1994)  Directed by Terry Zwigoff Shown: Robert Crumb

The documentary does cover the basics expected of a bio-doc, giving us some early childhood accounts and a compressed history of his fame. We find out about his famous Keep on Truckin’ cartoon and how it became equated with the counter-culture of the 1960s, and how he loathed that it had. He would spend years fighting people over copyright issues associated with it, in part because he didn’t want it to become an ad for the counter-culture. He despised the idea of becoming known as a hippie cartoonist. Actually, he despised the idea of being pigeon-holed, period, which led him to draw cartoons that went so far over the line that no one could ever associated him with the peace/love movement even if they wanted to. Some of these cartoons are shown and depict graphic incest and horrifying racism. But lurking below that is something else and his brothers, and his mother, who briefly shows up, give us an insight that we could not have gained from studying Crumb alone.

Crumb’s brother Maxon immediately grabs the viewers’ attention by talking to the camera while a string hangs out of his mouth. We are told, and get to watch, that he swallows this length of string/cord/fabric and allows it to go through his entire body as a cleansing method. That means, ahem, while we’re seeing it dangling down the side of his face, the other part of it is already coming out of his backside. We get to see some of Maxon’s drawings and it’s clear that all three brothers had a distinct talent for drawing.  It’s also clear that all three had distinct issues with normative social behavior. Maxon talks about molesting women and when Robert asks if he raped them, he says there’s a gap between molestation and rape. What Maxon did or what that distinction really means in his head we will never know. Maxon has moved onto something else. What, we don’t really know. Neither does he. What we do know, or at least suspect, is that there are strange thoughts, and fears, and urges, laying dormant inside these brothers that each one of them is trying to suppress, or exorcise, in one way or another. When we meet Charles, it becomes evident.

Charles is a fascinating and ultimately tragic figure, a man torn apart by his own desires that he can never let out. Becoming obsessed with Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s Treasure Island, from 1954, he grew to understand that he was both homosexual and pedophilic. Or so he thought. In truth, he was filled with so much anxiety that his obsession with Treasure Island could have simply led him to believe that about himself. Or maybe, he ponders aloud, it had something to do with being “brought up by a sadistic bully.” Possessing the same artistic talents of his brothers, but saddled with an increasingly debilitating mental illness, his cartoons become more and more incoherent and indecipherable. Slowly, as we see his comics evolve over time, word bubbles become filled with so many words that, eventually, they just become tiny unreadable marks. The panels of each comic become so cluttered with tiny concentric lines they become abstract works of unintentional design. When we learn that Charles committed suicide two years before the documentary was completed and released, we are not surprised. It feels like the natural culmination of his pain and anxiety and we can only hope that in his final moments there was some sense of tranquility.

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But what have we learned about Crumb, Robert Crumb, the artist at the center of it all? Who can say? We get some talking heads that say things like he’s gone over the line while others say people just don’t appreciate his level of satire. Zwigoff gives very little time and weight to these interviews and, instead, takes on his subject from a right angle, by looking at his brothers in a way central to his personal being. Family members in other documentaries become little more than an excuse to tell us this or that little known fact about the subject’s childhood. Here, the family members serve as those characters in fiction, inside the head of the main subject, representing the parts of his personality that we are seeing uncensored and up close. By watching them, we are seeing him. Crumb himself is a bundle of his own particular set of anxieties and he either will not, or cannot, explain them or himself to us. Terry Zwigoff, to his everlasting credit, doesn’t try to make him. He just films. He films Crumb and his family, hands it over to us, and says, “Here’s what I got. See what you can make of it?”

Greg Ferrara

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6 Responses Keep on Buckin’… the System: Crumb (1994)
Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : August 4, 2017 5:55 am

“How perfectly goddamned delightful it is, to be sure.”–Charles Crumb

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2017 5:56 am

“Whenever he said that, it always took the wind out of my sails.” – Robert Crumb

Posted By Emgee : August 4, 2017 3:45 pm

This made a devastating impression on me when i first saw it. Expecting a more or less traditional documentary about a highly talented artist, what i got was a pretty shocking portrait of a dysfunctional family, one member of which had enough talent and perseverance not to get crushed by his traumas, but turn them into powerful works of art.

Unforgettable for so many reasons, but like a lot of Crumb’s work not for the faint-hearted.

Posted By MikeD : August 4, 2017 5:31 pm

I think that the section where his brother is bullied and what it does to his life should be shown in every high school in the country.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : August 4, 2017 10:17 pm

Many artists have said that discovering art saved their life, but in the case of Crumb and his brothers, it’s obvious that it did.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2017 9:16 pm

Emgee, I had the same reaction when I first saw it, too. I just remember being floored by how saddled with mental trauma the family was and how the mother seemed unmoved by it all. I wonder what the two sisters would have been like had they agreed to be interviewed.

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