Starring Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Expectations: High. I remember loving this.
Well, once again I find myself staring at the blank, white screen of Notepad wondering what to write. This is the second time I’ve seen Crumb, and it’s definitely an interesting film to revisit. I first saw it in 2004, and it was my introduction to the work of Robert Crumb. I remember being fascinated by his art, and how the film depicted him and his brothers very honestly. This time around those same things stuck out to me, but the underlying theme of the film — the question of the line between art and pornography — was something I don’t remember focusing on before. This is a huge reason why re-watching films like this is such a rewarding experience, as the film easily takes on a new life when seen through more mature eyes.
The film succeeds primarily because of Robert Crumb’s inherent charm and director Terry Zwigoff’s ability to capture raw moments, seemingly without influencing them. The first section of the film is spent laying the foundation of who Crumb is and how he started, but as it goes on it begins to subtly explore Crumb’s fascination with women, and his hatred of them. In his work, he’s always been very open and honest about the feelings that populate his mental world, and the film does its best to capture reactions to these feelings on both sides of the argument. But Crumb never seems malicious towards his wife, although at one point he tells an ex that the only woman he’s every truly loved is his daughter. This is obviously a pretty harsh thing to say, and as Crumb laughs it off with a genuinely good-natured smile, I got the feeling he was fucking with us a bit.
His own faults inspire his work and they seemingly never fail to amuse him; they are his art’s strength and what people respond to in it. Crumb’s art shows that he has a lot of complex issues with women, and he has perpetuated old racist imagery of the “Darky” variety at times, but Crumb admits that he never sets out to say anything with his work. He simply has an idea and runs with it, without thinking about it much or second-guessing himself. This raw honesty is palpable in his work, and the fact that so many have connected with his personal style and his problems suggests that his issues aren’t confined to Crumb alone. People respond to honesty, because truth is undeniable. As much as some might call Crumb’s work pornographic or juvenile, it’s honest and relatable, two hallmark qualities in great art.
And this honesty is also what Zwigoff captures with his camera. I’m sure it’s all edited to forward whatever narrative drive he wanted each scene to have — no documentary can ever truly be completely objective — but none of the interviews or footage feels compromised in any way. Zwigoff’s film features a raw charm, much like Crumb’s work, leaving in such moments as a camera fumble when the cameraman trips and almost falls over a balcony railing. You could argue that as a documentarian Zwigoff is simply filming the honest Crumb, resulting in an honest film, but it feels much more deliberate than that.
Crumb is a fantastic documentary about one man’s work, but it also delves subtly into the most basic questions about humanity and art. Comic art is pop art, and even though Crumb is an “underground comic artist,” he’s still working in a medium that is often derided as being nothing more than juvenile fluff. Most of it is, I can’t lie, but Crumb’s work, along with the work of other notable iconoclasts like Harvey Pekar, is powerfully affecting and absolutely fits the high-browed bill of “Art.” Crumb’s exploration of his inner turmoil and his sexuality is brave and truly fascinating, and this film about him is a definite must-see.
Crumb was a Reader’s Choice selection from my buddy Jared.