I first saw this film a few years ago on Canadian educational TV. My memories of it were dim, even dark, as I thought about it while reading Robert Crumb’s new book Kafka. I recalled a quirky character with big teeth in a cheap suit, straw hat, and thick horn-rimmed glasses, sitting in a coffeeshop drawing large-bottomed women as they wandered up and down the boulevard. Was that a memory from the film? Or was that one of Crumb’s comic stories?
Apparently Terry Zwigoff had incredible difficulties in making this film. It took him six years to film the amazingly intimate and bizarre interviews that make up the film. Zwigoff is a friend of Crumb’s and had known him for 25 years, played in Crumb’s band the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and worked together on a screenplay. That intimacy paid off in spades! OK, it may have cost Zwigoff his health, and a substantial amount of money, and even his friendship with his subject, but you will never see a documentary that lays its subject as open as Crumb does.
You might say that the Crumb family puts the FUNK back in dysfunctional! They are just plain weird. Meet the brothers Crumb: Robert (or “R.”) famous comic artist, record collector (old jazz and blues on 78 rpm) and sexual oddball. One ex-girlfriend says in the film that there was not much regular sex, but lots of piggyback rides. OK. Another ex confirms that R.’s drawings of himself showing a prodigious member are not an exaggeration. Too much information! Then there’s older brother Charles who was the first one interested in comic art. He drew and wrote Treasure Island Stories on school notebooks (and had R. help out) until eventually the text took over the page, and turned into simulations of text. Pages and pages and pages of scribbles which, when viewed from a distance … look like dense text. He is heavily medicated during the interviews, sitting in his room, on the bed, surrounded by his books, blankets over the windows. His mother, (that’s right, he still lived at home) calls from downstairs, “Charles, check the window in the hall!” He stops the interview and yells back, “It’s the cameraman!” Mother Crumb appears later in the film to deny that she ever threatened her boys with enemas. They retort, “Well, somebody was giving us enemas!” Charles committed suicide after the film was released. The third brother Maxon, is another recluse, who begs on the street, and does wonderful paintings of a surrealistic sort, somewhat reminiscent of R.’s style, but really his own. He meditates sitting on a homemade bed of nails and swallows a long cloth for a monthly three day bowel cleansing ritual.
R.’s famous sexual hangups are discussed in detail by cartoonist Trina Robbins and art historian Robert Hughes (among others.) Is it real misogyny, or is it social commentary? Can’t it be both? And you have to admit that some of Crumb’s peccadillos are revolting. His wife says, “He’s not like that in real life!” But you have to wonder. Yet, there he is with his daughter Sophie, on his lap. She’s playing Gameboy, he kisses her (the only woman he has ever loved, he claims) an adoring father; he seems so… normal in that scene. But only that scene.
I am drawn to the work of R. Crumb on a couple of levels. He is an extraordinary draftsman. His portraits of old blues, jazz, and country musicians are marvelous. His softer side is beautiful. He can be mean, misogynistic, deviant, and these drawings still appeal to some hidden side of myself. It’s like watching a train wreck. You can’t turn away. Zwigoff’s film is so in depth, so intimate, so personal, that you are there for all of it. In the room with Max, or Charles… you are there. They don’t mince words or try to hide their feelings. Zwigoff achieves a balanced perspective by including comments from Robbins and Peggy Orenstein amidst the Crumb family oddness. This is the story of a man who as a boy developed sexual feelings towards Bugs Bunny… nothing about him is regular.
Were my memories scenes from the film? Or were they episodes from the pages of his comics? What’s the difference? Watch this extraordinary film and see for yourself. It’s now available on DVD, too!
(Sony Pictures, 1994)