Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Robert Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Robert Hughes, Martin Miller, Don Donahue, Dana Morgan, Trina Robbins
I think there is a lot to say about Robert Crumb, his family, their lives, and his work, and this movie presents a lot of questionable statements, images, and thoughts. It confirmed (and yet made me suspicious of) many of the things I thought were wrong or right about people in America. I think it presents a lot of questions about things that many of us are already busy questioning in our own lives and moral character-- and so in this tiny little movie review, I won't attempt at cracking the big-picture code.
So instead, I am going to try to stay focused on Crumb for its value as a film, and not relish on Robert Crumb's value or meaning as a man.
This film is a portrait that makes no attempt at setting a stage to present "the character" of Robert Crumb. He is simply shown as he is, and obviously how he always will be-- and it's also obvious the film crew probably didn't have much of a choice anyway.
For those who don't know who Robert Crumb is, he is an American illustrator, most well-known for his involvement in the underground comics of the 1960s and 70s-- showcasing a twisted, satirical, and subversive view of popular American culture. He is perhaps most well-known for including such deeply personal and passionate expressions of all his most inner-demons (most notably sexual perversion) in his work. You might wonder how a film could manage to reveal more about a man who has already bared-all to the public in his work.
I think the big reveal comes in including the cast of people surrounding Crumb. It's obvious that these are the people that most often illicit his seemingly nervous laugh, and it's also around these people that Crumb seems to be able to verbalize some things that might only ever have been spoken of on paper. Despite the controversially claimed "disturbed" nature of his work, the film-makers managed to show Crumb in his familial context-- showing that he is actually 'the sane one of the family.' The film includes his past girlfriends and wives, his two brothers (Charles and Maxon), and his mother, and the film seems to be just as much about them as it is about the artist. Through these people and his artwork, you sense you are getting the full story, and that Crumb's sarcastic, witty remarks perhaps are a carefully-tuned defense mechanism.
Robert Crumb's art isn't for everyone-- and the film finds critics on both sides, sure. But as a film, I don't think anyone can deny the complexity and brilliance of the story. It manages to shock you without shoving anything down your throat. It also manages to take a lot of things we thought we understood (or at least understood that we were scared of) and brings them bubbling to the surface of our conscience. "Is that really wrong?" "It makes me uncomfortable, but does that mean it shouldn't be?" Of course, all of this serious thinking is peppered in to a pretty straight-forward style documentary about a group of people who are so unusual that we can't help but try to use every ounce of ourselves to simply understand.
I think the greatest thing about this film is that it presents deeply complex and dark themes in the most neutral, you-decide-for-yourself light possible. It enables conversation and an intelligent audience, and for that, I commend the film-makers greatly.