Crumb (1994) is a documentary about the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. A highly eccentric character, he is open and candid as the director here, Terry Zwigoff, was a close friend. Like his highly revealing autobiographical comics, Crumb really bears his soul. His comics are openly misogynistic, racist and twisted - as such, it is easy to hold a grudge against him for any of these things. Crumb caught onto the hippie zeitgeist - with characters involving mystic charlatans, drug-addled weirdos and sex-starved bimbos - and he became a renowned countercultural figure. Yet his work is at its most compelling when he is his own subject. The reason why this film is so great - and so moving - is that it follows the same prerogative: an unflinchingly honest portrayal of its subject, warts and all.
What becomes clear is that Robert Crumb suffers a great deal. He says 'If I don't draw, I feel suicidal. But, then, I sometimes feel suicidal when I draw too.' It is clear that his comics have therapeutic function - to exorcise demons. (This can be taken literally. Many of his comics involve sexual fantasies about strange Goya-like bird creatures.) In this process, he does not censor himself in the slightest. He has a predilection for robust women with long legs. These are legion in his comics and more often than not they are submissive to fragile, neurotic men.
All this was borne out of years of frustration and alienation. Rejected by women throughout his teens, he withdrew into his sexual fantasies. One of his comics chronicling this is detailed in the film: how a girl he was infatuated with went off with some stud. Robert's misogyny is borne out of a deep-rooted rejection and alienation from other women. Alongside fervent admirers, a few critics of Crumb's work appear in the film. They contend that, whatever the therapeutic value of the comics, that is dangerous to put them out in the public domain.
Crumb came from a broken family. His father beat all three of his sons on a regular basis. We meet his two brothers, who are even stranger (and more disturbed) than Robert. His brother Charles, who introduced Robert to comic books when they were both young children, is so sedated by his medication that he drawls and has several teeth missing. He still lives with his mother. His brother Maxon, also an artist, lives in a ramshackle hotel. He begs for money on the streets whilst sitting on a bed of nails.
The reason why the film is so moving is that the abuse inflicted by their father clearly disturbed Charles and Maxon to such an extent that they became maladjusted. Like Robert, they have unusual sexual fetishes, except that they are stranger. Maxon gropes women in the streets. Charles, we learn, has homosexual pedophilic tendencies. He managed to suppressed them and he remained a virgin. Yet he was tormented his entire life and was terrified that his mother might find out. Following the film's completion, we learn, he committed suicide. Despite the way both Maxon and Charles turned out, Robert became a success.
In many ways, this film is an image of an inverted American dream. Their father was a marine in the Second World War. He wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps - become a marine, be virile, manly, responsible and punctilious. He wrote a book entitled 'Training People Effectively.' The family grew in 50s suburbia and in the ferment of sexual repression and rigid social mores. Following the horrors of the Second World War, youngsters were subjected to a tawdry image of American suburban happiness and conformity. This partly led to the rebellion of the sixties and the psychosis of Robert's art. And Crumb's father was horrified when he saw how his children turned out: shy, nerdy, maladjusted and strange.
Another issue raised about the films is: is Robert's work art or porn? Several talking heads are featured and they take divergent views. The most notorious is the art critic Robert Hughes, who bombastically compares Crumb to Brughel and Goya. Other voices reject the racism, the nastiness and the misogyny. One dissenter mentions an overwhelmingly disturbing cartoon involving incest. It features a 1950s nuclear family. It has all the qualities of satire but, the critic argues, Crumb is getting off on his material and ended up producing porn. What they all agree on is that he is very technically gifted.
They interview Crumb's wife, who says 'he draws his id.' We should take Crumb as a portal to the dark side of its subject and accept that what we encounter isn't always savoury. It is a masterful study of a broken home, a tormented artist, the vagaries of sex and porn and the therapeutic function of art.