Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
It’s easy to say that every family is at least mildly dysfunctional, and I think there’s some truth to that. There isn’t a person in the world who doesn’t have a relative or two that they’d rather not be related to, and some have entire families like that. My wife really enjoys books about people with incredibly messed up childhoods. I think this is in part to take a step back and see that most of the people we know—and our own family—is essentially normal.
Crumb is a documentary about the life, art, and family of underground comic artist Robert Crumb. Almost immediately in the film he introduces himself to an audience at an art school with his three most well known pieces of work: the “Keep on Truckin’” guy, the cover for the Big Brother and the Holding Company album Cheap Thrills, and Fritz the Cat.
As the film progresses, we investigate both the artwork and career of Crumb and the family that he grew up with and around. Anyone with a typically dysfunctional family should find a great deal of comfort in the level of dysfunction evident here. Robert is intensely strange, filled with quirks and twitches, and of the three brothers in the family, is without question the most normal and well adjusted. His older brother Charles is a recluse, unable to leave the house and on massive amounts of medication. His younger brother Maxon sits on a bed of nails, passes a long cloth through his body as a cleansing ritual, and has several convictions for molestation.
A vast amount of this film concerns itself with Crumb’s life and work, and it is impossible to talk about the one without the other. Much of Crumb’s work is deeply autobiographical, concerning his own hang-ups and life. And there are a lot of hang-ups to deal with here, a great number of them sexual. So, naturally, much of the film is about his relationship with women and his ideas of them.
Crumb’s work tends to be controversial because of his idealized fantasies, many of which are expounded on in this documentary. As with any art, Crumb’s work is open to a variety of interpretations. Is he misogynist? Perhaps. Does he instead admire women react the way he does because of a fear of them? That’s certainly a possible interpretation. Is it both? It’s almost impossible to say. There’s no question that many of his women are depicted as powerful and beautiful, but are just as commonly subjugated, chained, and abased.
The same conversation can happen with the subject of racism. Is he a racist? He very well may be, and many of depictions of anyone who isn’t white is stylized and hyper stereotypical. The question becomes whether or not he is a racist or if he is merely shining a spotlight on racism. It’s impossible to tell, and that is very much what makes it fascinating. His work is polarizing, as good or great art should be.
Crumb is an honest and open portrayal of a deeply strange man who seems able to connect with the outside world only through his artwork. Robert Crumb is a fascinating character in his own right, but the sort of person it would be difficult to know personally. I can imagine being simultaneously annoyed and intrigued by him on a personal level.
This is a magnificent portrait, and a great film.
Why to watch Crumb: An astonishingly honest portrayal of a deeply troubled, deeply brilliant man.
Why not to watch: Arguments about the meaning of Crumb’s work with other people who’ve seen the film.