Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Film: Crumb
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.

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.


  1. It's been a while since I saw Crumb. I saw it in the theatre the first weekend when it came out. A friend and I drove to Westwood (in Los Angeles) to see the first showing on a Saturday at the legendary Nuart theatre, a mid-Wilshire art house that's sort of famous in certain circles because one of the geeks on "Beat the Geeks" worked there for years (and may still be there for all I know).

    The Nuart doesn't have parking, which usually isn't an issue for an early showing because you can usually find street parking. But today was different. EVERYBODY went to see Crumb that morning. It felt like we parked two miles away. I don't think I've ever parked that far away from any theater when I went to the movies.

    So we waited in line and bought our tickets and went into the theater and there were no seats. LITERALLY. No seats at all. They had been unprepared for such a grand showing and had somehow overbooked by 50 seats.

    So they made an announcement that they would give free passes to a later showing. Nobody - not one person - volunteered to leave. So they said we could sit on the floor if we wanted. So we sat on the floor with four dozen other enthusiastic moviegoers who really wanted to see Crumb.

    It was worth it. I hadn't sat on the floor to watch a movie since I was a kid and the middle school showed "The Great Race" in the cafeteria on the last school day before Christmas. (Or maybe it was "The Big Mouth" with Jerry Lewis.)

    In any case, it's a great movie. I remember it very well. I'd like to see it again because it's been such a long time.

    1. It's not a hard one to track down. TCM runs it every now and then--I watched a part of it a couple of months ago, I think.

      It makes a great double feature with American Splendor.