Tuesday 8 September 2020

1,001 Films: "Crumb" (1994)

There are plenty of interviewees on hand in the documentary Crumb to testify to how its subject, the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, finds it hard to open up around strangers. It is, then, a testimony to the intimacy director Terry Zwigoff worked up with the man in front of him that the Crumb we see on camera - filmed over his final weeks in the U.S. before he left with his wife and daughter to live in France - is entirely garrulous, personable and unfazed when faced with autograph hunters, former lovers and Hollywood executives alike. Not that you'd want to invite him round for tea, exactly. As a cartoonist, Crumb's work forms an extension of his personality: even his straighter lines are jittery, warped by pent-up sexual tensions, packed with neurotic detail, and his comic books - most notoriously Fritz the Cat - are influenced as much by pornography and a lack of available women are they are by anything else. Zwigoff is anxious to position Crumb as a key countercultural figure, his camera following this lanky, bespectacled kook as he wanders around Haight-Ashbury, bemoaning the fact that people are becoming "walking advertisements". Robert Hughes, intellectualising furiously, compares Crumb to Brueghel and Goya. You and I might equally come away thinking of the cartoonist as a perv who lucked out with good draughtsmanship.

Two things strike you. Scenes with Crumb's relatives - which border on a late-20th century update of Grey Gardens in their all-American grotesquerie - suggest Robert is actually the best-adjusted one in a weirdly functional family unit that's capable of intelligent, open conversation so long as the topics under discussion are masturbation, bodily fluids and/or personal hygiene issues. Crumb's two brothers didn't get along, which was probably best for society's sake: one, prone to seizures, is a sex offender; the other, hooked on tranquilisers and living at home with the boys' paranoiac mother, came to fill notebooks with illegible scribbles (as with Ralph Fiennes' schizophrenic in the movie Spider) before committing suicide a year after filming was completed. I think we're meant to take relief, however scant, from the fact Robert Crumb had his drawings as an outlet. The second thing that strikes you is the extent to which this artist's aesthetic was set at an early age - adolescence - and how he's sustained a long and reasonably well-paying career out of this arrested emotional development. His new work is every bit as schoolboy-like as the cartoons Crumb bashed out as a young man: we even see him continuing to sketch girls from photos in his old high-school yearbook, while regaling us with their sexual characteristics. Crumb's women, Amazonian and untouchable, are always bigger in the frame than the men are, cause for either feminist celebration (these are women of power in their own universe) or concern (they're also impossibly objectified, raised on the highest possible pedestal).

You can tell the documentary's been made by a fan because although there is plenty of the former ("He made it OK for me to have a butt," gushes one female admirer), only belatedly, and then only briefly, does it get into the latter. This is typical of a very freeform study, with little of the narrative tautness the documentary developed in subsequent years, but Crumb's messiness is both subject-appropriate and never less than intriguing. Intriguing, in part, because it keeps generating problems. Flitting from one aspect of its subject's life to another, the film is characterised by an evasive quality, as though Zwigoff knew exactly where Crumb was at, but couldn't quite bring himself to admit it on celluloid. In one sequence, what looks a flagrantly racist comic strip - depicting a nude black woman duped into voyaging to the States, where a line of white men await to take a dump on her - is offered up without context, explanation or criticism. (Is it simply a crude take on the degradation lying in wait for the immigrant?) The film's thesis is that Crumb is what he is - on this evidence, a man-boy unable to filter out his psyche's less appealing aspects - and you're either hip to his work or you're not. The film itself, being compelling hagiography, a precursor to reality television and so much tabloidy tittle-tattle, is much the same. Perhaps the intimacy Zwigoff achieved here was finally too great; certainly, that seems the case in those moments where Crumb's ex, a female pornographer responsible for the publication of Big Butt magazine, lets on that the cartoonist masturbates four to five times a day, and that he's in possession of "one of the biggest penises in the world". Bear in mind much of Crumb's work deals in exaggeration of some form; yet whether these claims are true or not, you might wonder whether anyone really needed to hear them.

Crumb is not presently available in the UK.

No comments:

Post a Comment