The Criterion Collection advertises itself as “a series of important contemporary and classic films.” That is an understatement. It’s more accurate to describe Criterion as a moveable museum, containing films from all over the world, preserved in gorgeous detail, unpacked with creator interviews and essays written by film scholars. The folks at Criterion have gathered a community of like-minded individuals who believe that film is art and should be treated as such.
In Terry Zwigoff’s documentary feature Crumb, audiences enter the four walls of the R. Crumb family experience, so to speak. Robert Crumb’s underground comics were, and remain, some of the most disturbing, sexually perverse, and enlightened that we have. You may wince when you read “Mr. Natural”or “Fritz the Cat,” countercultural cartoon characters who appeared in Crumb’s comics of the late ‘60’s, but you don’t know American comics or literature if you don’t know R. Crumb. And damn, the man can draw! His subject matter might be nasty as hell, but his drawings are perfectly and meticulously grotesque.
Crumb has been intensely private throughout his career. In some ways, it’s a wonder that Crumb agreed to have this intensely personal and rather invasive documentary film made. It helps that director Zwigoff (Ghost World, Bad Santa) has been a close friend and collaborator of Crumb’s for years–they both share a love of vinyl records and quality blues music, and they played in a band together, the Cheap Suit Serenaders. In one scene of the film, Crumb and Zwigoff are browsing in a hole-in-the-wall comics store in Philly and the employee behind the desk asks Crumb for his autograph. Crumb snickers, smirks, and, talking through a mouthful of teeth mumbles, as he always does, “No. I don’t really do that kind of stuff.” One could imagine an equally odd scene in a David Lynch film, and no wonder, since he produced the film?
Film historian and critic Jonathon Rosenbaum describes the now revered 1994 doc as a “truthful film and a troubling one” in the Criterion essay titled “ ‘Crumb’ Reconsidered.” Crumb describes his sexual awakening as a child. He doesn’t tell the old tried and true stories of looking at his first pornographic magazine in the drug store, or a crush on a teacher or classmate. Instead, he talks about his “sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny and cute cartoon characters.” Crumb recalls a time when his aunt was visiting their family for dinner and as a young child he crawled under the table and stared, mesmerized at his aunt’s boots. Later that evening, the little Crumb makes his way to the coat closet and sits, in the dark, humping his aunt’s boots.
It gets weirder.
The most revealing sequence of conversations happens between Robert Crumb and his older brother Charles Crumb. They sit in Charles’s bedroom where he still lives upstairs in the Philadelphia house of their childhood. We can see that no matter how disturbed these men are, they are also incredibly psychologically aware. Charles identified himself, at an early age, as a homosexual pedophile and knew that he was doomed to live in his mother’s house till his death. Charles preferred to “take his pills and remain confined” although he did admit to being “quite depressed.” Charles had been sexually obsessed since his teenage years with the then young actor Bobby Driscoll, who played Jim Hawkins in the old Walt Disney film of Treasure Island. Charles, like his brother Robert, was a very gifted cartoonist from an early age and Robert and Charles would spend all of their free time expressing their sexual longing and rage against the world in their comics. Robert, Charles, and their older brother Maxon were all gifted young artists who were tortured and traumatized in their public school for being so odd. Their father was violent and abusive and their mother was an overbearing amphetamine addict. As a healthcare specialist who works with the emotional and spiritual traumas of clinical patients all day, my heart breaks at times when I listen to the nervous, desperate laughter of the Crumbs, as they describe their sexual obsessions and their horrid childhood.
Even the older Crumb boy, Maxon, has a couple scenes with Robert and Zwigoff. His reaction to the traumas of childhood and his own mental illness is to stay confined to his home, much like Charles. But unlike his brothers, Maxon chooses the life of some strange spiritual aesthetic, with no clear definition. Maxon was also a gifted cartoonist from an early age. It’s interesting to note that none of the Crumbs will use the words “mentally ill” to describe their condition, but, it is very clear that mental illness is the focal point of the film.
The film opens with R. Crumb saying of himself, “If I don’t draw for a while, I get really crazy, depressed, and suicidal.” Crumb uses his brother Charles as his counterexample and idol. Everything Crumb does, from an early age, he does to impress Charles. The irony of this, we will learn, is that the deeply disturbed and heartbroken Charles Crumb would complete a suicide in February of 1993, two years before Crumb was finished by Zwigoff. Crumb, Zwigoff, and David Lynch agreed to dedicate the film to Charles’s memory. It’s even rumored that Lynch signed on to produce the film so he could work with Charles and, potentially, cast him in a role in one of his films.
Throughout the film we are given the opportunity to watch Crumb’s process. There is never a time that he does not have a pencil or pen in his hand. He’s at lunch with a friend, he’s talking to his brother, or he’s sitting in the living room with his daughter and wife, always drawing. We see that drawing truly is a sort of life raft for R. Crumb.
Each of Crumb’s ex-wives and girlfriends are interviewed by Zwigofff and they are tremendously charitable when they speak of their marriage to the artist. They discuss everything from his odd sexual fetishes like sitting on shoes or getting piggy back rides to the size of his, apparently, rather large penis. It appears that Crumb has maintained healthy and cordial friendships with all of his exes. Much like watching a Woody Allen film and asking how the hell his characters end up with Hollywood’s most stunning women, we ask the same of R. Crumb and several of his exes. In one scene his pornographer ex-girlfriend introduces him to a series of half-naked young women. They all line up and take fetishized photos with the rather creepy, dorky pervert. They give him piggy back rides. He sits on their shoes and laps.
Crumb’s odd sexuality is celebrated which, in some ways, is terribly liberating for the weirdos and marginalized folks of the world. If there is a place for people like R. Crumb, there must be a place for everyone! Upon my second viewing of the film, however, I find myself frustrated that no one will own that Crumb’s behavior appears disturbed and harmful to others.
In the final scenes of the film, Crumb announces that he and his family are moving to France. He even smiles and mumbles to the camera “France isn’t that great but it’s a lot better than the United States. This country is terrible.”
Crumb is not just a documentary about R. Crumb himself. It is also very much about his brothers. The Crumb brothers are brilliant and suffering minds. Their nervous laughter and long, deep hatred of women in their comics gives them away as souls crying out for help. Unfortunately, for Charles and Maxon, their screaming souls only got the limelight in 1994. Never again have Charles or Maxon entered the American consciousness, unless you count Charles’s obituary.
Crumb now resides in France and grows old peacefully with his wife and children. He was the one brother who seems to have escaped misery. His most recent contribution to American comics is an unedited illustrated edition of the biblical Book of Genesis. Oddly enough, the Hebrew Scriptures are the perfect vehicle for Crumb’s work. They are just sexually perverse enough, just sad enough, and just odd enough to justify a grotesque visual analysis by the great R. Crumb. To this point, maybe R. Crumb’s shocking and offensive drawings are the perfect mirror of our human condition: religion, politics, war, family relationships — Odd American fetishes, all of them.
Josiah Richard Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @JosiahArmstrong and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.