Anger and Obsession: The Life of Robert Crumb
When the cartoonist Robert Crumb was a little boy, he reveals in Terry Zwigoff’s riveting documentary portrait, he was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny, even carrying around a picture of this buck-toothed rabbit. Eventually it became crumpled and was all but destroyed after he had his mother iron it for him. At 12, he developed a new fixation. He became erotically obsessed with the television character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
Although Mr. Crumb went on to create such famous modern cartoon characters as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, and helped to found the underground-comic movement, Bugs Bunny and Sheena continued to reverberate through his art. Bugs Bunny’s cheery irreverence was sharpened into a satirical sensibility that has been compared to Daumier and George Grosz. Sheena’s descendants are the devouring Amazonian women portrayed in work that is often savagely misogynistic and pornographically explicit.
The cartoonist’s memories of his childhood sexual fantasies are only the tip of the confessional iceberg in “Crumb,” which the New York Film Festival is showing this evening at 9 at Alice Tully Hall. Much more than a polite documentary profile of an artist’s life and times, the film offers an astonishingly unguarded portrait of Mr. Crumb, who is 51, and his seriously dysfunctional family. Just when you think the film couldn’t probe any more intimately, it offhandedly reveals information about people’s medications, bathroom habits and genitalia.
Long stretches of the film are devoted to the cartoonist’s talented, mentally disturbed elder brother, Charles, who committed suicide recently. Calmed by medication, Charles, who never moved out of his mother’s house, recalls the homicidal impulses he felt toward Robert when they were growing up. The film offers ample documentation to show that Charles was as talented an artist as Robert. But as his mental illness worsened, he gave up drawing.
A third brother, Max, is also interviewed. A self-punishing ascetic and sometime artist who lives in San Francisco, he is shown preparing to meditate while lying bare-backed on a bed of nails. Neither of the artist’s two sisters cooperated in the making of the film.
Mr. Crumb makes no bones about his anger at his late father and at American society in general. He readily admits that his urge to succeed was fueled by a desire for revenge. His father, a Marine Corps officer turned businessman, is remembered as a cold and tyrannical straight-arrow who remained aloof from his eccentric sons and stopped speaking to Robert after a colleague showed him some of his work. In high school, the cartoonist was a nerd who could not get a date. As his autobiographical drawings of his high school days illustrate, he was permanently wounded by his adolescent peers’ rejection.
Although Mr. Crumb and his characters are widely identified with the hippie movement, and he concedes that many of his ideas grew out of experiments with LSD, he never lived the hippie life style. He was far too much of a misanthropic loner.
The artist’s grievances extend well beyond high-school pariahhood. Early in the film, he expresses enormous bitterness at the paltry sums he made for two of his most famous works: a poster bearing the slogan “Keep on Truckin’ ” and the cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin’s best-selling album “Cheap Thrills.” He is shown abruptly turning down an offer from Hollywood, which he resents for mutilating his character Fritz the Cat.
If “Crumb” were merely a behind-the-scenes portrait of the artist and his troubled family, it would exert a gothic sort of fascination. But the film does much more. It succeeds at showing how one man’s psychic wounds contributed to an art that transmutes personal pain into garish visual satire. While the film’s amazingly candid interviews with the artist, his friends, family members and his current and former wives shed light on the sources of his work, the final leap from neurosis into artistic brilliance remains mysterious.
The art critic Robert Hughes calls Mr. Crumb “the Bruegel of the 20th century.” That may be overstating it. But the film’s many examples of Mr. Crumb’s work present a vision of American life as a phantasmagoric gallery of grotesques that is as gripping as it is harshly funny.
Stephen Holden, NY Times, September 27, 1994