Crumb

One flew [marginally] out of the cuckoo’s nest
Released:
1994

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Starring: Robert Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky

The Setup:

Case study of R. Crumb and his family.

Discussion:

I saw this documentary when it was out and both me and my psychoanalyst friend were impressed, mostly because it serves as such an excellent psychologigal case study; you get enough information in every area you want to know about to make an informed diagnosis. It’s also the most truly convincing example that I know of a person using art to keep themselves sane in the face of incredibly dire circumstances.

One of the first things we hear is Crumb saying “If I don’t get to draw I get crazy.” R. Crumb is the comic artist whose heyday was the 60s, where he created the “Keep on Truckin’” graphic, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, the cover of Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company, and myriad lesser-known works. We meet his wife right up front, who announces her priorities when talking about sneaking out to remove the stakes that surveyors looking to expand a rural road near them have placed. We then get right into some of Crumb’s sexual art, many of which feature unnaturally huge women and small men. In one of them a number of small men climb up an enormous woman, crawl into her vagina, and babies come out her mouth. Another shows a sequence in which a woman melts away to slowly become nothing but legs and a vagina, also showcasing an interesting example of Crumb doing abstraction.

We then meet Crumb’s brother Charles, who has lived with his mother his entire life. He only held one job, for a year. He is dirty and pudgy and has no upper teeth. He has a collection of paperbacks in his room, one imagines they’ve been there since high school or before, and instead of ever buying a new book, he just reads the whole collection over and over again. We also meet Maxon, an older brother who lives in San Francisco and is very into meditation. He says as boys the three brothers were very strange, he describes themselves as these “primordial monkeys,” and we find out that they all slept in the same bed until he was sixteen. Maxon says that he was overpowered by Crumb, by his whole “sex thing,” to the point where he hated and resented his bother’s power, and which he believes resulted in the seizures he sometimes has. Charles also later says that he felt overpowered by Crumb, and would spend several nights standing over him while sleeping, considering going to get a butcher knife to slaughter him. For him, “sex is dead;” he can’t even get an erection anymore. We also find out that he is on serious tranquilizers. As for Crumb, he describes his young infatuation with his aunt’s shoes, and we see a cartoon of a young boy riding an older woman’s shoes as she sits in a chair, the boy singing “Jesus loves me, this I know…” We hear that Crumb really engaged in this activity in his aunt’s closet, and would indeed sing that song.

Then the art critic from Time Magazine comes on and says “Crumb is the Breugel of the late 20th Century,” because he depicts these very base compulsions, lusts, and concerns. We meet his first wife, Dana, who shows us some of Crumb’s cartoons when they were together, which were much more in the 60s “Love Is…” vein than his later work. Crumb says that it was when he started doing LSD that his content began to move into the bodily distortions and strange compulsions that characterize his most well-known work.

Then the editor of Mother Jones comes on to discuss her reaction to the depiction of women in Crumb’s work. She singles out one cartoon series, saying she can appreciate the artwork and the satire of 1950’s sterile family life, but starts to get wigged when the father in the cartoon forces his daughter into incest, and the mother does the same with the son. She says the art and satire are very good, but what bothers her is the sense that Crumb is “getting off on it.” I found this interesting, as it seems to articulate what also disturbs people about Hitchcock and De Palma: they can appreciate the art of it, but what bothers them is that the directors seem to be enjoying the violence against women, and that’s what gets under their skin. One could also speculate that this very discomfort is part of what makes their work so vital.

We don't find out much about Crumb's mother, but in her short five minutes on film she communicates a lot of information. We first hear her voice offscreen, hectoring Charles to do this or that. Then we see evidence of numerous cats [although no actual cats], and the living room, with thick blankets thrown over the windows, couch arms covered with moist-looking filth. We hear about the father, who wrote a book called Training People Effectively, and was a huge, hulking guy that was apparently all smiles, except for when he was at home. We hear that he must have been "disappointed that all three sons were these weirdoes," and Crumb says that he thinks someone showed his father one of his comics at work [when Crumb was about 30] "and he never spoke to me again after that." When Charles, talking about living with his mother for so many years [which included several suicide attempts] says when he tried to go off his tranquilizers and "felt I was becoming unhinged," you might say to yourself: "BECOMING?"

We find out from a Crumb ex-girlfriend [and professional pornographer] that sex with Crumb doesn't consist of sex so much as piggyback rides and him humping one's shoes. We also see what he thinks is one of his most disturbing comics—he almost threw it out because it's "just too weird"—which has Mr. Natural giving a headless woman to a younger friend. He took the head off because the woman nagged too much. She has an artificial head one can screw on to the cap atop her neck stump when taking her outside. The younger guy fucks the woman, deciding he likes her better with just a stump instead of a head, but eventually returns her to Mr. Natural. Since the fake head was destroyed, they reach inside the woman's neck and pull out her real head, which was just shoved down into her chest. She is furious and threatens to kill them both. When one ex-girlfriend in Brooklyn [who seems to really hate Crumb] observes some older cartoons and says "You really hated women then," he replies "Yeah, I guess I hate them a little less now."

Toward the end, when the cumulative information the movie has imparted has begun to get more than a little disturbing, we see some of Maxon's drawings—which are REALLY interesting. They feature lots of concentric lines, a theme among outsider artists such as Martin Ramirez. We find that Maxon stopped drawing for a large part of his life, and when he returned to it the feeling was so powerful he had a seizure. We also find that Maxon had some trouble with the law for molesting girls! Charles, when he was younger, used to be obsessed with Treasure Island, his drawings focusing on the relationship between the young Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. They later found out that Charles was erotically obsessed with Bobby Driscoll, the young boy who played Jim in an early film of the novel. After the film ends, we learn that the two Crumb sisters refused to be interviewed for the film, which is too bad for us, as their perspectives as women growing up in this family would have been fascinating.

Overall, one of the best documentaries I know of. The primary impression is of a case study of severe psychological issues. Very much like Grey Gardens, one watches is fascination, amusement and horror. What I admire so much about this film is that it is very well-organized and really contains all of the information you need to form an idea of what's going on. You get information about the boys' young life, the mother, the father, their sexual development and current sex lives, relationships, etc. You watch the movie and see how unusual they all are, and keep getting fed juicy tidbits that help you form an idea of how they might have ended up that way.

The other major aspect is the sense of all three Crumb brothers using art to keep themselves sane. It's interesting how they all became so compelled to draw, and one can speculate on how Robert's ability to channel his compulsions and dark fantasies into his drawing allow him to remain as relatively sane as he does—and why his brother's couldn't quite manage the same feat. In this regard, I am fascinated by both brother's statements of feeling "overpowered" by Robert, and would like to know more of what they mean by that. And one also simply has to admire Crumb's artwork—regardless of what you think of his cartoons, one has to admire his incredible artistic skill and ability to capture a wide variety of expressions, usually with a slight distortion that provides a real spark of life and psychological depth.

The film also raises questions about sexually and racially insensitive material, and to what degree a high level of artistic merit makes it acceptable, if at all. For example, personally Crumb's wildly sexualized and violent cartoons as an expression of some of the deepest fantasies and fears that men have about women, kind of funny because of how true they are. Then again, I am not the target of such criticisms. I don't have someone telling me they'd like me better if I had no head and no brain—except when I go on bigmusclebears.com, but that's another story. Similarly, I see a cartoon of an African-American caricature hawking cans of the hearts of black people [they use the N-word] as snacks, I see a satire of racism in America and how everything here only has value as a product—but than again, I don't feel victimized or diminished by the content. So it brings up all of these questions, in addition to the one raised earlier, about how the real problem with the sexual fantasies Crumb depicts is that he seems to be enjoying them, instead of merely examining them dispassionately.

So overall, a fascinating and wonderfully-constructed documentary that raises a lot of fascinating issues, shows the importance of art is maintaining mental stability, and provides an excellent case study, full of pithy info-nuggets, of people lingering on the verge of mental illness.

Should you watch it?

Yes, especially if you're interested in art, art as therapy, and mental illness.

Comments

All comments must be approved before they are published. Only approved comments will appear. You may also use this space to report typos and broken links.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <img> <p> <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options