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In Features, Issues

DRAWING ON THE EDGE OF MADNESS

by Laura U. Marks

Here’s a Mr. Natural cartoon that you see in Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s feature documentary about cartoonist R. Crumb. Mr. Natural, the diminutive character with the floor-length beard, brings a present to Flakey Foont – a huge, stacked, scantily-clad woman with no head, just a screwtop on the stub of her fleshy neck and an optional plastic mannequin’s head. Foont gets turned on and starts to fuck the headless woman from behind. Just as he comes – "Ske-wirt!" – he begins to feel guilty. He shoves a hat on her stump and drives her back to Mr. Natural, who sticks his hand down the body’s neck – like you’d pull the guts from a chicken carcass – and pops her head back out. The last frame has the raging woman going after a butcher knife to cut off both their heads.

 

For a documentary film about an unlikely subject told in an exceptionally bleak way, Crumb has been doing extremely well. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary and the prize for best cinematography at Sundance after being well received at the Toronto and New York film festivals. In February, Siskel and Ebert reviewed the film two months before its scheduled commercial release, because, Zwigoff says, "they wanted people to go down to their local theaters and demand the film be booked. While I appreciate the thought, I don’t think that’s the way most theaters operate!"

Crumb’s is a rare success story for a film that was nine years in the making due to a lack of funds. "When I started making this film, I thought the main audience would be the 10,000 or so hard-core fans of Robert’s work," Zwigoff says. "Then, as I slowly unearthed some of the incredible mysteries and secrets of the Crumb family, I became more and more convinced this film would do very well theatrically. Unfortunately no one else shared the opinion until about three months ago" when Sony Classics picked up the film. Because it focused on the story of the Crumb family, investors hung back.

"In the early years of filmmaking, I made more than one trip to L.A. to show the work in progress to potential co-producers," Zwigoff says. "I always got the same response, which was, ‘So, he’s got a weird family – so what? That’s too depressing – let’s animate some of his characters like Mr. Natural into some snappy, upbeat, stylish, MTV-type sequences!" Funding for Crumb ultimately came from investors in a limited partnership, while Zwigoff paid off his own bills from sales of his collection of rare jazz and blues records.

The filmmaker found early support in producer Lynn O’Donnell. "She immediately looked at that footage of [brother] Charles and said, ‘This is really strong stuff.’" They hired editor Victor Livingston after Zwigoff "met with just about every editor in San Francisco and none of them had a clue. They all said things like, Maybe you could make a 45-minute film, but you’d need a narrator.’ Victor was the only one who had any faith in the ambitious nature and scope of the film. He was more open to it because he had never edited a documentary, perhaps."

Zwigoff is effectively a folklorist of American boys’ culture and clearly shares many of his subject’s interests and perspectives on life, art and politics. Even his voice, where it is heard in the film, is uncannily like Crumb’s – a pleasant, ironic whine half-stuck in the throat. The film’s soundtrack includes some tinny old jazz recordings that could be from the collections of either Crumb or Zwigoff. In the film, Crumb reflects on the "sense of calamitous loss" in these old tunes. Zwigoff’s excavation of Crumb’s world has the same quality of rediscovering something that was almost lost. Except that what he found is not the world of that gung-ho "Keep On Truckin’" character, Janis Joplin albums, and the other famous Crumb artifacts that populated psychedelic life in the ’60s and ’70s. Instead it is a darkly explicit tour of the artist’s teeming unconscious, and of the astonishingly dysfunctional family that nurtured his talent.

In the film, Robert Crumb is an eccentric character, always sporting a battered fedora and a neat suit, obsessing over his record collection, constantly drawing, and mumbling his psychosexual history in explicit detail. But his two brothers, Charles and Maxon, make Robert look like a Rotary Club member. Charles, the eldest, still lives with their mother and spends the days sedated, rereading tattered novels. Maxon lives in an SRO in San Francisco and spends several hours a day doing penance on a bed of nails. Inside their depressing rooms, the Crumb brothers have intensely intimate conversations about the family, their mental health, and their artwork. Crumb’s mother, a reclusive packrat, appears occasionally; his two sisters declined to be interviewed for the film.

All three brothers cartoon, draw, or paint. They acknowledge Charles as the genius of the three. Much of the film is devoted to his cartoons, and to the slight edge between creativity and insanity that allowed Robert to survive and make a living from his work while Charles fell out of life. The story of Charles is tragic, because the film presents him as a promising artist whose brilliance is apparent even through the haze of sedation. Zwigoff relates that when he showed the film to David Lynch, the director "wanted to feature Charles in his next film, his screen presence was so strong." (Lynch’s name is on Crumb as presenter.) After the film screened at the New York Film Festival, three SoHo galleries were interested in exhibiting Charles’ drawings, but too much of his voluminous work had been destroyed.

In some of the most compelling parts of the film, the camera slowly pans the brothers’ cartoons while they discuss them in voice-over. In one cartoon, a four-year-old Robert humps his mothers cowboy boots in the closet; in Charles’ cartoons, figures disappear into a sea of text, then wordless squiggles; Maxon tells about the period when he used to go around molesting Asian girls as the camera lingers on his fetishized drawings of "Oriental" women.

Crumb’s cartoons found their popularity because they seem to tap right into the artist’s fecund unconscious, which, pushed by LSD experiences, is a hallucinatory mirror of male fear and desire. They are also grotesquely racist – or, as the question goes, are they comments on racism? – as in one advert-like cartoon where wholesome-looking white ’50s kids yell "Hey, mom! Let’s have Nigger Hearts for lunch!"

The film presents these often repulsive images neutrally. To discuss them, Zwigoff brings in talking heads: other cartoonists, Time art critic Robert Hughes, Mother Jones editor Deidre English, and Crumb’s current and former wives. While Hughes grandly pronounces Crumb the "Breughel of the 20th century," others, such as English, debate the cartoons’ pornographic character. Are these cartoons the product of an unfettered psyche that simply reflects the gro-tesque realities of our culture? Are they reinforcing the misogyny and racism they reveal? Do they celebrate the beauty and terrifying power of women, as Crumb’s former wife Dana Crumb suggests? Zwigoff prudently lets these figures debate the issues.

The filmmaker is often asked how he got footage of the brothers engaged in such personal, often wrenching conversation, and he says, "I don’t know. I can’t answer. I had met Crumb’s mother and Charles only once before, but I hit it off with them immediately. I liked them, and felt the feeling was mutual. This is unusual for me because I don’t feel that close to many people. I was in psychotherapy during the filming as well, which I think had a lot to do with me angling the film like I did – about family, and the correlation between creativity and manic depression."

"I think one of the reasons I was able to get such intimate footage was because of my cinematographer, Maryse Alberti," he continues. "She works very quietly and efficiently. Most docu crews have these elaborate tool belts with walkie-talkies and gaffer’s tape slung on them like some macho gunslinger thing. They also haul tons of equipment around noisily and take forever to light. Maryse worked in most cases without even an assistant and had an almost zen-like way of disappearing while shooting. [She] became like a fly on the wall. She also had an uncanny sense of knowing who to have the camera on; she listens to what’s going on and moves very, very smoothly. She’s a great artist in her own right, and I think Robert picked up on that and respected her enough to trust her with some very personal stuff." Zwigoff also credits sound recordist Scott Breindel for establishing the mood of intimacy.

"I have this compulsive, detailed perfectionism: there were certain details, lines of dialogue, images, that I wanted in the film, and I was driving myself crazy trying to figure out how to do it," Zwigoff says. O’Donnell "helped save this film in the editing room, after the editor and I had been working on it for about nine months... She eventually came up with the structure, which was to mimic the mystery I discovered while filming in the structure of the film. I had begun with a good idea of the film’s story, but learned a lot more as we filmed, as the mystery of Crumb and his family gradually unraveled."

A musician, Zwigoff has been in the band Crumb founded, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, since 1970. He was introduced to Crumb shortly after he had moved to San Francisco and met two filmmakers who were doing a documentary on animal experimentation that "radicalized me about animal rights overnight. Unfortunately, the film was powerful and informative, but too gruesome to watch, so it was ultimately somewhat a failure." Zwigoff thought of producing a sort of anti-vivisection comic book to communicate the ideas in a less literal way. "I have always had a lot of faith in comics’ ability to communicate." He knew Crumb’s work and approached the artist, who was skeptical but eventually agreed to do a story. He also contacted Art Spiegelman to do a story, which turned out to be the seed for Spiegelman’s epic cartoon Maus. "Of course the book is a rare collector’s item now, it’s almost impossible to find."

Zwigoff’s first film Louie Bluie (1985), reflects many of the same fascinations that animate Crumb. Louie Bluie is a documentary about an obscure blues musician, real name Howard Armstrong, who made two recordings in 1934. "I found one of these 78s he’d made half a century ago and was so intrigued by it that I set out to track down the facts of his life and career. I assumed he was dead by that time. After years of detective work I found him, alive and well, living in Detroit." Armstrong, like Robert Crumb, was a mine of irrepressible, (male) sexually-driven creativity. "Although he was 76 when I filmed him, sex was a major part of his life and art, and the film was considered quite ribald when released," Zwigoff recalls. "I felt the sex in the film completely appropriate, considering every other documentary I’d ever seen about blues music avoided the issue, and sexuality was so inherent in this music. Of course the final irony is that when the film aired nationally on PBS, they edited out just about every bit of this stuff." Zwigoff would like to see Louie Bluie, which is not in distribution right now, in a double bill with Crumb.

Crumb, his wife, Aline, who is also a cartoonist, and their daughter now live in France, in a move that takes place in the last part of the film. Amazingly, Crumb still hasn’t seen Crumb. According to Zwigoff, the cartoonist has turned down all kinds of star-studded offers – Rolling Stone wanted to do an eight-page piece on the film, Letterman wanted to feature him on the show – with his usual suspicion of the banalizing tendency of the press. Zwigoff opines that Crumb will feel differently when he realizes that the film is not really about himself but a story about the three brothers and their artwork, "and [about] how being different and not fitting in can have such great risks and rewards in your life and in your art."

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