Year 8, Day 236 - 8/23/16 - Movie #2,431
BEFORE: As long as I'm taking a look at documentaries about cartoonists, I'd be remiss if I didn't track this one down - cable TV doesn't seem to play it any more, so I'm watching it on the iTunes today. I had some contact with the work of R. Crumb in the past, since I had a college roommate who ran a music/comic fanzine out of our dorm room. Then I think I took a spin once through one of those hardcover anthologies of his work.
THE PLOT: An intimate portrait of the controversial cartoonist and his traumatized family.
AFTER: Much like Tower Records, R. Crumb was in the right place at the right time, or so it seems. His work caught on in San Francisco at the height of the hippie movement, with characters like "Mr. Natural", he drew the famous "Cheap Thrills" album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company (just before lead singer Janis Joplin became mega-famous) and his comics (like the "Keep on Truckin'!" guy) seemed to catch on just as the counter-culture was taking over. He worked on American Splendor comics with Harvey Pekar in the mid-1970's, and as drug use and the sexual revolution took hold, his themes seemed to be particularly relevant.
But according to this documentary, he doesn't seem to fit in with the 1960's or 1970's era, even though that's when his work gained prominence. He's more a fan of old jazz on vinyl records, and has always dressed like a guy who collects old records, in trademark wool suits and straw boater hats - like you'd imagine how a time traveler from the 1920's might look. Although he admits that his drawing style developed after taking LSD, he doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd take drugs, unless they were prescribed for his mental health. Even his most famous comic strips look a bit like they're spoofing "Gasoline Alley" or "The Katzenjammer Kids", if you can imagine those characters having graphic sex or taking drugs.
Many people also know him as the creator of Fritz the Cat, which was at one point turned into an X-rated cartoon. Crumb claims no connection to this animated film, other than that it's based on his characters. But throughout the entire documentary "Crumb", there seems to be a distancing of the artist from his art, as he often claims that he wasn't thinking about the implications of his stories at the time, so therefore he doesn't seem to know what they all "mean". Which seems a bit convenient, how do you tell a story and then not be aware of what it's supposed to be about?
So the question then becomes, is Robert Crumb just clueless, or does he pretend not to know that his work tends to degrade and sexualize women, or appear to be incredibly racist in its humor? Crumb just seems to smile and laugh as he's explaining his jokes, as if it's the most normal thing in the world to encounter a native African warrior woman, and then prank her by making her lick a toilet clean. Oh, and if I don't happen to find that funny, then I'M the bad guy, with no sense of humor.
There's an attempt here to rationalize Crumb's behavior, if not exactly explain it, by showing him interacting with his brothers Charles and Maxon, as he prepares to move to France with his wife (a move now known as the "Roman Polanski"). At the time of filming, his older brother Charles still lived at home with their mother and his younger brother Maxon, who supported himself by panhandling, but also sat on a bed of nails and employed Eastern methods of cleansing his body, like swallowing that really long cloth that passes through one's system over the course of a week. Both brothers tell tales from their childhood together, where they not only wrote and drew comic books, but also felt their first sexual stirrings - one developed an attraction to a young boy seen in the film "Treasure Island", and the other took to molesting women in public.
Perhaps this was an attempt to make Robert seem like the most normal and well-adjusted of the three brothers, but that's like being the least rotten tomato in a basket full of them. And it doesn't excuse Robert's own behavior, or the misogyny in his art. We can read between the lines and assume that their father was abusive (whose wasn't, back then?) and it's flat-out stated that their mother was addicted to drugs, and perhaps these brothers are just the type of people you get from hands-off parenting. But since their two sisters declined to be interviewed for the film, we can only wonder what other depraved behavior went on in that house that the brothers AREN'T telling the filmmaker about.
Robert is seen drawing images of the girls he knew in school, who wouldn't pay much attention to him then - which suggests that he's in a state of arrested development at best, and possibly some kind of sociopath as well. Interviews with ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife also offer some insight, even though when confronted with his bad behavior as his boyfriend, like sleeping around with other women, there's that smile and laugh again. Even when a woman is standing right in front of him, saying "This is what you did wrong," he seems incapable of understanding it. He even states that he's "never been in love" right in front of his ex-girlfriend, which is the height of cruel cluelessness.
I want to feel pity for someone who's never been in love, but I just can't find it within me. One of his more famous comic stories detailed his character Mr. Natural delivering a woman without a head to his "everyman"character, Flakey Foont. In explanation of why he removed the woman's head, Mr. Natural says it's because she was too "mouthy". But thanks to a small second brain in her rear, the best parts of the woman could still be enjoyed - so of course Flakey has sex with the headless woman, which seems to be only a few steps removed from having sex with a headless corpse. Later in the strip, it's revealed that her head was only inverted inside her body, so Flakey's act was only sex with a live woman without consent, which of course is rape.
Now, I'm all for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but I think there's got to be some limit, and this is way over the line. While I tend not to side with the anti-porn movement, there are clearly some ideas that should be kept to oneself, especially if they might encourage bad behavior in others. And so I'm left wondering why this documentary chose to focus on this aspect of Crumb's work, and not, say, his own music career as the leader of the band "The Cheap-Suit Serenaders", or even how he arranges and stores his records, or for that matter, why he only likes to listen to old music on turntables or watch TV in black and white.
Overall it just seems like he's unstuck in time, like he was a retro hipster before that was even a thing. Or he's constantly romanticizing a simpler time, when he was just drawing comics with his brothers, before puberty came around and turned them into deviant monsters.
And thus I face a difficult task in "rating" a documentary such as this - do I rate by how it made me feel, which was sort of creeped out and nauseous, or by how "important" the subject matter is? How do I justify sitting in judgment of a film that might have set out to entertain, but ended up just clarifying how deeply disturbed (and disturbing) some artists are? I guess if we've learned only one thing this week, it's how screwed up all cartoonists seem to be - let's hope this is an extreme example.
Starring Robert Crumb, Aline Kaminsky Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb.
RATING: 5 out of 10 sketchbooks