Tue, Jul 22 (9:30 pm)
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1994
It makes you wonder if more filmmakers shouldn’t be turning their cameras on their most intimate acquaintances: Terry Zwigoff had played in a band and been good friends with legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb for over 20 years before finishing Crumb (1995), a film that benefits enormously from the director’s intimate understanding of, and access to, his subject. The film, screening Tuesday as part of Metro Cinema’s ongoing “Cult” series, draws a portrait of the artist in middle-age, on the verge of leaving his San Francisco home forever to re-settle in France with his wife.
The film describes a deeply eccentric nerd and preternatural curmudgeon who learned to make a life for himself by submitting to a relentless compulsion to interpret the world around him through drawing, the result being sometimes satire and sometimes fantasy of the most brazen, grotesque, perverse incarnations. Often it’s both. What’s morally or politically troubling about Crumb’s monstrous, big-assed, powerful-legged—and, in at least one case, decapitated—women or his nostalgia for bygone eras awash in racist imagery is all on the table, and Zwigoff invites several articulate commentators to examine it, some of whom regard Crumb as a contemporary Brueghel, others a narcissistic pornographer of the most dangerous kind. I don’t think this is Zwigoff’s attempt at objectivity. I think he’s just trying to get things right, to look at Crumb’s work from as broad a perspective as possible.
You might argue that Crumb’s work is of secondary importance to the story of the Crumb brothers. Zwigoff and his crew accompany Robert on visits to his housebound, pharmaceutically dependent brother Charles, who still lives with mother in a house frozen in time, passing his days re-reading the Victorian novels he adored as a boy. There are also visits to Robert’s ascetic brother Maxon, who lives alone in a San Francisco fleabag apartment and meditates on a bed of nails. There are alludes to a history of sexual assaults. There’s something truly unsettling about how closely Charles and Max’s biographies resemble less fortunate variations on Robert’s. Robert seems to care for and even admire his brothers, yet is so overcome with despair over their lifestyles and psychological frailty that all he can usually do in response to their stories is emit more of his trademark dry chuckles.
Truth is you’ll probably laugh, too, while watching Crumb, which never succumbs to pity or sentimentality and often celebrates that one essential element that might just keep the Crumb brothers—and some of the rest of us—alive for as long as we can bear it: a healthy sense of humour. Long before he made fiction movies, Zwigoff proved himself a masterful storyteller, and I don’t think he could honestly tell any story without recognizing its inherent laughter.