Almost all artist documentaries are at least partially tortured-artist documentaries. They assume that we already know about the work; otherwise, what would be the point of watching? They aim to go beyond what we know and love about x visionary and find what is underneath. Because happiness can only exist in film by contrast, it is sadness, misery and despair that are found.
“Crumb” is unique among artist documentaries as it deals with someone who wears his torment on his sleeve. Robert Crumb’s comic books are a showcase for his insecurities about women, sex, drugs, the modern world, politics and religion. His life and work are not disconnected in the usual way. The movie, then, is able to ask a different, more abstract questions than most. If no detachment exists between Crumb and his work, and it really is just a stream of images that occurs to him, is it still art, and is it defensible morally?
Crumb states repeatedly that he does not think in terms of conscious meanings. He rarely attempts to defend himself against the allegation that his work might be racist and sexist. He claims only that it is something inside him that must come out. If not, he makes it very clear that he would be unable to live.
All around him, though, are people who try to explain his work by taking a detached view. The art critic Robert Hughes views Crumb as a social satirist in the vein of Bruegel or Goya. Another views him as an American Daumier. Some women say that Crumb is not being mean to women, but showing them as strong. Alene Crumb, his wife, describes him as revealing the nature of the male Freudian id. All of them seem silly when compared to Crumb himself. When they talk about him as a refined creator of a view of society, they are imagining something totally different from a man scribbling whatever comes into his head.
Two feminists interviewed in the documentary, one a writer for Mrs. Magazine and another a former colleague of Crumb’s, feel that Crumb goes too far. They worry that he validates violent feelings towards women. They are given time to develop their arguments, which are fairly strong. They seem to have a view of Crumb closer to his own than those who view him as an artist skewing societal norms. They understand how instinctive he is. In the way director Terry Zwigoff edits these scenes, it is made clear these objections should not be dismissed.
Yet, in the end, Crumb is indeed treated as an “artist,” personal flaws and all. He is not a healthy or a happy person and it is hard to believe that he ever will be. He is bitter about almost everything. But his anger and longing for a better world are drawn better than most people will ever draw anything saner and healthier.
Tony Schwab is a staff writer for Washington Square News.