The best films revolve around the most interesting people. Of all the films I've seen, none allow me to spend time with a more fascinating person than Robert Crumb, a comic book artist, "the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century" says one art critic in the film. His drawings are like nothing you've ever seen: crazy, sadistic, perverted, and, above all, wildly offensive. But no matter who you are and how much your stomach turns when you see them, you can't look away, can't deny that they are impossibly special.
Most people this talented are either terribly introverted--and as a result horrible subjects for a film--or completely uninterested in letting a documentary film crew follow them around. But sometimes the stars align and out comes a film like this. The story goes that Terry Zwigoff, the film's director and Crumb's close friend, was depressed and defeated in the mid-1980s. Legend has it that Zwigoff made Crumb agree to the film by threatening to shoot himself. Of course, in this case, as in many cases, legend isn't actually true (this turned out to be a rumor accidentally started by Roger Ebert). But, as Tony Wilson says in the fabulous "24 Hour Party People," "Given the truth or the legend, always print the legend," so this is the way I like to think the film came about.
The documentary mostly involves Crumb chatting about his work and his life and spending time with his family, friends, and fans. And while that doesn't sound especially riveting, it is. The parts of the film I enjoy the most are those with Crumnb's two brothers, Charles and Max.
Charles is a forty something recluse who hasn't done much else with his life than ingest heavy doses of antidepressants and read upstairs in his mother's house surrounded by cats. It's clear from the very first moment we meet him that Charles is fiercely intelligent and terribly broken. He knows it to. Charles talks to the camera about wanting to bludgeon Robert over the head when they were children out of jealousy. Robert finds this amusing and laughs in the corner of the room as the camera pans over to get his reaction. The two have a strange bond. We learn that Charles got Robert, and the rest of the family, interested in comics. In fact, he demanded they dedicate their lives to little else when they were children; they even ran a makeshift publishing company. But as cute as this sounds, a bunch of kids writing comics, it's clear that it was anything but. Charles had an unhealthy obsession with, among other odd things, comics, and he demanded perfection, especially from Robert who admits that he still seeks Charles' approval. After meeting Charles, we get the distinct impression that something terrible happened to him and his brothers when they were children. Maybe it wasn't one specific event, but a series of events. Robert found a way to deal with it, which explains his work. Charles didn't, which explains his life or lack thereof. We never find out exactly what was so horrible about their up bringing, though it's clear their father had something to do with it.
Next we met Max Crumb, who only confirms our suspicion of terrible childhood experiences. Max looks a little younger than Robert and is just a step above homeless, living in what looks to be a one bedroom apartment where he sits on beds of nails and passes pieces of fabric through his intestines by swallowing them whole. While Charles is broken and defeated, Max is upbeat and psychotic. He tells distributing stories of his inability to control himself around women in public and shows us his artwork which, while clearly not without merit, looks like something that came out of a physc ward.
The more we understand about Robert's past and his family, the more interesting his work becomes. Once you get the full picture, Robert's work takes on a third dimension, as it becomes clear that he isn't just someone trying to get attention by drawing distributing pictures. Rather, you can see that the work is genuine and therapeutic, that it is self-medication. We rarely see Robert sitting without a pen and pad in front of him, scribbling away. He doesn't appear to have much control over what comes out. He's a conduit.
Yet, his work isn't purely cathartic. It also argues a specific worldview, which sees modern humanity as utterly sick and evil. His wife, who shares a similar vantage point, tells the camera of a time she visited a friend and watched in awe as the woman's fat pre-teen son sat in a giant football-helmet-shaped chair mesmerized by a video game in front of him. This is how Robert sees the world, especially Americans -- as people who lack any sense of "intellectual curiosity."
You leave the film with a dark and haunting feeling that's hard to understand. It's like everyone in the film knows some terrible secret that explains everything: where Robert's talent and work comes from and why the Crumb's are so destroyed. But revealing the secret, or even confirming that one exists, is absurd and not the point. The point is to get by, by sitting on nails, swallowing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and drawing women without heads. And sure, it leaves the audience rather hollow and frustrated to never get the answer, but it makes for a perplexing and ominous film that sticks with you for days. As Robert would say, "How perfectly god damned delightful it all is, to be sure."