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."
In one of the opening scenes of DiG!", (2004) Matt Hollywood screams at Anton Newcombe, "In every spiritual tradition, you burn in hell for pretending to be God and not being able to back it up!" If there was a thesis statement for "DiG!," then Hollywood has hit the nail on the head.
"DiG!" is a documentary that was nine years in the making about two American bands you may very well have never heard of: the Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) and the Dandy Warhols (The Dandies). In the mid-1990's, both bands were, unlike most others, playing music that didn't sound like Pearl Jam or Nirvana. They were each doing something different, and even though they didn't sound remotely like one another, they enjoyed each others company and admired each others work. They were friends and they had big naive plans of starting a musical revolution. Early in the film, Anton Newcombe, the lead singer of the BJM and the film's crazed star for the most part, stares into the camera and exclaims, "I'm here to destroy this fucked up system. I will do it. That's why I got the job. I said let it be me; I said use my hands. I will use our strength. Let's fuckin' burn it to the ground."
The film is full of these fabulous quotes from Newcombe, who is hell bent on making ground-breaking music and destroying everyone who gets in his way. Problem is: Anton is the person who most often gets in Anton's way, so he spends most of his life destroying himself. Anton seems to be split right down the middle: he wants to become a commercial success while at the same time despising the thought; he understands he needs band mates to play the other instruments but would much prefer if he could do it all himself; he wants to change music forever but wants nothing to do with the American music scene. And so, most of the film is about Anton running in circles and beating the shit out of himself. He fights endlessly with everyone in his life, often on stage during performances. In one scene, Anton picks a fight with his band mates during a gig at the Viper Room, in front of an audience of record executives from Elektra who are ready to sign him. He fights with his fans who aren't quiet or respectful enough during his performances. He fights with his producers for not having the patience to do punch-in after punch-in late into the night. He fights and fights and fights and, at the end of the day, he's left with nothing but his self-produced and distributed albums that only a handful of people ever hear and all agree are nothing short of brilliant.
The Dandies, on the other hand, refer to themselves as the "most adjusted band in America." They sign a deal with Capitol Records and soon become a hit in Europe and eventually America. They understand what it takes to deal with record executives and inner band squabbles and, as their careers take off, they watch in awe as the BJM set themselves on fire again and again. As the film rolls on, the two bands pull further and further apart, so much so that, by the end, it almost feels like a scripted drama about the "right" and "wrong" ways to start and run a rock band.
Going into the movie I had never heard of either band, nor the director (Ondi Timoner), and I recognized hardly any single person involved (aside from David LaChapelle or Harry Dean Stanton, both of whom make brief cameos). It's not one of those documentaries where you have to know or care about the band beforehand to enjoy the ride (like "loudQUIETloud: A Film about the Pixes" or "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco."). The film is more about being young and talented and crazy in America in the late 20th century, and it captures the essence of this brilliantly. For The Dandies, it's about watching a smart band go from nothing to something. For the BJM, it's about watching a talented group of musicians run into brick walls, proving it's not all about sheer talent.
By the time the credits rolled, I found myself almost numb with awe at how crazy Anton really was. You hear stories of crazy artists, but seeing it with your own eyes is something entirely different. It makes you realize that there really are people who live on earth but not in reality, people that are brilliant at a single thing and hopelessly terrible at everything else. And as sad as that is, it sure makes for a great documentary.