‘People who want to be famous don’t know what they’re getting into,” artist Robert Crumb told this reporter during a 1989 interview.
“Once I got famous I saw a side of humanity I’d never seen before--people who don’t even know your work want to glom onto you just because you’re famous. It’s a nauseating aspect of human nature that people worship power, and it’s one of the things about mankind I find truly reprehensible.”
That comment should have alerted one to the fact that Crumb, who moved from his home near Davis, Calif., to southern France in 1993, would be less than thrilled at the prospect of being a movie star.
The subject of “Crumb,” a critically acclaimed biographical portrait directed by his friend Terry Zwigoff, the 50-year-old artist is more than underwhelmed by the success of the film--he’s running for cover.
This is understandable considering that Zwigoff’s film, which opens Friday at the Nuart, isn’t just a portrait of R. Crumb the artist; it’s also a deeply disturbing study of his dramatically dysfunctional family and a riveting inquiry into the mystery of creativity.
Watching the film is like seeing a rose grow out of concrete, and it’s anybody’s guess how Crumb managed to transform severe emotional problems, which destroyed his two equally gifted brothers, into a brilliant body of visual art.
“Robert’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is thinking of going into hiding for a few months,” says Crumb’s wife, artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, in explaining why her husband won’t be doing the interview he’d committed to before seeing the film.
“Robert agreed to do the film because Terry’s his best friend and we both thought it would be some small arty thing. None of us had ever done anything like this before, so we were all naive. And I don’t think any of us, especially Terry, realized what the film might do to Robert’s life.
“Obviously it’s an incredibly moving, well-edited film, and there was no betrayal on Terry’s part, but for Robert it’s a devastatingly intimate look at things he doesn’t want to look at,” adds Aline, who collaborated with her husband on a wry cartoon in the current issue of The New Yorker titled “Head for the Hills,” which expresses their ambivalence about the film.
“It’s very anxiety-producing to have this kind of information about you and your family out for anyone to see, and having people hounding you to talk about it only adds to the anxiety. If we were left in peace to reflect on the film it would probably be easier to handle, but there’s a media frenzy descending on us that’s made this a nightmare.
“We’re happy for Terry and hope he gets to make more films, and for people who don’t know us I’m sure it will be very interesting, but we’d both prefer the film didn’t exist.”
Begun in 1985 and completed for less than $200,000, “Crumb” took root “simply because Robert’s a great artist,” says Zwigoff, whose previous films include “Louie Bluie,” a portrait of obscure blues musician Howard Armstrong, and “A Family Named Moe,” a documentary on the history of Hawaiian music.
“Whenever I paged through his sketchbook I was always knocked out by the scope of his art, and I thought it was appalling that the only work of his most people know are inconsequential things he did in the ‘60s like ‘Keep on Truckin’ ’ and Fritz the Cat. So, my original intention was to help people gain a deeper understanding of his work. The film quickly got off that track, however.
“When I started the film I told Robert I wasn’t interested in doing a straight biography and that I wanted his family to be involved, but I didn’t expect the family to figure as prominently in the film as it does. I’d met his mother (Beatrice) and his brother Charles when I spent a night at their house in Philadelphia in the early ‘70s and thought they were both funny and brilliant.
“When I met Robert’s mother, she was more together than she is now, and unfortunately, she comes across in the film as more spun-out than she is in real life. That couldn’t be helped, though, because (she only) let us shoot for an hour.
“Robert’s younger sister told me if I so much as mentioned her name in the film she’d sue me for everything I’m worth, and his older sister was a bit more polite but also said no. I have no idea why they refused, but then, Robert too was reluctant to let me delve into his family. I think the only reason he let me film them was because he was convinced the film would never be finished--and that if it was, it wouldn’t be seen by anybody. He’s extremely upset that Sony Pictures picked it up and that it looks like it may be successful.”
Zwigoff achieved his original intention in that people tend to come away from his film with a deepened respect for R. Crumb as an artist; his body of work, as shown in the film, is inarguably dazzling. But viewers also come away haunted by Crumb’s family, particularly his older brother Charles, who committed suicide in 1993 at the age of 51, shortly after the film wrapped. One watches the closing credits wondering: Gee, what happened to these people?
On closer examination it seems a fairly simple equation: The Crumb brothers were three extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent people who had the bad luck to be raised in a hostile environment. The hostility of their childhood in Philadelphia is largely traceable to their father, whom Charles describes as a “sadistic bully.”
Robert mentions in passing that when he was 5, his father broke his collarbone while beating him on Christmas Day and that his father stopped speaking to him after seeing the work in Zap comics that launched his career in 1968. Today, the artist remembers his father, who died in 1982, as “a grim guy with a hard-ass attitude about life who thought my mother was mollycoddling all of us--which she was.”
The mollycoddling ended in the ‘50s, when their mother became addicted to amphetamines (in an attempt to control her weight) and developed a wrath to match her husband’s. Mother and father fought constantly, and Robert recalls in the film that his mother, who often threatened to punish her children with the administration of enemas, would scratch his father’s face “until it looked like ground hamburger.”
At this point the brothers retreated into a shared fantasy world to a much more extreme degree than most children do. The fantasy world was dictated by Charles and mostly revolved around comics.
“Charles radiated this white-hot obsession with comics so intensely that I became swept up in it and began drawing,” Robert Crumb recalled in the 1989 interview. “I was able to channel my interest in comics in a way that he couldn’t, though, because I was always more sensible than him. He was completely wacko, and when we were kids he was always doing incredibly daring, harebrained things. I’d watch, and he’d get his ass kicked by some authority.”
Charles Crumb’s art was always defiantly anarchistic and filled with rage, so it wasn’t surprising when his chronic depression finally brought an end to his creative output; his cartooning devolved into a compulsive graphomania, and for several years he spent much of his time filling pages with script that became increasingly unreadable.
On tranquilizers and antidepressants from the age of 20, when he attempted suicide by ingesting a bottle of furniture polish and a handful of pills, Charles worked for just one year of his life (he was employed as a telephone solicitor in 1969) and never moved out of the house he grew up in.
“At least he’s not married and making some woman miserable,” says his mother, whom Robert Crumb describes as being “in a heavy state of denial about a lot of things.”
The film offers no explanation for the acute sexual dysfunction that afflicted all three brothers, but subtle clues do surface.
“My younger brother Maxon and I slept in the same bed together until we were 16--it was a very intimate, close situation,” Robert recalls in the film, and his art has always been permeated with an obsessive ambivalence toward women. Depicting sex as something riddled with terror, he commented in 1989 that “the Catholic Church is probably responsible for a lot of the anger toward women that comes out in my strips--I once did a strip where I actually had myself beheading a nun!”
Confessing to Zwigoff that he developed a shoe fetish at the age of 4, began being sexually attracted to cute cartoon characters when he was 6 and was obsessed with Sheena of the Jungle when he was 12, Robert nonetheless fared far better then his brothers in the sex department.
He says that as far as he knew, Charles had never had sex by the time of his death and that his romantic life began and ended with a crush on male child actor Bobby Driscoll, who starred in Disney’s film version of “Treasure Island.”
Maxon Crumb, who is also a visual artist (the first painting he ever made is a portrait of Van Gogh shooting himself), recalls being “morbidly self-conscious of my body as a child” and repressed his sexuality to such a degree that he believes it led to the epileptic seizures he began having in sixth grade and continues to suffer.
At age 18, he started molesting Chinese women on the subways of his hometown, and in the film admits to continuing to periodically molest women. He also spends much of his time sitting on a bed of nails while flossing his intestines. (Every six weeks, Maxon performs the yogi practice of swallowing a long, slender rope that takes three days to pass through his body.)
“People may think I looked for the sensationalistic aspects of Robert’s life but they don’t know the half of it,” Zwigoff says. “There’s lots of very wild stuff I chose not to include in the film for a variety of reasons. There are aspects of Maxon’s life that are unbelievable, but I felt including them could create problems for him.”
As to why Robert Crumb’s art functioned as a healing force in his life in a way it failed to for his brothers, Zwigoff says: “I think it’s because he got positive feedback for it. It was the success Robert’s art brought him, rather than simply getting the stuff out on paper, that had a positive effect on his life. I think that he and Aline’s daughter, Sophie, who’s 14 now, has also had a hugely positive effect on his life. Robert’s a wonderful father, and over the course of Sophie’s life he’s become much more patient and compassionate, and I think that’s largely because of her.
“Beyond that, Robert could always cope better than his brothers and was less passive,” Zwigoff says. “Charles was completely existential and passive about everything and was mired in the belief that life is so absurd there’s barely any point in living it. I wasn’t surprised when he committed suicide, although it worries me that maybe the film had something to do with his decision to finally take his own life.
“Charles made several suicide attempts over the course of his life, and he told me when we were filming him that his one hope in life was that he’d live long enough that his mother would pass away and he’d be able to return to the Haverford State Mental Hospital, where he’d spent what he considered to be the best years of his life. He had a bit of a social life there, playing cards with the other inmates--he really was very lonely.”
Charles’ suicide also came as a blow to director David Lynch, who is listed in the opening credits as the presenter of the film.
“I was devastated when I learned Charles committed suicide because I loved that guy and was hoping to make a film with him--I think he would’ve been an incredible actor,” Lynch says. “I loved his predicament and the way his work showed how he ended up in that bedroom, and the film does an amazing job of giving us an idea of what goes on in that mind. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about how artists actually work, and it’s a story of a family like I’ve never seen a family.”
A nd that, in short, is why Rob ert Crumb hates it.
“He had a very emotional reaction to the film,” says Zwigoff, clearly saddened by any pain he is causing his friend. “He called me last week and told me that after he watched it he took his favorite hat that he’s had for 20 years and threw it off a cliff because he doesn’t want to be R. Crumb anymore.
“I think the thing Robert dislikes about the film is the very thing people are responding to--namely, those family issues. Most people I know had pretty twisted childhoods--I think that’s the norm rather than the exception, and that an amazing number of people recognize their own lives in this story.”