Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Fourteen

I’ll be happy when this challenge is over and done with. Writing these reviews has been fun, and I plan to write more, but I’m eager to get back to running more poetry, more fiction, other writings and stuff created solely with this blog in mind. I’m still trying to figure out what that stuff might entail. I hope it will at least be interesting.

I’m just spinning my wheels. I tend to feel that way about my life in general, and it’s one of the main reasons why I’m so chipper and upbeat about things like my career, my love life, and my ability to relate, and be useful to people at large. I can only control but so much, but I’d like to think I’m at least in charge of anything I do creatively. Writing hasn’t had that great rush for a while now, and this blog is ideally one of the things meant to change that.

And one of the ways to do that is to get into writing things I normally wouldn’t write.

Does that make any sense?
**********

Day Fourteen: Favorite Documentary

Crumb (1994)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Robert Crumb

I didn’t start watching documentaries until I was about fourteen or fifteen. I don’t think I ever had a particular dislike for them. It was just one of those things that didn’t exist on my radar. That changed, because I started catching stuff (usually by accident) on channels like IFC and Sundance.  Those were the two movie channels I watched the most. They usually offered the best selection, and they usually had a better chance of surprising me with something, I never would have seen otherwise. That fantastic ability to be surprised like that was best seen in how many documentaries I started to watch, and appreciate.

I’m probably going to forever be a couple hundred documentaries behind. I’ve been able to see a lot of great ones over the past ten or so years, but I’ll probably never see every single one, I’d like to see. That’s not a big deal. It just means I’ll never run out of possible titles. At this point I’d say I get as much influence and enjoyment from them, as I do from fictional works.

The wildly egotistical (and very small) part of my thoughts wonders how a documentary about me would turn out. I have a feeling it would be more of a roast than a tribute. That would at least be kind of entertaining. I do know some pretty funny people.

I think everyone wonders how something like that would sum up their life. And then we switch back over to daydreams and fiction, because that’s usually a lot more appealing. That’s at least true of my own life.

I feel strangely guilty for not going with more serious fare for this review, but I keep coming back to Crumb, as one of the most compelling films I’ve ever seen, so I think that should grant the movie the top spot over any other candidates. The field I have to choose from is pretty good, but I know it’s missing countless classics, that I just haven’t gotten around to seeing.

Topping Crumb wouldn’t be easy though. I’m pretty confident about that.

I first heard of Crumb, and its subject matter, from a commercial I happened to see on IFC at around two-thirty in the morning. This was around 1999, 2000 (I’m guessing), and IFC was in the habit of running spots for their upcoming movies, that consisted of just showing a thirty or sixty-second second clip of the movie. I liked that. It was simple. The clips were often memorable, and I discovered a lot of great movies through them.

The snippet they showed for Crumb was the part where Robert Crumb talks about his childhood sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny. He tells the story, the way anyone who loved Bugs Bunny as a child would tell it. The tone isn’t disconcerting. The disconcerting part is the way that tone is recounting a sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny.

There’s also a somewhat unsettling story about an aunt, her boots and how that got Crumb through his growing-up years.

How could I not want to watch a documentary about someone like this?

I saw the documentary, and the impact was immediate. I wound up becoming a huge fan of his work. Crumb’s comics are some of the most original, disturbing, sometimes horrifying and often hilarious examples of not only comic books but art in general. It’s a comfort knowing his kind of weirdness is out there, and that it yields things like Fritz the Cat and an illustrated adaptation of the The Book of Genesis. It was also through Crumb that I eventually discovered people like Harvey Pekar, whose comics were sometimes illustrated by Crumb.

Director Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is one of the best examples of a documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s a study in the bizarre that’s never dictated with judgment, arrogance or an infatuation with weirdness that doesn’t go anywhere or reveal anything. Zwigoff is obviously a fan. He approaches his subject matter, with reverence and fascination, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of presenting a complete portrait of a man, who has largely avoided any public forums. Crumb is like any perfect documentary, in that Zwigoff never gets in the way of what we’re watching. For the most part he’s no different than us. He melts into the background for large chunks of the film, and is merely an observer into Crumb’s art, dysfunction, opinions, day-to-day life and family. Nine years is a long time to make a film happen. It’s hard to imagine Zwigoff giving up so much of his life without truly believing in the ability for his subject matter to be interesting on its own.

Crumb’s family life takes up a lot of the movie, and it perhaps provides the most intrigue. We meet his brothers, who provide the film’s most saddening, quietly tragic moments. Maxon and Charles Crumb both display artistic brilliance as great as that of their more-famous brother. An assortment of personal demons and psychological troubles just happened to get in the way. Maxon has since gone on to some success as a writer and artist. Charles, the far more troubled of the two, would pass away before the film was released in 1994. I wasn’t surprised about that. There’s only a sad fascination with his scenes. They are the most difficult moments in the movie to sit through, because we know there’s no hope for Charles. On his artistic potential alone that’s unfortunate.

Indeed.

Family is a crucial part of Crumb’s work. The influence from his brothers (Charles was the one who encouraged him to take up drawing in the first place), his abusive, alcoholic father, his sisters (who declined to be interviewed), his intelligent, profoundly strange mother, his wives, children and closest associates is considerable. They are everywhere in his stories and illustrations, and they’re around for most of Crumb’s opinions and travels in the film.

It’s not all tragedy. There are some genuinely touching, funny moments to be had. It’s as interesting to see Crumb working with his son on a piece as it is to watch a get-together with Robert, his brothers and his mother.

It might be even more interesting when we see Robert head off to a photo shoot arranged by the editor of Juggs and Leg Show (it’s funny, but it’s also eerily surreal, to see this entire thing arranged with girls, who represent some of Crumb’s more well-known fetishes), but that’s up to you.

His artwork will never be for the world at large. Some of what we see in Crumb will always be regarded by many as sick, brutal and the product of a diseased mind. The guarantee of both his art and this film is that it’s going to draw a reaction from people. Crumb has a wide range of fans and supporters, but his detractors have always been there, too. Zwigoff allows a slew of opinion-makers, to weigh in with views of disgust, and serious concern for Crumb’s output. You might agree with them, and you might not. What it accomplishes is a complete, rounded portrait of not only Crumb’s life and career (both perpetually tied together), but of the affect that career has had on everyone it’s touched. Art likely saved Crumb’s life, and we’re lucky that this has had implications on the lives, beliefs and professions of so many others. Crumb is both an autobiography, and a critical analysis of an important American artist. Zwigoff uses both of these approaches to create a flawless portrayal.


It’s not a small wonder that the film took so long to complete and very nearly drove him to suicide.

Crumb is one of the things that taught me there are some stories fiction can never hope to duplicate. That’s an essential part of the documentaries I love, and that’s more true with Crumb than any other documentary I can think of. It’s a moving, classic piece of filmmaking, and it’s an indispensable commentary on creativity and madness, and how the rest of us react to a particular form of it.

Not surprisingly, Crumb was also produced by David Lynch. That makes entirely too much sense.

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