"Crumb": The artist as pervert

“I don’t work in conscious messages.  I can’t do that…it has to be something that I’m revealing to myself while I’m doing it.  […]  While I’m doing it, I don’t know what it’s about.  You just have to have the courage to take that chance.  What’s coming out?  What’s coming out of this?”                                                                       —R. Crumb

Robert Crumb has been something of a cultural hero to me ever since I first saw Terry Zwigoff’s documentary film about him in the late 1990s.  Say what you will about Crumb’s work, which engages provocatively with issues of sex and drugs, race and gender: it derives from an artistic impulse that seems to me totally pure, because it flows so directly from the depths of his creative unconscious.  Crumb (1995) is a portrait of a family of artists (not just Robert but also his brothers Charles and Maxon) for whom drawing is not so much a craft or a vocation as it is a compulsion.  Especially in the case of Charles, who suffered from chronic depression and committed suicide in 1992 after the shooting of the film was completed, drawing acts as a form of what Robert calls “graphomania,” a need to pour one’s innermost thoughts and desires, however taboo, out onto the page, even if only in the form of illegible scribbling.  Robert’s own graphomania is only slightly more mild than Charles’.  “Maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me,” Robert jokes at one point.  But one imagines that even this would not stifle his violent, almost libidinal drive for self-expression.   

According to the cover of a collection of artwork by Charles, Maxon, Robert, and his wife Aline, “the whole family is crazy!”  Zwigoff’s film echoes this sentiment with equal measures of wry humor and pathos.  The Crumb family is a buzzing hive of obsessions and repressions, the three brothers (self-described “wimpy, nerdy weirdos”) having grown up dominated by their “overbearing tyrant” of a WWII-veteran father and an amphetamine-addicted mother.  Maxon refers to their shared adolescence as a twisted family romance, the brothers reportedly sleeping in the same bed into their mid-teens, “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” laboring tirelessly on creative projects that were more fueled by competition than by collaboration.

Compared to his brothers, both of whom figure as prisoners of their own maladjustment, Robert comes off looking almost normal.  His art begs to be read as a more or less successful form of sublimation—a safe outlet for the thoughts and fantasies that might otherwise have consumed him.  Throughout his career Crumb has managed to channel his id without ever becoming its slave.  (David Cronenberg comes to mind as an artist who has similarly toed the line between the surreal and the cerebral—half pervert, half intellectual.)       

The Crumb documentary, which has now fascinated me for the better part of twenty years, still seems to me one of the finest portrayals of the creative process in cinema—its inspirations, its production, and its reception, each of these shaped by psychology, society, and culture.  It’s also always keenly tuned into the personalities of its very human subjects, and one of my favorite moments in the film is one of its quietest: Robert and his adult son, drawing side by side, comparing their work.  Craziness may indeed run in this family, but so too does a powerful creative impulse that stretches across the generations, for better or worse. 

Like father, like son: R. Crumb giving a drawing lesson to his son Jesse.


Cutting "Sisters"

Menage a trois: Bill Finley, Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt in Sisters.

“What the devil hath joined together let no man cut asunder!”  That was the tagline for Sisters (1973), Brian de Palma’s earliest exercise in playfully sending up the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  And what an exercise!  Sisters is chock-a-block with film-nerd in-jokes and visual gags (like an iris shot that materializes out of a zoom-in on the iris of a character’s eye); it’s a document of ’70s New York at its most delightfully grimy (it’s set on Staten Island, referred to fleetingly in the film as “the lost borough,” no less); it sports a relentless Bernard Herrmann score; and it’s got an absolute doozy of a third act, set at a mental institution where Jennifer Salt’s intrepid reporter is hypnotized and brainwashed by a seriously creepy “doctor” played by Bill Finley.  Sisters feels like it was made by a kid who’s been given permission to use his master’s toolbox for the first time and who can barely contain his excitement.  Even as he would go on to refine this style in later, more impeccable films like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), de Palma already shows remarkable sophistication and sure-handedness in many of Sisters’ key sequences, chief among them being one in which split-screen is used to juxtapose the cover-up of a crime with a nosy neighbor’s attempts to investigate it.  

The use of split screen—a gimmick that would go on to become one of de Palma’s trademarks—literalizes the film’s themes of splitting and cutting, doubles and twins.  (Even Herrmann’s score is based on a constant alternation between two competing notes, B-flat and A.)  Having been traumatically separated from her conjoined twin sister, Danielle (Margot Kidder) has undergone a schizophrenic personality split; her alter ego Dominique cuts up men as a form of revenge against the man who cut them apart.  In a macabre running gag, Danielle wins a set of cutlery on a TV game show, pieces of which—a butcher knife, a meat cleaver—are put to various sinister uses over the course of the film.

Danielle/Dominique makes use of her new cutlery.

Cutting is an act of division that makes two out of one; but Sisters is also about the act of cutting together in addition to cutting apart.  The two women at the heart of the film, seemingly as different as night and day (one a strident, politically engaged journalist with little social life to speak of, the other a seductive, feather-brained model “and sometime actress” who disidentifies with women’s lib), eventually find themselves joined at the hip—a satirical comment, perhaps, on the unlikely bonds of feminine “sisterhood”?  For Danielle the act of separation leads to violence and schizophrenia, while for Grace the thought of being attached to a woman who represents feminism’s worst nightmare is upsetting enough to trigger a mental breakdown.  So conjunction and separation prove equally terrifying in Sisters, something that de Palma plays with even at the level of the editing, as when the two halves of his split screen finally, thrillingly merge.

Split screens, conjoined.


Placing "Ikiru"

Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1952).

Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950) remain Akira Kurosawa’s most highly regarded films, with Ikiru (1952) probably in third place, though my preference is for the last of these, in spite of its anomalousness within Kurosawa’s filmography.  I suppose it says something about me that I gravitate not to Kurosawa’s action-packed period pieces but rather to this quietly devastating character study set in the present day.  I also wonder about the shaping of the Kurosawa canon in the U.S., and the extent to which that canon was determined by the order in which the films were seen by American audiences in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

Rashomon proved a tremendous international hit, winning the Golden Lion at Venice in September of 1951 and a Best Foreign Film Oscar in March of 1952.  But both of Kurosawa’s two subsequent films The Idiot (1951) and Ikiru went unreleased stateside until after the success of his next film Seven Samurai, which premiered in the U.S. in late 1956.  It would take another three years before a torrent of these films from Kurosawa’s back catalog would flood American art houses, presumably because until he achieved name recognition his films were assumed to have little market value.  Between December of 1959 and November of 1963 no less than twelve Kurosawa films were released in the U.S.: Drunken Angel, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, Sanjuro, High and Low, Stray Dog, The Idiot, I Live In Fear.  And Ikiru, which premiered in late January of 1960.

To look at the original American reviews for Ikiru is to see Kurosawa’s reputation—and his filmographic canon—already beginning to solidify.  By 1962 Pauline Kael had written that “Ikiru is often called Kurosawa’s masterpiece,” though it’s difficult to verify this claim; she herself “much preferred” Throne of Blood, and the praise for Ikiru from such contemporaries as Bosley Crowther and Stanley Kauffmann was not untempered by criticism, mainly having to do with the film’s lengthy funeral sequence.  Having already been exposed to the flashier charms of Rashomon and Seven Samurai, reviewers seemed inclined to praise the relatively modest Ikiru more faintly.  And American distributors, clearly flummoxed about how to market this meditative drama—which resembles The Death of Ivan Ilyich crossed with A Christmas Carol—to audiences, desperately tried to pitch it as a sex movie (hence the image of the gyrating stripper in the film’s tone-deaf poster).  “Accessible” and respected though Ikiru may be, it’s doomed to live forever in the shadow of Kurosawa’s swashbucklers.  



The Films of 2017: Wonderstruck

Who ever would have thought that a children’s film by Todd Haynes would be a good idea?  Haynes’ previous films about children, fascinating as they are, could hardly be described as kid-friendly; a densely intellectual filmmaker, he has typically served up his visions of childhood with generous heapings of psychoanalysis and queer theory.  And yet his new film Wonderstruck is, as they used to say, fun for the whole family.  There is much here for a sophisticated filmgoer to appreciate, including a hand-crafted stop-motion animation sequence (a throwback to Haynes’ Barbie-doll movie Superstar, perhaps) and a silent film-within-the-film, Daughter of the Storm, that’s an affectionate pastiche of D. W. Griffith.  But Wonderstruck is also a hugely enjoyable entertainment—perhaps the most purely entertaining film Haynes has ever made, because it’s so uncluttered with competing ideas. 


Men in 1972

Of all the great American films of the 70s John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) might be the one to give the new masculinity the most thorough working-over.  Best remembered as a thriller—which of course it is—it’s also a cross-section of various male “types,” as represented by its four main characters and the actors who portray them. 

Jon Voight (right) as Ed.

“I like my life”: Jon Voight’s Ed is the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate, a mild-mannered Atlanta ad exec whose manhood is tested over and over again and proves resilient.  Although the film is an ensemble picture it’s frequently through Ed’s eyes that we see things happen.  And it’s he who eventually assumes a position of leadership within the group—at the cost, we’re led to believe, of his own mental health (and an arrow through the abdomen).  In Midnight Cowboy (1968) Voight played a country boy adrift in the big city; here he plays a city boy whose weekend in the country triggers a traumatic loss of innocence. 

Ned Beatty as Bobby.

“you look just like a hog”: The scene in which Bobby (Ned Beatty) gets raped in the woods at the hands of a scruffy redneck (“lemme hear you squeal!”) still feels shocking nearly fifty years later.  If Deliverance is something of a latter-day Lord of the Flies, Bobby is a figure for the doomed fat kid Piggy.  Bobby represents a particularly subtle form of masculine insecurity: self-conscious about his lack of athletic prowess, and constantly picked on by the alpha male Lewis, he compensates by affecting a certain sexual bravado.  He compares the thrill of whitewater canoeing to sex (Katherine Hepburn, eat your heart out), reminisces about the wet dreams and sexual conquests of his youth, and jokingly (?) likens his air mattress to a blow-up doll.  Then he becomes one of the film’s sacrificial victims, in a turn of the plot that works to confirm his place at the bottom of the pecking order.   

Ronny Cox as Drew.
“he was the best of us”: Drew (Ronny Cox) is Deliverance’s Romantic poet, a guileless, sensitive, bespectacled minstrel with a six-string.  He communicates through music, naïvely attempting to use his guitar to bridge the gap between “civilization” and the “savagery” of the country people.  Later he says he “can’t understand how anyone could shoot an animal” and breaks down in tears at the thought of covering up the murder of Bobby’s rapist.  Too pure for this world, he is destined to wind up a fatality.

Burt Reynolds as Lewis.

“does he think he is Tarzan or what?”: Burt Reynolds’ Lewis—swaggering, braggadocious, hot-headed—spends the first half of the film riding for a fall.  Then in the second half he gets it, in the form of a broken leg that serves as a symbolic castration.  Lewis’ fate constitutes the most trenchant of Deliverance’s ironies.  But even if we can’t help but relish seeing Lewis get cut down to size, we also can’t help but appreciate the priapic brio that Reynolds brings to this role.  He chomps cigars and wears a wetsuit that shows off his chest hair and says things like “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before your can find anything” with a straight face.  Is Reynolds even aware of how much of an officious prick Lewis is?  It’s nearly impossible to tell.  The same co-presence of sincerity and irony marks Reynolds’ performance as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997)—as well as his jaw-dropping 1972 photo spread for Cosmopolitan.  Looking at his centerfold, it’s difficult to know if we’re seeing Burt or Lewis, lying on a rug made from a bear he shot himself.                 


The Films of 2017: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hell hath no fury like Frances McDormand scorned: in Martin McDonagh’s new film she plays Mildred Hayes, a woman of a certain age who decides to pick a fight with the local police force after they let the case of her daughter’s rape and murder go cold.  Thinking that heightening public consciousness about the crime will help jump-start the investigation, she rents three billboards at the edge of town and posts a haiku-like message that bespeaks her indignation: “RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS. / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”  The billboards stand along a quiet country road, out of the way of much traffic, but their message—conveyed in white letters against a flaming red background—screams loud.  Soon they have become a subject of no small controversy, much to the disgruntlement of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).


The Films of 2017: Lady Bird

About halfway through Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha there’s a wonderfully observed montage sequence in which the title character travels from New York to the Sacramento suburbs to spend a Christmas with her family.  Gerwig’s new film Lady Bird, her first as a director, is like a feature-length version of that sequence, a whip-smart and hugely funny autobiographical coming-of-age story driven by its teenage protagonist’s clashes with her teachers, friends, and mother—time-worn material that Gerwig and her actors have somehow managed to make fresh.  The film spans a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (“Is ‘Lady Bird’ your given name?” “Yes.  I gave it to myself”) as she slogs through her senior year of high school, desperate to flee to college somewhere on the East Coast, “where culture is.”  Prankish and outspoken, Lady Bird shoplifts fashion magazines, challenges the teachers at her Catholic school, and casually snacks on communion wafers.  Her boyfriends include her co-star in the school production of Merrily We Roll Along (Lucas Hedges), a theater geek who—ominously—“respects her too much” to touch her breasts; and a wannabe Marxist rock musician (Timothee Chalomet) who reads Howard Zinn.  Meanwhile, her tightly wound mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) hides her love behind a thick veneer of criticism and disapproval.  The film begins with a scene in which, after arguing with Marion about her post-graduation plans, Lady Bird leaps out of the (moving) car.