“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.|