Film Reviews

Portrait of a ladies' man

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Such casual on-screen conversations are the real thorny heart of Crumb, the place where viewers will either continue to watch in macabre fascination or march out of the theater repulsed. Zwigoff and company have included numerous examples of Robert Crumb's spirited but decidedly peculiar depictions of women. We learn he idolizes females with huge breasts and buttocks, but more than that, his licentious sagas of scrawny, sunken-chested geeks and voracious Amazonian women--sometimes with vulture heads, sometimes without heads at all--tell the story of a man who never quite overcame his fear of the female half of the species. Zwigoff enlists two women admirers of Crumb's work--'60s cartoonist Trina Robbins and former Mother Jones editor Deidre English--to talk about certain works by the artist they feel have crossed the line into exploitation and degradation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they score a bull's eye. After being quizzed on the subject several times, R. Crumb himself nervously admits he harbors certain hostilities toward women, and cannot defend his most dirty-minded work except to say he is driven to express these dark impulses with pen and paper--but not in real life. Ex-girlfriend and Leg Show editor Dian Hanson proclaims what he finally cannot say himself--he functions in a permanent state of arrested adolescence, so much so that he cannot help but masturbate compulsively over his own illustrations.

On the offense meter, his illustrations of monstrous females can't compare to how he pictures African-American characters--as gullible, big-lipped natives of the Congo. In one comic, his most famous black character of the '60s, a woman named Angelfood McSpade, is flattered by a couple of Anglo businessmen and finally coaxed to come work in America--where she cleans toilets with her tongue.

Crumb, an avid collector of vinyl recordings by black blues musicians from the '20s and '30s, claims the only complaints about race he's received have come from "white liberals." He staunchly defends his extreme racial caricatures as satires on pervasive American racist stereotypes, but Zwigoff admits he approached the subject with more caution.

"We started to worry it was racist not to have a black person talking in the film," he said. "So we tried to think of every black commentator who might have an opinion on Crumb's work. Not only couldn't we find anyone, but we realized the whole search was racist in itself. We wanted people to make up their own minds about his art, based on those who would talk."

Despite the diverse sensibilities trampled upon by the film, it has opened to almost universal critical praise and box-office victory all over the country. Indeed, several prominent film critics--including Time's Richard Schickel and Newsweek's David Ansen--wondered in print why Crumb wasn't championed at this year's Oscar ceremony by a cadre of columnists and Hollywood powerbrokers like the documentary Hoop Dreams.

"Last year I had to make up my mind whether to submit Crumb," Zwigoff declares. "I went ahead and chose 1994, even though people told me not to, because Hoop Dreams was so PC it was bound to win. Then, after the nominations were announced and the Hoop Dreams controversy started, I read in The New York Times that [Academy voter] Mitchell Block said, 'You know after 20 minutes if a movie is a turkey.' Well, I heard later they shut mine off after 20 minutes.

"When I saw that Crumb was omitted from the documentary nominations, I sent [Academy president] Arthur Hiller a note that included all the film's great reviews. He sent me back a letter saying, in effect, I should be happy to get what I got for a documentary film--so many great reviews."

His final assessment of the Academy is: "Well, I'd just have to say 'Fuck you.' It seems like the more interesting films don't get nominated."

In determining just how commercial he wanted his documentary feature to be, Zwigoff had to make some difficult choices--including the final decision to cut interview footage that featured Robin Williams rhapsodizing on how R. Crumb had influenced his own comic perspective.

"He was very nice and cooperative," Zwigoff asserts. "My producer knew his wife's phone number, so we called him up and asked. He said, 'When and where do you want to film?' The stuff he gave us was wonderful, but it didn't fit the rest of the footage at all, so I decided to leave it out."

Ultimately, perhaps the bravest aspect of Crumb is how the film insists that art doesn't always spring from the noblest intentions, and shouldn't necessarily be expected to uplift us. There's something to be said for indulging (on paper) our most forbidden thoughts and desires--if they help us understand ourselves better.

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Jimmy Fowler

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