Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Criterion Recollection: Provocateur, Pauper, Prisoner

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for BarnesandNoble.com and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

Repression and Rebellion: Spine #533, Crumb (1994)

Terry Zwigoff's Crumb offers everything one could hope for in a documentary: interesting subject matter, intimate access, multiple, conflicting perspectives, great music and a host of unanswered questions that leave a viewer thinking about the film for days, weeks or even years after watching.

Crumb presents a fairly bleak portrait of a family struggling to maintain even the thin veneer of sanity while pursuing invisible demons in the form of art, spirituality and isolated reflection. Because of the relatively dark psychological subject matter and the unflinching portrayal of "bizarre" characters on the margins of society, Crumb developed a reputation as depressing. Especially with only one viewing, Crumb can overwhelm an audience, but beneath the surface tension, it exposes a fundamentally optimistic message, one of rebellion in the face of overwhelming odds, of individuality prided over conformity and of a trio of brothers who emerged out of the stifling repression of an abusive 1950s family, fearlessly seeking the truth about themselves and their place in the world.

Robert Crumb, seemingly the protagonist of this documentary, leads us through the byzantine and strange world of his art, libido and family. R. Crumb's celebrity provides a sort of keystone for viewers, allowing them a familiar foothold with such popular works as the once-ubiquitous "Keep on Truckin’" comic, or the hatchet-job adult film of Fritz the Cat. However, early into the film, as Robert Crumb speaks to a crowd of college students, we quickly realize that celebrity and popularity hold little interest for him, and that his most well-known works are also those which he most vigorously despises. Instead of veering into a navel-gazing "my REAL art is…" diatribe, we engage the essence of R. Crumb's art, both from his own, shockingly self-aware perspective, as well as those of art critics, feminists, former and current lovers, friends and foes.

Even that barely skims the surface of this film. The heart of this movie resides in the relationship between, and personalities of, the three Crumb brothers: Robert, Charles and Maxon. Each of the Crumb brothers, in his own way, lives an ostracized, tortured life. Each of the brothers sought a device with which he could cope with the intense trauma of their upbringing, as well as the social marginalization they had experienced since their school days. The core of this trauma is an intense repression of fundamental sexuality, brought about by the tyranny and abuse of their father. Only by rebelling against this repression could they begin to function in society. Or, in the case of Charles Crumb, the oldest brother who apparently bore the brunt of their fathers' abuse, the inability to break free from this internalized rule-of-the-father determined the tragic course of his entire life.

Robert Crumb — Externalization as Distancing
The bulbous, goggled eyes of Robert Crumb peer intently over his awkward protruding nose, as his thin hand meticulously inks a picture of the camera filming him. This feedback loop of reference (a camera filming him drawing a picture of a camera filming him) begins our journey into R.'s world and in no small way sets the stage for the psychological connection between him, his art and the way he experiences life.

His art has been described as shocking, as pushing the limits of expression (and good taste), as daring to go into those taboo places that most people fear and to hold a mirror up to the ugly face of society. Yet, in an inverted way, the externalization of his deepest unconsciousness and libido serves Robert as a repression mechanism. By refracting his real life experiences and feelings through the externalization of his art, he distances himself from these things and observes them from the outside in.

It would be hard to understate the obsession with which Robert Crumb draws. It seems to have become a kind of nervous tic, a nearly unconscious activity that produces comfort where none is to be found. Yet one can't argue with the results. His eye finds such keen detail and his drawings evoke the essence of their subjects. Later in the film, as he shares a moment with his son Jesse, a fantastic artist in his own right, Robert explains that in order to produce the essence of a subject, one must exaggerate those things that make up this abstract quality, not render a perfect copy of the original. Robert walks his talk, using the incongruent exaggerated cuteness he picked up working for a greeting card company to accentuate the often dark subject matter with which he deals.

His unique art led him into the forefront of underground comics in the late 1960s and 1970s, spearheading what would become an industry in its own right. However, we learn in Crumb that Robert never associated himself with the counter-culture movement, that in fact he detested most of it and what little conformity he did allow himself was done in the pursuit of "free love."

In reality, Robert identifies as an anachronism. In his dress, in the music he loves, in his attitudes toward society, Robert maintains an old-timey quaintness that speaks less to the appreciation of the aficionado and more toward the complete alienation from contemporary culture and those who enjoy it. This "things were once good, but now we've fallen" mentality serves two purposes: one, it idealizes a past with which one has had no direct, i.e. traumatic, experience. Two, it gives him carte blanche when criticizing contemporary society and/or dealing with one's own rejection of/by it.

Wallflower though he may be, and as defensive as these psychological mechanisms are, Robert's knack for social criticism and the self-awareness with which he does it deserve high praise. His most endearing quality may be his penchant for self-awareness. The multiple layers of irony and self-deprecation enhance the truth of his barbs rather than detract from them. One can't help but read a comic like Angelfood McSpade and realize that it both hits one over the head with a hammer and operates on a subtle level. The overt racism, stereotyping and cruelty of the comic present us with a (slightly) exaggerated portrait of the undercurrent of race relations in America. As one commenter in the film states, it forces you to analyze your own attitudes towards these issues and seek out your own repressed prejudices. The subtle irony, however, is that things really are that way. When Robert pens a fake ad for "Canned Nigger Hearts," he efficiently packages the abstract and complex commoditization of humanity, of slavery, of how The Product trumps taboo and taste every time.

Is Robert Crumb a racist? That's simply the wrong question and many, many people, including the outspoken anti-Crumb commenter in the film, believe that he is a racist (or misogynist, or sexual deviant, etc. etc.). But if one follows the trend of Crumb's comics and their psychological impetus, one can see quite clearly that to some degree he is expressing an internal feeling, a repressed desire, a taboo opinion. We must recognize the key component in this process not as the unsurprising revelation that a human being harbors prejudices, but that Robert both deals with these internal struggles by externalizing them and allows himself to reflect on what they mean, to analyze them, and to offer other people the opportunity to do so as well when they read his comics.

Is it better that most of us, equally complicit in some form of bigotry or generalization, simply repress these thoughts because we are told they cannot integrate into the status quo? The impressively large We Hate R Crumb faction operates, whether they know it or not, from a self-preserving instinct to prevent openly sharing the collective secret that our internal monologues rarely follow our societal discourse. The repression of these ideas, like the repression of sexual deviance, coaxes out its pleasure-through-transgression, its superego imperative. When the hermetic bubble of taboo bursts, we're all left holding the uncomfortable bag of our inner fears and desires.

Maxon Crumb — Binge and Purge
Robert's younger brother Maxon has always been the most enigmatic of the brothers for me, and over the years I have often thought about him and his way of life. Being the youngest, we learn in the film that Maxon was the "Supply Boy" while the other brothers were President and Vice President. This diminution of his social and sexual identity, of which the silly supply boy title is only a symptom, seems to have plagued Maxon throughout his life.

Maxon's libidinous energy, given no outlet, eventually manifested as seizures, usually triggered by some kind of sexual trauma. We learn about his episodes only vaguely, but enough to piece together their fundamental cause and implications. Maxon talks about how sex was completely removed from the sphere of his reality, how alienated he was from intimacy. The heavy repression of his sexual identity in his younger years led first to these epileptic fits and later to extreme acts of lashing out against women, molesting them, de-pantsing them and would have, in Maxon’s own words, eventually led him to rape. The pressure of his libido simply overflowed, and, lacking the necessary tools with which to approach a "healthy" consensual sexual relationship, he violently sought to take what he wanted.

Through extreme effort, Maxon managed to cathect a series of personal rituals with that pent-up energy and avoid the consequences of his violent potential. From a psychosexual binge, accosting strangers in public, Maxon moved to a Spartan mendicancy, appropriating many rituals and forms of eastern religions intended to purify the body, mind and soul.

Maxon's small, dirty apartment in San Francisco, nearly empty aside from a bed of nails, a cleansing bowl, a piece of string, and his numerous paintings, really brings home the isolation and deprivation in which he lives. Terry Zwigoff's intimate access into Maxon's holy space grants the viewer a rare perspective of "fringe characters," one that doesn't rely on arrogant assumption, stereotyping and fear. Maxon's humanity shines through in his impeccable articulation. As he peppers his phrasing with quotes from Leaves of Grass and references to Van Gogh, we see clearly that this is no freak, but an intelligent, aware human being trying to do the best he can to cope with the insanity all around him, producing unbelievably beautiful paintings and drawings in one of the most squalid dwellings in which one can live.

One could hardly say after watching Crumb that Maxon had solved or cured his problems, but he had seemed to reach equilibrium; his rituals provided him with a necessary symbolization of the turmoil inside his psyche. The famous string-eating ritual, where Maxon routinely dips a long, flat piece of cloth in water and swallows it, inch by inch, to clean his intestinal tract, offers perhaps the starkest glimpse at the externalization of a process of internal cleansing. For Maxon, the repression of his childhood left an inexorable impression of his own sexual desire as something to be cleansed. Only through extreme deprivation, self-imposed humility and constant ritualistic discipline, does he finally feel like he has broken even with the filthiness of his human desire.

Charles Crumb — Foreclosure
I saved Charles Crumb, the oldest of the Crumb brothers, for last because I feel that first, as Zwigoff points out in the commentary track, Charles is the heart of this film, and second because it is necessary to understand how Robert and Maxon have dealt, with varying degrees of success, with their early traumas. Charles' story is the saddest of the three — which says something, as Robert and Maxon have had no small share of problems. Those who find Crumb to be a depressing film are most likely deeply affected by the scenes with Charles and his mother in their "piss-stinking" house, adorned with blankets on the walls blocking the light and shelf after shelf of old novels, many times read.

At the time of the film, Charles had already lived his reclusive lifestyle for many years. We find him zonked out on tranquilizers, greasy and tired, disheveled, broken. Yet the instant one hears him speak, he immediately belies his appearance. His wit and insight are unmatched, even by the other brothers. Zwigoff comments that Charles would pick people apart in arguments, make the funniest jokes and have some of the most profound insights into his family and himself. Like Robert and Maxon, Charles has no lack of self-awareness. In fact, an excess of self-awareness, an excess of doubt, led Charles down his Hamlet-like path of inaction.

In the film, Robert credits Charles with beginning the "whole comic thing." Charles commanded the other Crumb siblings to participate in their homebrew comic club, directing Robert to draw comics all the time. Charles brought the ideas, the energy, into the group, and he led them as president. Charles himself had outstanding artistic talent, and even his last works have an undeniable essence to them, both frightening and fascinating.

But Charles' trajectory differed vastly from Robert's. When Robert began to achieve success as an artist, Charles felt like he no longer needed to draw. He grudgingly acknowledged his younger brother's superiority and in doing so lost the verve to create visual arts himself. But the art that Charles created speaks volumes about his psychological development, especially toward the defining characteristic of his later life: foreclosure.

In the course of the film, we see many examples of what Robert calls Charles' "wrinkle technique," an artistic style in which all textures and surfaces are overwhelmed by a linear banding, or wrinkling, to the point of becoming nearly indistinguishable from each other. At one point, Robert shows a heavily "wrinkled" piece and says "the wrinkle stuff is just out of control here. At this point he was pretty far gone from reality." This insight provides the cornerstone for interpreting Charles' art.

As he grew older, Charles moved away from the relative simplicity of his Treasure Island style and into this near-abstract form of wrinkles. In doing so, he accomplished both a uniqueness of style and an expression of his foreclosure. He did away with forms, with the insignificant differences, and focused on this one universal pattern of lines, slowly overwhelming everything and everyone, like kudzu creeping over the land, creating a surreal world — a nightmare world of non-distinction and uncertainty.

When Charles stopped drawing, he moved to writing. Robert relays that Charles was an excellent letter writer. He found another way to access and express himself through writing, but, like his drawing, this was not to last. A very memorable scene in the movie shows Robert thumbing through one of Charles' later notebooks in which the writing is so small and uniform that it is certainly illegible, even to Charles himself. Charles had foreclosed the symbolic space of letters, yet retained the mechanical motion of writing, writing without language, much like his art presented pictures without texture.

Robert speculates that Charles bore the brunt of their father's abuse. As such, he also seems to have been the most heavily repressed. Charles faced total exclusion in high school. The school bullies beat him up, and he couldn't establish or maintain relationships or even friendships. Charles hardly had a chance to engage life as an adult, having lived at home his entire life, suffering from depression and rage, and apparently harboring a sexual attraction to young boys, related to his connection to Disney's Treasure Island. So great was Charles' repression, his self-hatred, his fear of himself as something monstrous, unclean and dangerous, that it drove him to spend his short life locked inside his room — where he could harm no one but himself — and to eventually take his own life. One can see, in hindsight, the tight spiral of his psychic descent through his art and writing, but even Charles' stunted output and brief life have come to affect many people since Crumb was released in the late 1990s.

Stepping back for a moment, let's remember that all of these observations are based on a short movie dealing with many aspects of the Crumbs. There are clearly omissions, errors and perhaps even lies in the information we can gather from it. For instance, both of the Crumb sisters, Carol and Sandra, refused to take part in the film. However, on the commentary track, Zwigoff mentions that they both have suffered equally harrowing lives stemming from the same upbringing. But rather than discuss the accuracy of a psychological evaluation of people based on a short documentary, we should marvel at the emotional, psychological and intimate complexity of Crumb and its ability to deliver so much information, so many relatable and real details of the human experience, that we can hypothesize as to the fundamental motivations for the people in the film.

Those who classify the Crumbs as freaks or weirdos, their behavior as bizarre or maladjusted, and their family as dysfunctional or crazy, miss the most important point the film has to make: that, like Robert's art, the Crumbs are only slight exaggerations of all of us. The honesty with which they approached Zwigoff's film, the depth of intimacy they share, reveal ourselves in them and open a space in which we can empathize and feel compassion, instead of immediately judging them, pretending to some nonexistent social norm, one whose illusion dissipates once we are behind closed doors.

On one of the commentary tracks, Roger Ebert asks Zwigoff how he feels about the Crumbs, and in several other places Ebert reveals his distaste for their eccentricities, despite his admiration of their talent. This film, like the brilliant American Movie, offers a subject which at first glance can be easily watched with ironic amusement but offers viewers a radical emotional depth and display of humanity that can only be described as love. This is Zwigoff's answer to Ebert and the cornerstone of his entire oeuvre, from Louie Bluie to Ghost World, to Art School Confidential: approaching eccentric, weird, strange, bizarre, crazy people with humanity and love.

Crumb is a must see. I don't read comics, and I didn't even know who R. Crumb was before watching this, and it has moved me more than most other films. Repeated viewings are appropriate given the density of information and detail. As far as the Criterion edition, Crumb is very grainy, and I could barely tell a difference in quality between the Criterion Blu-ray and the original DVD. The special features on the Criterion edition include two commentary tracks, one with Ebert and Zwigoff and the other with just Zwigoff; however, there is nearly no new information in the Zwigoff-only track. He repeats the same anecdotes and details from the previous commentary. The real treasures here are the deleted scenes, which offer a few more glimpses into the Crumbs' lives. Especially fantastic is a short clip of Robert going to a mall with his wife Aline and sitting on a dirty bench, furiously drawing, as the gears of rampant capitalism spin around him, impervious to his satire.