Thoughts On: Crumb (1994)
A biography of Robert Crumb and a few of his family members shot before his move from America to Paris.
Crumb is a brilliant documentary, well shot, edited and directed with a terrific central subject. This subject is Robert Crumb, the famous cartoonist known for his surreal, sexual and perplexing work – most of which was focused on somewhat warped female figures with huge thighs, breasts and asses. Whilst Crumb starts on slightly shaky ground with an uncaptivating opening 10 minutes or so, it quickly assumes an incredibly idiosyncratic (a word I’ll try not to use a million times over) view that delves unrelentingly into Robert’s persona for the remainder of the run-time. In such, this narrative explores many of the topics and themes of Crumb’s career as an artist, primarily, an idea of the unconscious or, to use Freudian terminology, the id.
This isn’t a topic unique to this documentary, nor Crumb’s work, but there are very few better examples you can find of an artist using his or her work as a means of communicating or unleashing something within themselves than from this film. And this is certainly what resonated with me when watching this documentary. I also get the feeling that this resonates with many people who create art of some sort as I came across this film having watched a bunch of the Criterion Closet Visit YouTube videos in which filmmakers sift through an array of films distributed by Criterion. So, within this documentary seems to be a pretty prevalent discussion being had, one that essentially questions the functions and purposes of art.
Through Crumb’s work, the main question you may raise is on the perception of others – specifically, those of another sex; women. Crumb’s work is highly sexual and seemingly self-serving (in that he indulges his own fetishes). This would make many people pretty uncomfortable, and some of these voices find their way into this documentary – especially in regard to his shift from light satire to a darker sense of sexuality. As the documentary depicts, this shift saw Crumb’s work stop emphasising a natural feminine form, one that is curvaceous and bulky, not always conventionally pretty nor ‘feminine’, and start fetishising and exploiting women’s bodies in a very direct and simplistic manner. This led to the critique that Crumb’s work was no longer satirical and empowering to women, rather pornographic and offensive – to some. And in such we find the debate on the function of art. Is it supposed to simply entertain, or is a much more self-centric endeavour; are the things people create supposed to please others, or is it all self-gratification that others vicariously gain something from?
In my opinion, art, whether it be labelled as such or as mere entertainment, is the latter; a writer sits and masturbates in front of his laptop, trying to squeeze out something that either draws attention to himself, or just allows him to scream about himself. This self-centric process isn’t entirely purposeless and self-isolating, instead, there is often a capacity for vicarious interaction within it. An example of this would be this very blog. As I write, I’m merely vocalising my own thoughts so that they don’t remain ambiguous abstractions in the back of my mind – all so that I have a more concrete understanding of, or opinion on, this thing I tell myself I’m obsessed with: cinema. However, as you read this, probably a stranger to myself, an abstract, rather meaningless notion and just a number on my dashboard, there is some sense of communication. Maybe this is you collecting ideas from me as I spurt them out into the ether, maybe this is just you re-affirming your own self-claimed obsession with that thing you call cinema, or maybe it’s something else I haven’t the imagination or foresight to put down in words right now. Either way, what seems to be underlying this interaction is an exchanging of an inquantifiable substance between two minds. By writing hundreds of posts about films, I am thus revealing some deeper truth within myself to you; one that probably reveals a lot more character than I can fathom – added to this, the subtext of this entire blog would probably allow you to assume things about myself that I’d completely disagree with. This ‘truth’ then seems to fall under postmodern definitions whereby all realities are merely relative and subjective; no truths really existing.
Call it what you will, define it as you may, the truth we reveal about our subconscious, our inner self, our id… whatever, is the catalyst for art. In turn, we want to find ourselves, or shades of ourselves, in others through the stimuli they put out into the world. And the greatest testament to this would be the fact that, now returning to the documentary, some would disagree with, or find themselves disdained by, Robert Crumb’s work. If his big-thighed, huge-busted, sometimes gaping… how do I say this… vagina-ed? If Crumb’s female figures were just ink on paper, then no one could be offended by them because they’d be meaningless in relation to people. However, Crumb’s work isn’t just ink on paper, it is representation of people somehow. Why? Because we give his work definition. And so, to see yourself in Crumb’s work, to see a woman that is vulgar, offensive, objectified and so on, you inherently give it an artistic quality – one defined by a communication between two minds.
It is then from here that you can choose to realise that questioning the ethics and representational sides of Crumb’s work is not so much about the surface level interaction between yourself and the art, much rather, a deep-seated one focused on subjective inner-truths. In such, the fact that Crumb’s work may offend you can open up the idea that there is profound absurdity in the notion of looking at ink on paper and not only seeing ‘yourself’, but being physically affected by that act of recognition. The beauty of this realisation is the concept that, below all of this, is a communication between two unconscious minds; those being Crumb’s and your own. And this is the truly fascinating phenomena that is ‘art’ in general. In fact, this is human interaction universally.
Every second of human interaction is a miraculous meeting between two consciousnesses trapped in heads, unable to truly know if anything exists beyond themselves. And seeing this allows you to decode your own consciousness. In such, as an artist, as anyone putting anything out into the ether, you are telegraphing something fundamental about your being. As anyone receiving that information and reacting, you too are telegraphing the fundamentals of your being. In such, everything has meaning, meaning relative only to yourself – and so again, we delve into postmodern ideas. Nonetheless, the substance of this interaction lies in the preciousness of that inner-exploration and self-questioning. If everything is arguably relative to ourselves, then anything that reveals more about that all important inner-being is paramount. And such outlines the fundamentals of human behaviours in my opinion; we are perpetually incentivised to live by our fascination with ourselves.
However, to link this all back to the documentary, this seems to be the idea that this narrative explores. It is not only about us viewing and taking in art – whether it be that of the filmmaker, or even that of Crumb himself – instead, it is about the process by which an ‘artistic interaction’ occurs. The poetic edge we may attribute to this film is then one that sees us all as crumbs of a broken cookie, tumbling through some void, screaming as we go, socialising, drawing big-titty broads and masturbating to them.
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