Crumb (1994) : Documentary on the fetish art of a small world

In a Recent lecture by David Ferry, for our Gorilla in the Roses field project we were shown the movie/documentary ‘Crumb’ (1994).

Prior to this, all I’d known about Crumb was from a brief glimpse at a book collecting his illustrations I’d spotted the month before. His stories are wacky; twisting and turning as though being written whilst they are drawn, though the compositions sometimes contradict this.  

 I think the first thing that made me notice his book in the graphic novels section of the campus library was that it was crudely objectifying it’s female characters, and that there were black female characters who were drawn in the style of racist caricatures from a time long past.

Much of his work is self referencing, admitting sporadic explorations of his own compulsive fantasies rather than social commentary, for which the genre is most comfortable in confronting. 

However, it’s hard to see what merit other than very light entertainment Crumb brings to comics with creations such as Angelcake McSpade, the crudely drawn visually-stereotyped, idiotic, nymphomaniacal black woman, who speaks in jive american and wears shrubbery. It’s described that crumb has defended the use of this character stereotype, saying that he did not invent it, and also that his readers will typically be the liberal minded bookish sorts who are very unlikely to be influenced towards racism. I think I’d agree with him on that point. Still, it’s not a racially sensitive comic strip. And whilst it might well be a racial-caricature self-consciously taken to it’s extreme in an odd fantasy setting, I’d argue that Crumb does nothing with it other than sexually fetishise the concept.

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Seeing the film and seeing Crumb’s reasoning that his use of sexist/racist caricatures are a critique of themselves, I felt annoyed that the artist can so flippantly defend his work with something that seems so obviously untrue to me. The movie itself is very good. It shows the artist very honestly, despite his trying to narrate it into an outcast/weirdo-challenges-the-simpletons plot.  Crumb is an excellent craftsman, illustrating a world that is entirely unique to himself and his sociopathic, fetishistic thought patterns.

In the film there is a photo shoot in which Crumb rides (literally, as a jockey on a horse) women of his preferred proportions. Later in the movie, Crumb’s eldest brother, also a talented artist admits sexually assaulting women in public. This is confessed in a philosophical tone to the camera, in front of Crumb who is laughing nervously.  At this point in the film I felt a bit that it was indulging in depravity, and as it ended I was left wanting a justification for it’s having focused so long on the warped perceptions of this family.   

I was left wanting this not because I like a happy ending a to a movie, nor because I can’t see the merits in documenting and exhibiting moral holes in society, as I think that most of my favourite movies have warnings as endings and show the negative results of an uncaring society. But I felt that what this film did was to focus on the individual, to create celebrity and to morbidly dig at it.

 

But if I’m going to show dislike for the morbid, celebrity imposed on crumb and his brothers in this film then I’d have to admit that when the film was released  this kind of documentary hadn’t been exploited to the extent that it has now, which leaves me with a modern bias against this kind of individual focus in documentaries.  I also think that these kind of personal documentaries are watched with a different eye since the creation of The Office, which mocked the playing up to the camera which is apparent in Crumb and similar movies.

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George Orwell’s essay on Salvador Dali’s work expressed a need to judge the art and the artist’s moral’s separately.  But ultimately it ends with the conclusion that Dali’s mass popularity signals something rotten in society. It’s a good sign then, that Crumb’s work exists on the fringes with a cult following, which can rarely be expanded on within the typically under appreciated world of comics.  

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