What role does Robert Crumb play in a 21st Century, post-#METOO America? On the surface, the answer is “not much”- his openly misogynistic hostility towards women, his Sambo-influenced depictions of African Americans… it’s hard to imagine any self-respecting Millennial making it through a single of comics without going into convulsions.
And yet, Crumb is arguably the most important artist America has produced in the last 100 years. His comics explore the twisted inner psyche of the human animal with razor-sharp honesty and deep insight- all mixed with an incredible visual style which is instantly recognizable and impossible to imitate. No one draws like Crumb, no one writes like Crumb, no one thinks like Crumb.
The BBC Arena documentary, The Confessions of Robert Crumb, is less a documentary about his life (though it does cover that) and more a filmic extension of Crumb’s artistic work. That’s probably because Crumb himself wrote it and remained heavily involved with the production, to the point where he actually hand-lettered the credits. As such, it’s a direct competitor to Terry Zwigoff’s much more famous Crumb, which was made several years later and focuses much more on Crumb’s dysfunctional family with a voyeuristic eye- it’s no wonder that this Sundance hit was embraced by America as a “take a look at the freaks” show. It’s no wonder Crumb hates the film.
But Confessions is a whole different thing. It’s sweet, for starters- a contrast to the content that flies out of Crumb’s own mind. It’s also really funny, full of consciously staged scenes such as Crumb trying to feed a dollar bill to a stubborn ticket machine, or an intimate moment between Crumb and his artistic partner and wife, Aline. Without a doubt, the scene where Crumb describes the perfect female body by pointing out his favorite traits on an actual woman will not sit well with most people, but of course, that’s the point- woman as sex objects is a major theme in his work, for better or worse.
Robert Crumb has long since tired of America, choosing to live in France instead. America is clearly tired of him, too- there is no place for his ugly mental pictures in our current triggered society. And that’s exactly why we need him and his work- because it challenges us exactly in the ways that we don’t want to be challenged. For those unexposed to his work, The Confessions of Robert Crumb is a perfect primer- and for those who do, it’s a perfect companion piece to the greatest American artist since Mark Twain.
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