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The Confessions of Robert Crumb

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky

Written by Robert Crumb
Directed by Mary Dickinson

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

High on acid once, R. Crumb invented practically all of the characters who would later captivate the cartoon world. This was in the fall of 1965 during a stay in Chicago. Crumb had apparently taken a dose of bad acid, and it left him in what he later called a weird electric state that lasted months. During this time Crumb also broke up (temporarily) with his then-wife, and tried to sell some cartoons to Playboy magazine (they were rejected). But in his sketchbook, Crumb invented Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Whiteman, Honeybunch Kaminski, the Snoid, and other characters that were later to consolidate his reputation as the underground cartoonist —but also inspire criticism of Crumb as a sexist pig and a racist.

Though I've augmented the story with more detail, this account of cartoon genesis is one of the "confessions" the cartoonist tells in The Confessions of Robert Crumb, a 55 minute quasi-documentary made for the British Broadcasting Company's arts program Arena, and aired in 1987. Crumbologists, that corps of fanatical Crumb aficionados who must have copies of everything the artist has ever done (be it napkin sketches or wedding announcements for friends), have long known of this program. The film appeared on VHS recently, and now Home Vision Entertainment's DVD release gives the Crumb buffs something else to collect. Though most people have probably seen Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary Crumb, which portrays the cartoonist as a product of a dysfunctional family, Confessions offers up a slightly different view of the artist, and makes a fine companion piece and counter-statement to Zwigoff's bleaker, though still-sympathetic, film.

Crumbologists will not learn anything new from The Confessions of Robert Crumb. For one thing, Crumb is a confessional artist to begin with, and all the "confessions" have already been vented in his work. However, it is fun to see Crumb enact certain of his sexual fantasies and revisit places from his past. After "shocking" the viewer with a brief précis of Crumb's sexual preferences, Confessions settles into a chronological survey of the artist's life up through the mid-'80s. From an account of his family life, with rare home-movie footage of his parents and siblings, the movie progresses to his first marriage, his move to San Francisco, and his rising fame (which induced resentment and unhappiness that darkened his work at the time) and subsequent nervous breakdown, brought on by lawyers and agents and the movie version of Fritz the Cat. "If you do exceptionally good work," he says in the narration, "you'll be hounded to death. The media and people with ideas, they'll kill you, they'll destroy your concentration forever. They won't let you breathe. You're either on or you're off. You're in the limelight, blinded by the glare, or in the gutter being stepped on."

The film also takes detours into Crumb's view of modern life ("Modern America seemed bankrupt in some way, and getting more and more so. I still kinda of feel that way, actually."), his interest in music, and his reaction to fans and fandom. It also gives more attention to his wife Aline than Crumb does, the woman with whom Crumb has a child (now also a cartoonist whose work was used in Ghost World), and with whom he has worked on numerous projects over the years. It ends on a rather happy note, with Crumb discovering a renewed interest in drawing that took his work in unusual and unpredictable directions from the early '80s on.

As Confessions ends, Crumb still lives in Winters, Calif., where he describes himself as a family man and breadwinner who worries about bills, mows the lawn, bickers with the wife, and takes crap from his bratty daughter. Zwigoff's Crumb, begun a couple of years later and released in 1994, picks up where the earlier film leaves off. It follows the artist's move to France, where Crumb, having lasted long enough to become respectable (like politicians, ugly buildings, and whores, to quote Mark Twain), is feted and enjoys international recognition, but the film also goes deeper in the Crumb family dynamic.

Crumb is of course the masterpiece, while Confessions, which bears the imprimatur of Crumb himself by virtue of his writing the script, is more for fans of the artist than for students of the documentary form. What made Crumb excel as a documentary is that Zwigoff, a long-time friend of the artist, really knew his subject. It's a slant on Crumb that the cartoonist himself would probably not have selected. For example, Zwigoff places Crumb in the larger context of comic book history and the world history of art (Time art critic Robert Hughes calls Crumb the "Breughel of the twentieth century," for example). The Confessions of Robert Crumb may not be the prestigious work that Crumb is, but the short movie has its charms, and in a way you get to know Crumb much better.

Home Vision Entertainment's DVD offers a flawless transfer of the full-frame TV documentary (1.33:1). The audio is a more-than-adequate Dolby 2.0 mono. There are no extras, though enclosed in the box is a folded mini-poster for the film drawn by Crumb, copyrighted 1991.

— D.K. Holm

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