Reviews

Crumb

Patty Osborne

The New Yorker of August 7 carries an intriguing piece by Lawrence Wright about decades of research on those ideal nature-vs.-nurture subjects: twins separated at an early age and reared apart. The first surprise, that there are enough separated twins to supply researchers all over the world with years' worth of subjects, pales before the other surprises: that two girls separated at birth and raised in completely different environments developed exactly the same anxieties and problems; that another set of twins, reunited after thirty-nine years of living apart, found out each had fallen down the stairs at age fifteen; that DNA has been shown to be the major force by far in determining your hobbies, political attitudes and menstrual traits, as well as the brand of beer you like, the names you give your pets, and whether you store elastic bands on your wrists. In fact, one researcher says, "the effect of being reared in the home is negligible for many psychological traits." My maternal nerve-ends were still vibrating from that article a few days later when I went to see Crumb, a film by Terry Zwigoff about the American comics artist Robert Crumb. The film is a shocking, riveting but not lurid meditation on what shapes an accomplished, controversial artist/writer—including the family he grew up in. We meet Crumb's brother Charles, who was prodigiously talented as a youngster but somehow unable to interact with the world; he spent his entire adult life in a room in his mother's home doing psychotropic meds and trying to hang on. (Some time after the film was made, he ODed and died.) We also meet Crumb's other brother Maxon, who lives alone making tormented paintings, sitting on a bed of nails and swallowing yards of gauze to cleanse his guts; and Crumb's mother, a cheery, dissipated agoraphobic who got so crazy on diet pills when the boys were young that she left marks on their father, a deeply disappointed man who covered his domestic wounds with makeup and regularly beat up his sons. Crumb himself is too weird for a lot of people, some of whom say so on camera. His work is disturbing, especially his portrayals of women-huge, powerful broads, sexually contorted and sometimes headless or unconscious as well. In his artwork and in the film, Crumb is openly matter-of-fact about his sexual confusions and all his other prejudices, personal and social. It's too easy and too hard to dismiss him as a gross sexist. He is maddeningly candid and complicated, and his mother and brothers are too. All because of DNA? Not the love/hate violence of 195s suburban American family life? Did Crumb get away with mere eccentricity because his gene stew was a little less intense, not because when he was coming of age there was a spiritual alternative (the underground comics scene)? And what about morals, ethics, freewill? It's almost enough to drive you to the pop horoscope column in the tabloids. One more thing: the family stuff is the most sensational part of Crumb, and it leapt out at me because I was already startled by the twins article. But Crumb is not a film about victims; it is a film about human complexity and beauty, about love and struggle and artistic integrity. All the big questions. Do see it, even if you're ho-hum about comics.

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The 19th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest

The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.