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Savant Short Review:

The Confessions of
Robert Crumb

The Confessions
of Robert Crumb

Home Vision Entertainment (HVe)
1987 / Color / 1:37 / 55 min.
Starring Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky Crumb
Cinematography Colin Chase and Patti Musicaro
Writing credits Robert Crumb
Directed by Mary Dickinson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Another in a line of quality documentaries from Home Vision Entertainment, this is a very interesting alternate vision of the life of Robert Crumb, as told by himself. The self-portrait that emerges is a very levelheaded assessment of a truly unusual artist. It was originally a docu for the BBC (7 years before the Terry Zwigoff examination Crumb), which more or less picks up where this good set-up leaves off. And it's a great piece of work.


Using examples of his artwork, home movies, personal photos, and some rare footage, the underground comic artist tries to explain his middle class background, the circumstances that turned him into a cult legend, and his rocky life dealing with the accompanying notoriety. Staged and unstaged video footage shows him living with his wife and child, in general pleased with how his life turned out ... and amused by the surviving remnants of his previous paranoid self.

Confessions gets off to a rocky start with Crumb and Aline, his long-time wife, addressing the camera directly. For a moment we think we're going to get a poor imitation of David Byrne in True Stories, feeding us a line of gab. But it very quickly becomes clear that Crumb is sincere. His on-camera monologues are self-aware, perceptive, and funny. He has no particular axe to grind, nor any inclination to paint a rosy picture of himself.

At UCLA in 1970, Savant became thoroughly immersed in Crumb's underground Zap Comix. The books would have seemed ugly without Crumb's strange interpretation of the classic E. Segar style, and pornographic had they not been so damn true to reality. Crumb was like an extension of early Mad Magazine, but intended for grownups with a sense of subversion. His comics expressed an almost completely negative universe of paranoia and self-loathing, an antisocial state where the guiltiest ideas about sex & race, ethnicity and culture came out completely unencumbered by good taste or restraint. Most of his associates in the comix underground drew obscenely abstract images for their general shock value; but Crumb's work encompassed a drugged-out personal world of expression that was undeniably Valid. Idealists at heart, we thought he had to be the strangest, perhaps the sickest person on the planet, despite his comic defense: "It's all lines on paper, folks!"

Crumb's desire with Confessions may have been to tell his story straight, perhaps to reasssure us that he's neither the sickest person on the planet, nor the unhappiest. What we see is an intimate autobio. His father was a Marine who couldn't understand how his son could be so wimpy. A job drawing for a greeting-card company, and a painful first marriage got him nowhere, but LSD and relocation to Haight-Ashbury in 1966 put him at the center of the hippie universe - of which he remained a bemused non-participant. He hated the loud music and preferred to listen to the blues greats of old. After having his 'world' co-opted by the corporate media (Fritz the Cat and Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat) he went through what he amusingly describes 'as the same old story' - a kind of nervous breakdown. Through a partnership (marriage and artistic) with his wife Aline, all got put back together. Rather than an anti-climax, the windup of The Confessions of Robert Crumb shows him finding a more realistic style and doing work about his blues heroes. He's still heavily into alienation-chic: we see very nice scenes of him attending comic book conventions dressed essentially as he was back in 1967: the toast of Janis Joplin, yet looking like a practiced geek among the hipsters.

This show is still not stuff for kids of any ilk. Even though little of the strongest material is pictured, there's no real way to present the work of Robert Crumb without being offensive. We see a lot of his most famous art in a very good light. Every time I start any kind of project, I'm reminded of the line, Mr. Natural says, "Always Use the Right Tool for the Job." The image of the cover of Despair Comics, with its alienated suburbanites no longer able to find the motivation to turn on the TV, was a useful memory when it came time to shake off depressing moments in my own life. Early on, Mad Magazine helped me see the pervasiveness of consumer culture; Crumb's Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont and Fritz the Cat put forth the philosophy that any "-ism", including the mostly bullshit counterculture of the '60s, was highly suspect.

The Confessions of Robert Crumb is a brisk and lucid portrait of a very bizarre, but also very legitimate artist. For Crumb enthusiasts it's a must, and for others it's a great introduction ... for the squeamish, perhaps the best way to approach him.

HVe's DVD of The Confessions of Robert Crumb is a simple package: an attractive cover (there's a folding poster of same inside) the disc with the show, a cute animated menu, and chapter stops. That's it; there's no further documentation on the artist or on how the show came to be. It's very satisfying just the same.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Confessions of Robert Crumb rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 17, 2002

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