Monday, August 9, 2010

Art in America: Terry Zwigoff's portraits of infamous or insufficiently famous men, their problematic legacies and vanishing worlds, return on DVD

Terry Zwigoff had played in a band and been close friends with legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb for over two decades before finishing
Crumb (1995), and it makes you wonder if more documentary filmmakers shouldn’t be turning their cameras on their most intimate acquaintances—providing their intimacy doesn’t blind them to these acquaintances’ more difficult tendencies. Crumb benefits enormously from Zwigoff’s relationship to his subject, yet familiarity in no way inhabits discovery or critique.

Crumb draws a portrait of the artist in middle-age, on the verge of leaving his San Francisco home forever to re-settle in France with his wife. It describes a deeply eccentric nerd and preternatural curmudgeon who learned to make a life for himself by submitting to a relentless compulsion to interpret the world around him, the result being sometimes satire, sometimes fantasy of the most brazen, grotesque, perverse incarnations, and often both—I wonder if this mixture hasn’t endowed Crumb with a legacy not altogether different from that of Naked Lunch author William Burroughs. Those who have seen Zwigoff’s Ghost World (01) yet are unfamiliar with Crumb will likely see him as the real-life version of the later movie’s hapless Seymour, but with talent and purpose.

Zwigoff’s clearly enamored if not obsessed with Crumb’s work and sensibility—Zwigoff conveys real love for everyone in Crumb’s family, who, it rapidly becomes evident, are as much this movie’s subject as Crumb himself. Yet Zwigoff’s interest isn’t reflexively defensive. What’s morally or politically troubling about Crumb’s monstrous, big-assed, powerful-legged—and, in at least one case, decapitated—women or his nostalgia for bygone eras awash in racist imagery is all on the table, and Zwigoff invites several articulate commentators to examine it, some of whom regard Crumb as a contemporary Brueghel or defender of full-figured female beauty, others a narcissistic pornographer of the most dangerous kind. I don’t think this is Zwigoff’s attempt at objectivity. I think he’s just trying to get things right, to look at Crumb’s work from as broad a perspective as possible.

You might argue that Crumb’s work is of secondary importance to the story of the Crumb brothers. Zwigoff and his crew accompany Robert on visits to his housebound, pharmaceutically dependent brother Charles, who still lives with mother in a house frozen in time, passing his days re-reading the Victorian novels he adored as a boy, and to his ascetic brother Maxon, who lives alone in a San Fran fleabag apartment, alludes to a history of sexual assaults, and meditates on a bed of nails. There’s something deeply unsettling about how closely Charles and Max resemble less fortunate variations on Robert, who seems to care for and even admire his brothers, yet is so overcome with despair over their lifestyles and psychological frailty that all he can usually do in response to their stories is emit more of his trademark dry chuckles. Truth is you’ll probably laugh too while watching Crumb, which never succumbs to pity or sentimentality and often celebrates that one essential element that might just keep the Crumb brothers—and some of the rest of us—alive for as long as we can bear it: a healthy sense of humour. Long before he made fiction movies, Zwigoff proved himself a masterful storyteller, and I don’t think he could honestly tell any story without recognizing it’s inherent laughter.

Criterion’s beautifully transferred and packaged release of
Crumb this week coincides with their release of Zwigoff’s less known yet just as wonderful documentary Louie Bluie (85), a portrait of obscure country-blues musician and visual artist Howard Armstrong, whose recordings Zwigoff had cherished and emulated for decades before discovering that Armstrong alive and well and living in Detroit. As with Crumb, Louie Bluie takes a no-brainer approach to telling its subject’s story, with scenes of Armstrong doing his thing—ie: playing fiddle and mandolin or displaying his fecund, scatological and not un-Crumb-like art—and a journey back home, in this case rural Tennessee, where Armstrong learned to play whatever instrument he could find or invent, as well as several languages so he could play songs for diverse ethnic audiences. What’s magical about Louie Bluie arises not from its rudimentary structure but from Armstrong’s immense charisma and the movie’s slyly selected details.

We see Armstrong and his old partner Ted Bogan playing up a storm in the kitchen of “Yank” Rachell, another old collaborator. Armstrong solos with the mandolin behind his head while Rachell nonchalantly peruses the latest issue of
Income Opportunities. We see Bogan boiling water in a frying pan to make a cup of Hill Brothers instant. We see Armstrong convince Bogan to give him one of his least-ugly shirts. We see Rachell sucking every last bit of anything we might call flesh from a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken while Armstrong mercilessly and affectionately makes fun of him. None of these guys made much money from their musical talents, but Zwigoff makes it abundantly clear that what they did earn was several lifelong friendships. And as with Crumb, Zwigoff doesn’t shy away from the potentially offensive aspects of his subject’s outsized persona, allowing Armstrong to display his beloved erotic-historical Whorehouse Bible, and to hold forth on his ways with women and his inability to understand the appeal of Jesus: “Who the fuck cares about somebody nodding his damned head when some guy’s getting ready to kick his ass?”

Lovers of our less-recognized musical traditions owe a debt to Zwigoff for preserving this record of Armstrong, who died in 2003 at the age of 94, which also preserves many anecdotes and images of largely unheralded or even anonymous black musicians who developed what we call jazz, country and blues in the early 20th century. Lovers of our great if less-championed movies owe an equal debt to Criterion for rescuing
Louie Bluie from oblivion.


Paul Matwychuk said...

I'm going to be talking about CRUMB a lot this week — it's my DVD pick of the week for CBC Radio, and it'll also be the topic of discussion when Heather Noel and I resume the DVD AFTERNOON podcast tomorrow after our summer hiatus. Your review has got me even more eager to start the conversation than before... upon rewatching it, I really think CRUMB is one of the finest, most revealing portraits of an artist ever committed to film.

JB said...

I totally agree. Thought I probably watched it three of four times around the time of its release, I hadn't seen CRUMB for at least a decade and coming back to it was an even richer experience than I'd anticipated. Zwigoff is really more of a storytelling talent than he's probably given credit for. But if you haven't already, be sure to revisit LOUIE BLUIE as well.

I should take this as an opportunity to add that, thought I couldn't quite find the right place for it in my post, which is long enough already, the audio commentaries Zwigoff provides on both of these discs are also really enlightening and entertaining. In the case of LOUIE, the commentary, full of anecdotes about the production, is almost as interesting as the movie. In the case of CRUMB, the only drawback is that Zwigoff's new commentary repeats a lot of what's already discussed in his earlier one with Roger Ebert. If you're going to choose one over the other, I'd go with the new, solo one.

I'm so glad to hear you'll be reconvening with Heather to discuss CRUMB. As fun as it is to write about, it's the sort of movie that seems especially ripe for a conversation, and one that involves both genders is probably advisable, given Crumb's at times genuinely deeply disturbing depiction of women. Looking forward...