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MOVIES : Creep Show : A new film shines disturbing light on the very dark family secrets of cartoonist Robert Crumb. There's a lot more there than just Mr. Natural.

April 23, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

'People who want to be famous don't know what they're getting into," artist Robert Crumb told this reporter during a 1989 interview.

"Once I got famous I saw a side of humanity I'd never seen before--people who don't even know your work want to glom onto you just because you're famous. It's a nauseating aspect of human nature that people worship power, and it's one of the things about mankind I find truly reprehensible."

That comment should have alerted one to the fact that Crumb, who moved from his home near Davis, Calif., to southern France in 1993, would be less than thrilled at the prospect of being a movie star.

The subject of "Crumb," a critically acclaimed biographical portrait directed by his friend Terry Zwigoff, the 50-year-old artist is more than underwhelmed by the success of the film--he's running for cover.

This is understandable considering that Zwigoff's film, which opens Friday at the Nuart, isn't just a portrait of R. Crumb the artist; it's also a deeply disturbing study of his dramatically dysfunctional family and a riveting inquiry into the mystery of creativity.

Watching the film is like seeing a rose grow out of concrete, and it's anybody's guess how Crumb managed to transform severe emotional problems, which destroyed his two equally gifted brothers, into a brilliant body of visual art.

"Robert's on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is thinking of going into hiding for a few months," says Crumb's wife, artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, in explaining why her husband won't be doing the interview he'd committed to before seeing the film.

"Robert agreed to do the film because Terry's his best friend and we both thought it would be some small arty thing. None of us had ever done anything like this before, so we were all naive. And I don't think any of us, especially Terry, realized what the film might do to Robert's life.

"Obviously it's an incredibly moving, well-edited film, and there was no betrayal on Terry's part, but for Robert it's a devastatingly intimate look at things he doesn't want to look at," adds Aline, who collaborated with her husband on a wry cartoon in the current issue of The New Yorker titled "Head for the Hills," which expresses their ambivalence about the film.

"It's very anxiety-producing to have this kind of information about you and your family out for anyone to see, and having people hounding you to talk about it only adds to the anxiety. If we were left in peace to reflect on the film it would probably be easier to handle, but there's a media frenzy descending on us that's made this a nightmare.

"We're happy for Terry and hope he gets to make more films, and for people who don't know us I'm sure it will be very interesting, but we'd both prefer the film didn't exist."

Begun in 1985 and completed for less than $200,000, "Crumb" took root "simply because Robert's a great artist," says Zwigoff, whose previous films include "Louie Bluie," a portrait of obscure blues musician Howard Armstrong, and "A Family Named Moe," a documentary on the history of Hawaiian music.

"Whenever I paged through his sketchbook I was always knocked out by the scope of his art, and I thought it was appalling that the only work of his most people know are inconsequential things he did in the '60s like 'Keep on Truckin' ' and Fritz the Cat. So, my original intention was to help people gain a deeper understanding of his work. The film quickly got off that track, however.

"When I started the film I told Robert I wasn't interested in doing a straight biography and that I wanted his family to be involved, but I didn't expect the family to figure as prominently in the film as it does. I'd met his mother (Beatrice) and his brother Charles when I spent a night at their house in Philadelphia in the early '70s and thought they were both funny and brilliant.

"When I met Robert's mother, she was more together than she is now, and unfortunately, she comes across in the film as more spun-out than she is in real life. That couldn't be helped, though, because (she only) let us shoot for an hour.

"Robert's younger sister told me if I so much as mentioned her name in the film she'd sue me for everything I'm worth, and his older sister was a bit more polite but also said no. I have no idea why they refused, but then, Robert too was reluctant to let me delve into his family. I think the only reason he let me film them was because he was convinced the film would never be finished--and that if it was, it wouldn't be seen by anybody. He's extremely upset that Sony Pictures picked it up and that it looks like it may be successful."

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