It DOES mean something, Mr. Natural

Totally off any subject at hand, and probably not worth reading, but I’m still reeling from having wasted two hours of my life, so why should you be spared…

In a post toward the end of last month, I made a completely superfluous reference to underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural character. I won’t be making such casual links in the future, at least, not to that individual’s creations. Last night, my wife and I watched "Crumb," the David Lynch-produced biographical documentary. We had sort of enjoyed "American Splendor," in which Paul Giamatti managed to make Harvey Pekar‘s excruciatingly mundane existence interesting. Since that oddball flick was based in the "reality" comic book illustrated by Mr. Crumb, we thought (no, I thought; I take full responsibility) the 1994 film about him might also be engaging. We were (I was) wrong.

I came away from the film with one overwhelming impression:

Boy, that R. Crumb is one twisted (expletive).

Excuse my implied language, but I just had no idea. And yet I should have. It’s right there in his work, and if there’s ever been a better illustration of the truism that "by their fruits ye shall know them," it is the work of Mr. Crumb. (And yes, I read the part of that chapter that said "judge not," but read on.)

I never was a fan of Zap Comix or any of Mr. Crumb’s other work, but I was exposed to some of it at the time (although not much more beyond the ubiquitous "Keep on Truckin’" thing, and the Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company album cover and such). And back then, I just thought this was a guy whose imagination was a little out there on the fringe of the kind of countercultural stuff that shocked our parents but that I tended to shrug at. I didn’t embrace it, but I wasn’t all that horrified, either. I was very young, and had not yet figured out that in one sense of the word (see sense 2), "discrimination" can be a healthy thing.

If the documentary got it right, the stuff in those comics was not just the product of a warped, hyperactive imagination with a penchant for mocking social mores. The problem was, he wasn’t entirely making this stuff up. According to those interviewed for the film, those twisted characters acting out abnormal, fetishistic sexual obsessions with a complete lack of regard for the human objects of their perversions actually were R. Crumb, in a real sense. As former wife after former girlfriend (one of them a professional pornographer) after family member, and Mr. Crumb himself, repeatedly asserts in the film, he not only thought like that, he acted like that. At one point, he acknowledges that he doesn’t think he has ever actually loved any woman. His relationships — or what we learn of them — tend to bear this out. As for some of the other twisted stuff — such as the drawings that pushed extreme racial stereotypes far beyond mere satire — the viewer is left without any satisfactory explanation.

All of that said (and here’s where I get to the "judge not" part), the film also made clear that the tree that is Robert Crumb was severely bent as a twig. No, it’s not an excuse, but it does appear to be part of the explanation. As Mr. Crumb and his brothers related, their father brutalized them (breaking the artist’s collarbone one Christmas) and their mother was an amphetamine addict who attacked the father (to the point that he wore makeup to work to cover where she had clawed his face). Both of the brothers were withdrawn and dysfunctional — neither was able to make his way in life in even the unconventional manner that their famous sibling has. One of them, who lived with their mother, never ventured forth into the world and spent his days in a psychiatric prescription drug fog, committed suicide a year after the filming.

There were also two sisters, but they declined to be a part of the film, indicating that at least someone in the family was capable of making good decisions.

It was profoundly depressing. And if I ever found anything in Mr. Crumb’s work even mildly amusing before, I won’t in the future, knowing where his "art" comes from.

Come to think of it, the fact that I watched the film all the way to the end makes me wonder a little about myself. And if you read all the way to the end of this, I sort of wonder about you, too.

Back to work.

15 thoughts on “It DOES mean something, Mr. Natural

  1. bill

    I saw this documentary two years ago and thought it was utterly excellent.If you judged all artists by the way they lived their lives you probably wouldn’t appreciate much at all,from Greek sculpture to the post-modernists,knowing where their “art comes from”.
    AMG Rating 4.5 Stars
    (High Historical Importance, High Artistic Quality)

  2. Capital A

    So, discomfort with the subject material makes it unworthy of consideration or thought? Wow, you must carry an amazingly abridged Good Book.
    In related advice, skip all books by a guy named Faulkner and any ancient tales involving this really “trippy” guy named Gilgamesh. He’s just too round for such a square’s eye view!

  3. Brad Warthen

    I’ll admit I don’t like Faulkner. An aesthetic thing, something about his rhythm, I don’t know. Maybe I should try him again; it’s been decades.

    And what do you mean, "makes it unworthy of consideration or thought?" How can you say that to someone who just wrote a 778-word blog item on the subject?

    Basically, I didn’t dislike the film nearly as much as the one I had watched just before it — "Melinda and Melinda." I hear that Woody Allen has shocked the critics by actually making a good film for the first time in years. I can’t wait to see it, because the last thing that impressed me was "Hannah and Her Sisters." (OK, "Mighty Aphrodite" was engaging, but not really impressive.) His recent stuff has been just painful to watch. His touch as a director has seemed to evaporate — none of his actors convince; they all just sound like people reading lines, and unimaginative lines at that.

    By contrast, "Crumb" was riveting, although disappointing after "American Splendor." It got its main point across very effectively. And the main point, of course, is that R. Crumb is one twisted (expletive). It’s a very sad story.

    I’ll say this for it — even though it was produced by David Lynch, it was nowhere near the worst thing he’s been involved with. His version of "Dune" was the most disappointing film in history. I think it would have embarrassed Ed Wood, if he’d ever had that much money to spend and still produced something so awful.

  4. Phillip

    Ever read any of Mozart’s letters? He was a pretty twisted guy. In a whole other category, there’s Gesualdo, one of the greatest composers of the late 16th/early 17th centuries and a multiple murderer as well.
    Art respects no boundaries in its exploration of the mysteries and wonders of what it means to be human. That includes a dark side which all people carry somewhere within them.

  5. Capital A

    To be more exact, I should have asked if that “makes it unworthy of CONTINUED consideration or thought.” I guess that’s the nature of the internet — to dwell on a single missing word when, hang it, Jim, you clean missed the point!
    To be totally direct and unsubtle (which I despise, by nature), I have to agree with the other posters above. To judge someone’s artistic creation as worthy or unworthy based on the actions of their personal lives or through the spectrum of shifting mores is a bit juvenile. If that were to be the accepted protocol, then, let’s see…I’d have to abandon my admiration for Thomas Jefferson (greatest American genius, slave owner), forsake the footsteps of Mark Twain (greatest American writer, alcoholic, mean cuss), and spit on the shine of Jimi Hendrix (greatest American guitarist, drug addict, mop-haired hippy). Crumb is a twisted sack of marbles and definitely not in the league of extraordinary gentlemen I just mentioned, but at least judge the artist on the tick and the time of his clock, not the grind of his gears.
    To digress a moment, Crumb, the flick, is one time where David Lynch did let me down as an artist, as he did with the aforementioned Dune. However, consider that man’s body of work and the treasures (The Straight Story, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks series and film, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart)he has given us as mental meals that more than digest away any crummy crumbs.
    Now, on to greater questions to ponder, such as why there is no ability to embolden or italicize movie titles as I refuse to put them (incorrectly) in quotes. News print journalists are scandalously leading the nation’s youth astray by furthering this practice!

  6. Capital A

    Many thanks, Lee. Now, if we can convince the print media to hop on board with that as well as to capitalize the word President when it refers to the leader of our nation (yes, even if it is Bush-baby!), then me may have a revolution of minutiae in the making.

  7. Mike C

    Capital A’s underlying point is important. Grammar and syntax — all those difficult conventions we’ve adopted over the years — can assist one in communicating; for that reason they are important. The conscientious and effective communicator employs these tools to ease the task of the careful reader. The careful reader is distracted by infractions of these norms and may wonder if the violating writer is truly knowledgeable in the subject matter.
    As for the main topic, one thoroughly enjoyable book that I’ve purchased for gifts (now available for $10.88 and eligible for free shipping!) is Paul Johnson’s The Intellectuals. The Amazon review is fair:

    Conservative historian Paul Johnson wears his ideology proudly on his sleeve in this often ruthless dissection of the thinkers and artists who (in his view) have shaped modern Western culture, having replaced some 200 years ago “the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind.” Taking on the likes of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, and Noam Chomsky in turn, Johnson examines one idol after another and finds them all to have feet of clay. In his account, for instance, Ernest Hemingway emerges as an artistic hero who labored endlessly to forge a literary style unmistakably his own, but also as a deeply flawed man whose concern for the perfect phrase did not carry over to a concern for the women who loved him. Gossipy and sharply opinionated, Johnson’s essay in cultural history spares no one.
    Does it really matter that Henrik Ibsen was vain and arrogant, that Jean-Paul Sartre was incontinent? In Johnson’s view, it does: these all-too-human foibles disqualify them, and other thinkers, from presuming to criticize the shortcomings of society. “Beware intellectuals,” he concludes (though, given the subjects of his book, it seems he means intellectuals only of the left). “Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.” Whether one agrees or not, Johnson’s profiles are frequently amusing and illuminating, as when he suggests that the only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid, except in room and board, for her labors.

    Until I read this book, I’d not known that among his other idiocies, Rousseau, the father of naturalism, placed each of his five children in an orphanage shortly after birth. (In his defense, Rousseau explained that he would have been a poor father, and that the children would have a better life at the foundling home.)
    Johnson’s work is an exquisite exposition of the differences between morality and sanctimoniousness.
    And why is it that whenever I see the phrase “grammar and syntax,” I think of my mom’s mom and the blue laws?

  8. Capital A

    I’ll take a stab at it. Was your grandmammy’s maiden name Strunk and/or White?
    As for your book suggestion and to quote the lyrics of David Byrne (Elvis Costello plus one hundred), “I’m checkin’ it out.”

  9. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, Bill, I know that. Sort of ruins “Manhattan” for me, you know? But I watched part of “Love and Death” last night, and it was still a hoot.
    Capital A actually made my argument for me rather well: “Crumb is a twisted sack of marbles and definitely not in the league of extraordinary gentlemen I just mentioned.” Precisely. Hemingway was messed up, but produced wonderful work (I’m being reminded of that as my daughter reads ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ and I read along to be able to discuss it with her). Crumb’s works is just as twisted as he was. Did he do some things that were worthwhile? Sure. “American Splendor” has its virtues (although he didn’t write it.) And I once gave one of my kids the blues legends deck of cards he produced.
    But what the film did was cause me to look at his twisted stuff in a different way. I just can’t shrug it off as harmless satire now that I know where it comes from. It’s not satire at all. It’s him.
    I mean, wouldn’t you have trouble with Lewis Carroll’s photos of little girls if you knew that (as has been alleged) he was actually a pedophile?

  10. Capital A

    I guess the problem I’m having (and I know I should express this more respectfully, so I apologize as I type it)is that a man of your age and wisdom is just now realizing that an artist’s works are an extension of his/her “true” self. Even more troubling an epiphany to ponder is the fact that an artist may not be able to produce “great works” without the trauma, self induced or not, of a twisted path in life.
    I don’t know; that’s just what I gleaned from many, many Batman comics as a kid. And, yes, I agree that that joker R.Crumb(y) is no Bruce Wayne.

  11. Brad Warthen

    Basically, what you’re encountering here is an adult perspective on something I haven’t even thought about since I was in my teens — if I actually thought about it then.

    Sort of like reading Hemingway again, only with a different result. I had long dismissed Hemingway from my mind, and when I did think of him, I held him in less regard as being someone I liked when I was a kid (all that machismo can appeal to an adolescent boy), and I had put away childish things.

    But now I’m reading him again, and wow. While his dialogue is sometimes absurdly stilted and hard to imagine in the mouths of actual people (sort of like Robert Redford doing Fitzgerald, "old sport"), I can still as an adult appreciate his mastery of the art. I think his dialogue works best when he is conveying in English something that a character is supposed to be saying in Spanish, or Italian. In fact, his writing cadence in general has a very Spanish feel about it. Maybe that’s what I liked from the beginning, since I used to think in Spanish myself as a kid living in Ecuador.

    Of course, I still prefer Twain, whom you (or someone) also mentioned. I think maybe that guy really DID ride in and out on Halley’s Comet, his talent was so unearthly.

  12. bill

    Although this blog has dwindled,I must voice my opinion,that even though they are in different genres(but still “pop” art),R.Crumb is a far superior talent to the highly overrated Allen,and I truly believe Crumb’s work has a much better chance of standing the test of time.


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