Friday, October 7, 2011

TV Bites: Crumb

Crumb Family Spaghetti Sauce Recipe a la Veronica

A shorter version of this post was originally published on the Criterion Collection website.

In August of this year, Robert Crumb was scheduled to give a talk at the Sydney Opera House in Australia as part of an exhibition of his work at their Graphic Arts Festival. The first issue arose as the federal Attorney General noted, according to an article in the Sunday Telegraph: "that Crumb's work cannot be shown in Australia unless he submits his illustrations for classification. The spokesman said his work would almost certainly be refused classification."

If that wasn't enough to set the publicity and, in general, human shy Crumb off, the article went on to quote an "anti-child abuse campaigner" (as if there are pro-child abuse campaigners? Who knows? I've never visited Australia) who declared with the authority of someone who must spend her life writing dissertations on art history when not abuse campaigning: "These cartoons are not funny or artistic - they are just crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind.... Of all the brilliant artists, cartoonists and writers the Opera House and council could have supported, you have to wonder why they chose Robert Crumb."

The 67 year-old Crumb, of course, now had the perfect excuse to stay at home in his French retreat. He told the Australian, "It was strong stuff and it made me look very, very bad.... All it takes is a few people who overreact to something like that to show up and cause unpleasantness. I have a lot of anxiety about having to confront some angry sexual assault crisis group.... I do these crazy cartoons, I have no defense. I just have to throw up my hands.... I told [the festival co-curator] that I'm not coming and to cancel the whole thing."

(We should take a moment to remember that this is a country which has yet to agree collectively that white people performing in blackface is offensive.)

I think Crumb's best response to this "problem" he has is in the 1987 BBC documentary (that was made while Zwigoff's documentary was being made - more on this later). In it, Crumb said, "Yeah, I suppose I am a sexist. I've tried to raise my consciousness, god knows. I have this recurring vision that I'm standing before this tribunal of feminist women and they're demanding that I answer for my exploitation of women in my cartoons. The only answer I have is that I'm telling the truth about myself for better or worse. Take it or leave it. The bitter irony for me is that in spite of all the feminist consciousness-raising and all that's gone on, most women still are drawn to the powerful, dominant, alpha male type that's not the kind of guy I am at all. I'm still basically a shy wimp.... So people wonder why I'm bitter."

There is a lot of talk in this film about the line between fantasy and reality, and that is an issue that extends all through American society. Do we or should we have control or censorship over our personal fantasies, regardless of what they say about us or our society? Can they be discussed or even thought without condemnation? A yoga teacher I frequent often says that we have something like 60 or 70,000 thoughts in a day. They can't all be important, or even relevant, she says. I believe that.

It all recalls to mind one of those great Twilight Zone episodes, entitled A Penny for Your Thoughts, in which Mr. Serling tried to teach us about the dangers of mistaking one's fantasies and reality. Just because you dream of embezzling money, or murdering your wife - doesn't make you a criminal.... yet. But if you write down or draw those thoughts - even just share them with someone else - does that make the thought "dangerous" (as some in the movie suggest) or can we distance our emotional selves and view it as merely noise from the subconscious. And that people who wish to suppress such things are probably folks who struggle discerning reality from fantasy, and are frightened by their own brain farts.

For me, this is one of those films that makes me think a lot. About myself. About the struggle to survive on the outskirts of the dominant corporate culture. About sexuality, sex, and desires. And about, as director Terry Zwigoff has said about his film, "how being different and not fitting in can have such great risks and rewards in your life and in your art." That sums it all up for me.

You can watch Crumb for FREE online @ YouTube/Crackle, home rentable via NetFlix, and can be bought/streamed/rented via Amazon.


"When I was 13 and 14 and trying to be a normal teenager, I was really a jerk. I tried to act like I thought they were acting. It came out all wrong and weird, so then I stopped completely - and became a shadow. I wasn't even there.... Starting about 17, I started being driven by that obsession that I'll go down in history as a great artist. 'That'll be my revenge!'"

Terry Zwigoff took a while to find filmmaking, but then his first film, Louie Bluie, about blues musician Howard Armstrong, was nominated for the Grand Jury Award at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival. He then made a decision to turn the camera on his friend, artist Robert Crumb. "We were best friends since 1972, and by the time I started that film, I knew a lot about him," Zwigoff said. Not only were they fellow old record collectors, but they also performed together in Robert's group The Cheap Suit Serenaders.

Zwigoff recalled the first time he was introduced to Crumb's family in the early 1970's. "We were driving around in a van looking for records in Mississippi and Texas and Louisiana, old 78's. We gave up after a couple of weeks of that and eventually were trying to work our way up to New York. On the way to New York, we were going through Philadelphia and we had car trouble. He suggested we stop for a night at his parents' house who lived outside of Philadelphia and get the car fixed. So, we went over there. His father was alive in those days and his father came home from work, and I guess he hadn't seen Robert in a long time, and he very stiffly shook his hand and said, 'Hello, Robert,' and then he went upstairs and never saw him again for the rest of the time we were there. But we had dinner downstairs with his mother and Charles. After dinner we went upstairs to Charles' room and had a conversation with him, much like you wind up seeing in the film. Clearly I didn't want to make the film without Charles being in it. He was a big part – the heart of the film. I certainly wanted to film his mother, as well."

"I found myself telling stories about that evening to friends of mine for years afterwards," Zwigoff said. "Eventually, when I became a filmmaker, I wanted to tell this story. Especially about the connection of these three brothers and their art. Although the portrait of this family was fascinating, it was the art that was most interesting - how individual each one's style was, and how personal and how talented they all were but how only one of them succeeded."

"A lot of people theorize that what this film was really about is the redemptive power of art," he explained, "that Robert had saved his life by drawing comics. But that's not what really saved his life. Max kept drawing, Charles would have kept drawing although no one would have seen it except in his room. But Robert got lucky. People saw his work and responded to it with this crazy underground comic thing. Just the right place at the right time. It was really the success that saved his sanity and made his life better – people seeing his artwork and responding to it. Getting money for it, getting women. But just getting it out on paper wasn't all that therapeutic."

"The idea was to do a documentary on the three Crumb brothers. It was never a documentary about Robert Crumb in my head," he stated. "So it started taking shape in my mind, and it seemed to me like a good idea for a film if Robert would do it. Not so much because I had access to Robert and he was willing to cooperate, but because I felt comfortable knowing that as his friend, I’d been exposed to facts that other people wouldn’t have known."

"At that point, which was 1985, it was too late for Robert to say no," he felt, "because [he and Aline] had both agreed to participate. But I think he still felt safe in the fact that he knew how hard it would be for me to raise money to get the thing done, how long it would take and how, by the time it came out, probably nobody would see it anyway, like my first film [Louie, Bluie]."

"When I started making this film, I thought the main audience would be the 10,000 or so hard-core fans of Robert’s work," Zwigoff said.

"I made more than one trip to LA to show the work-in-progress to potential co-producers. I always got the same response, which was, ‘So, he’s got a weird family – so what? That’s too depressing – let’s animate some of his characters like Mr. Natural into some snappy, upbeat, stylish, MTV-type sequences!" he recalled being told. But that wasn't the film he wanted to make.

There were many times when Zwigoff gave up on filming, struggling to find money and inner strength to keep going. Eventually, he was able to complete the film through funding from private investors. But meanwhile, Zwigoff had paid off his own bills from sales of his collection of rare jazz and blues records.

At one point, he became aware that Robert and Aline had agreed to be the subjects of a BBC TV documentary.

"[A]bout half way through making this film," Zwigoff recalled, "I got a call from Aline who said that she and Robert had just agreed to take part in this documentary on them that the BBC had called and suggested, that they were going to send a film crew over their house, and they were doing a series of documentaries about different artists and they wanted to include them, and it would only take a week and they would pay them $10,000."

Zwigoff believed that there wasn't enough interest in having two documentaries about Crumb and since the BBC were well-funded, able to get their film out before he could, he should give up on his project. And he did.

But then the BBC telephoned him and they said, according to Zwigoff, "'Yeah, so they assign us to different subjects and we really don't know anything about Robert Crumb, so we're going to do the best we can, but we know you're a friend of his, and maybe you could advise us on what to film.'" Zwigoff suggested they talk to an old teenage friend of Robert and Charles', Marty Pauls, as he "was really the first guy to champion Robert and his brother Charles, who met them as teenagers, became friends with them, actually encouraged them in their artwork. He's really like the real Crumb biographer."

So the BBC does shoot this interview with Marty Paul, and was in a rough cut they sent Zwigoff of their film a year later, but didn't make it to the final cut. "[T]he footage of Marty in the film was, to me, the highlight of their whole film," Zwigoff noted. But seeing their film made him realize his film would be very different from theirs, and decided to pick up his camera again press on with his.

A final coda to this was that later Zwigoff contacted the BBC to see if he could license that footage, as Pauls had died. The BBC agreed, but it turned out they only keep footage for these projects for a year and had tossed it out.

If money wasn't enough of a struggle, as he began filming, Zwigoff began to suffer from severe back pain which was spun him into a severe depression.

"I had developed this back pain and it just got worse and worse," he said. "I was in agonizing pain, especially during the scenes with Charles Crumb, which are the best scenes in the film and probably the first thing I shot because I knew I had to get it. It seemed like the most important thing to get down. But I remember, that day, my back was just killing me. It felt like somebody was holding a blowtorch to it. Between takes, I would just collapse on the floor to relieve the pain. If I lay down, it felt okay."

"I was in psychotherapy during the filming as well," he admitted, "which I think had a lot to do with me angling the film like I did – about family, and the correlation between creativity and manic depression."

Eventually, he found relief for his back pain and eight years from when he began shooting, the film was complete and ready to show.

"I couldn’t get a single film festival to take," he recalled. "I was turned down repeatedly, including by the Telluride Film Festival, which had a standing invitation to me after the success of Louie Bluie, saying, 'Please let us show your next film here.' And I approached them with this, thinking confidently that I had made a good film and that they would love to show it. And they turned it off after 20 minutes. [Laughs.] I couldn’t get anyone to show it! My producer was getting nervous, and she thought the film was too long, and she was putting pressure on me to cut it down, and I didn’t want to do it. Somehow the New York Film Festival took the film. And the New York critics liked it, and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert seemed to like it. Siskel especially. And I guess it went from being a film that nobody would show to being a great film. I don’t know, you tell me. I can’t figure it out."

Crumb won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance, as well as best documentary in the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, the New York Film Critics Award, the Boston Film Critics Award, and the National Society of Film Critics Award, among others. It also took the documentary prize from the International Documentary Association and the Director Guild of America.

David Lynch stepped in to offer his name as the "presenter" of the film. He said he felt it was one of the best films “about how artists actually work.” Zwigoff recalled that Lynch "wanted to feature Charles in his next film."

Now you'd figure that after all the attention and awards, Crumb was a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination. But it wasn't. "When I saw that Crumb was omitted from the documentary nominations, I sent [Academy president] Arthur Hiller a note that included all the film's great reviews. He sent me back a letter saying, in effect, I should be happy to get what I got for a documentary film - so many great reviews," Zwigoff recalled.

Zwigoff then discovered "a lot of the documentary membership was made up of distributors of documentary films.... they would just vote for the films they distributed, because it was in their financial interest to do so. I came to learn that later. At the time, I just assumed they were disgusted with the film."

Crumb wasn't the only acclaimed documentary which got passed over that year. Steve James' Hoop Dreams also didn't get a nomination. But due to the media attention, the Academy "acknowledged problems" and promised to take a "close, hard look" at the voting procedures.

They eventually changed the rules so films can no longer be shut off mid-stream, film festivals are no longer qualifying venues for Oscar consideration, and a new committee was set up in New York would share the workload with Los Angeles committee members. However, in the decade since those changes, complaints about the Oscar documentary category persist.

Robert and Aline struggled with the popularity of the film. “Obviously, it's an incredibly moving film, and there was no betrayal on Terry Zwigoff's part, but for Robert it's a devastatingly intimate look at things he doesn't want to look at," Aline said at the time. “It's very anxiety-producing to have this kind of information about you and your family out for anyone to see.... For people who don't know us I'm sure it will be very interesting, but we'd bother prefer the film didn't exist.”

But it also seems from their statements, they also couldn't help but be a little pleased with the attention. And it certainly increased Robert's art worth. Robert made a point of tossing away the hat he wore throughout the movie, turning down offers to do the David Letterman, various movie offers, etc. They even turned their "anxiety" into a comic they sold to the New Yorker magazine. In the comic, Aline concludes, "Well, I'm not gonna complain anymore, because at least I got to push my way into the New Yorker - a lifetime aspiration." So, fame had its pluses.

Today Robert and Aline (and Sohpie and her family) live in France. And, as you read in the introduction, is still, at 67 years of age, causing controversy.

And of the other Crumb brothers? Sadly, Charles committed suicide not long after they'd wrapped filming. Zwigoff said, “Charles was completely existential and was mired in the belief that life is so absurd there's barely any point in living it. I wasn't surprised when he committed suicide, although it worries me that maybe the film had something to do with his decision to finally take his own life.”

Maxon, in many ways thanks to this film, has sort of blossomed, and found an audience for his art. He said, "[The movie] made me rethink a lot of the things about my family. We think sometimes that we're finished with our family upbringing and it's not affecting us that much anymore.... I think there's a better balance [in my life]. I was living just a little too austerely and that's why I got into trouble and started to have some really violent seizures." He edited a collection of all three brothers' art, "Crumb Family Comics", and his art has become highly collectible.

Even Sophie is now showing and publishing her art.


I'm going to run down a short history of underground comics and their influence on mainstream comics here for you with excerpts from my friend (since grade school!) Danny Fingeroth's excellent book, The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels.

"[W]hen the first issue of R. Crumb's Zap Comix was released in 1968, it sold like hot cakes - despite the fact that the primary means of distribution was a baby's carriage pushed by Crumb and his wife along the streets of San Francisco. Labeled 'Fair warning: for adult intellectuals only,' Zap was unlike any comic that had been seen before. It featured the first appearance of Crumb's Mr. Natural character, as well as the now iconic 'Keep on Truckin'' comic. Crumb's distinctive artwork was rooted in early-20th century cartooning styles but translated through his own - often LSD-inspired - sensibilities. The first issue was all his own work, but on later issues, Crumb invited contributions from S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Spain Rodriguez, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin.

"Zap Comix is the best-known title in the 'underground comix' movement in the late 1960's. Part of the wider 1960's counterculture, the underground comix reflected the rebellious atmosphere of the times.... Influenced by the irreverence of Harvey Kurtzman in Mad and his subsequent projects... the work of the underground comix creators opened the way for graphic storytelling to move into new and exciting territory.

"Many of the undergrounds originated in shorter form in the alternative newspapers and magazines of the era, such as the East Village Other and the Berkeley Barb. The comix themselves - mostly black-and-white interiors with color covers - were usually sold through head shops, which catered to those seeking drug paraphernalia and so provided the perfect audience for the wild undergrounds. By selling their comix here rather than on news-stands, the underground creators side-stepped the Comics Code and so gave themselves the freedom to break taboos - although confiscation of certain issues by the police was not uncommon.

"As time when on, however, former underground artists - most notably Crumb and [Art] Spiegelman - began to exploit the potential of the comics medium to do much more than shock and titillate. Their work became increasingly introspective, employing the comics medium to probe the darker side of the human experience.

"The freedoms trailblazed by the undergrounds allowed the ground-level comics [comics that were wilder than the mainstream, but not as extreme as the undergrounds] to be more sophisticated in terms of subject matter and story content and presentation. In addition, many of the ground-level creators were simultaneously doing work for mainstream companies such as Marvel and DC Comics. As these publishers' editors and readers became more open to experimentation [these creators] were able to push back the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of content and storytelling techniques in their work on company-owned heroes


When I was living in Haight-Ashbury in the second half of the 1970's, you'd still see Robert Crumb drawing in some coffee house now and again. I don't remember ever having a conversation with him, as I probably wouldn't have wanted to bother him while he was drawing. Now I may well have met Terry Zwigoff back then (I'd bet we spent time in the same movie theaters watching the same movies) but – ahem, draw your own conclusions - there's a lot of things I don't have clear recollection of from that era. But I do remember when I'd occasionally take a temp office job in downtown San Francisco, I'd see Maxon Crumb sitting on Market Street, cross-legged with his bowl in front of him. I remember engaging him – or trying to engage him – in some spiritual conversation, but again, my recollection of what we may have discussed is a bit foggy.

Now if you want to sustain an artist's way of life, one trick is learning how to cook and eat on the cheap. Back in those days, we ate a lot of spaghetti. My friends and I would take turns every few days and make a big pot of sauce - everyone had their own recipe. Mine was usually based on whatever vegetables were on sale at the supermarket or the local food co-op (which was run by the White Panther Party in their garage). There was no fancy farmer's market or Whole Foods in those days, kids. We'd gather at one flat and eat a couple of nights there, then continue the pasta party at another friend's flat.

Being someone who notices small details – no matter whose flat you visited, they all had approximately the same books in their bookshelf. These included a Jack Kerouac book, a Carlos Castaneda book, a Whole Earth Catalog, and a JRR Tolkien book. As for cookbooks, if you had one it was probably Joy of Cooking. But sometimes you'd also find Dana Crumb's 1974 cookbook, Eat It! which was illustrated by her then husband, Robert. (She released an updated edition Still Eatin' It! in 1996.)

In the film, we see Robert's current wife, Aline, make this kind of old-school spaghetti sauce in their kitchen, though Robert seems to prefer his pasta with just a couple of pats of butter. As he digs in, he remarks: “Gotta have my starch and my fat.” I've got nothing against a good plate of simple buttered spaghetti. It'll soothe that craving for comfort food.

Zwigoff once spoke of that first visit to Crumb's parents' home in Pennsylvania during which he also first met brother Charles and which led to his decision to make this film. That night, he recalled, Mama Crumb (Beatrice) served them spaghetti.

While I don't have Aline's, nor Beatrice's recipe, I do have Dana Crumb's which she calls the “Crumb Family Recipe.” We will assume Robert consumed a great deal of this while thinking up and drawing his first Zap! Comix. And if this meal doesn't inspire you to create some art, allow me to pass along a recommendation from what she dubbed her “Five Joint” Soup recipe. While the food is cooking, she wrote, “Get away from the stove, sit down, roll one, have some tea, look out the window, relax.”

And let me note before I go that 12 cloves of garlic is not a typo, it's a lot of garlic.

As always... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Crumb Family Spaghetti Sauce Recipe a la Veronica
from Eat It: A Cookbook, by Dana Crumb
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6-8

1 large can (28-ounce) stewed tomatoes, mashed
1 large can (28-ounce) tomato puree
1 (12-ounce) can tomato paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons sugar
12 cloves garlic, peeled, not chopped
1 tablespoon celery seed
3 tablespoons salt
1 bay leaf
red wine (optional)

Sauté onions in olive oil (do not brown). Combine with remaining ingredients except for the bay leaf, in a large pot with about 4-1/2 cups of water (Dana suggests substituting about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of red wine for that amount of the water). Cover and simmer slowly for about 1-1/2 hours. Add the bay leaf for the last 1/2 hour.

She also suggests: “Meat balls, partially cooked, may be added to the sauce in the last 15-20 minutes of cooking. Or, 1-1/2 pounds of lightly browned, drained ground beef may be added in place of meat balls. Add meat in the last 20 minutes of cooking only.” She also offers a vegetarian option using 1 pound of mushrooms “which should be added only after the sauce has cooked for an hour.”

Strain (or “blenderize”) sauce if desired before adding meat (or mushrooms). She notes that the “straining is optional, but better for tender stomachs.”

Serve with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.

Her final note is to “Never use green peppers or any other variety in this recipe.” Why that rule must be followed is not elaborated on.

The Official Crumb Site
Fantagraphic Books, R. Crumb Page
"Still in the Shadows, An Artist in his Own Right" [Maxon Crumb Profile], by Edward Guthmann @ SF Gate, Oct 3, 2006
The Art of Maxon Crumb @ Tumblr

Crumb DVD/Blu-Ray/Stream
Robert Crumb Store @ Amazon
R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders CD/MP3
The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels (Rough Guide Reference), by Danny Fingeroth
Eat It: A Cookbook, by Dana Crumb
Still Eatin' It: Another Dana Crumb Cookbook, by Dana Crumb

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