There are a handful of documentaries that can lay claim to being the greatest the art form has seen. 2012’s harrowing The Act Of Killing;Man On Wire, from the same year; 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans; 1994’s remarkable Hoop Dreams; The Thin Blue Line in 1998. And yet only one can claim to have saved the man who made it from shooting himself in the head.
“I was averaging an income of about $200 a month and living with back pain so intense that I spent three years with a loaded gun on the pillow next to my bed, trying to get up the nerve to kill myself,” says director Terry Zwigoff of the nine years it took to make Crumb, his warts-and-all profile piece unveiling the peculiar life of underground comix genius, Robert Crumb.
If you’re unaware of Crumb’s work, allow us to direct you towards his astonishing work in Zap Comix, the East Village Other and in his own magazine Weirdo. The underground comix scene was a movement of self-published/small press comic books that depicted content forbidden by mainstream publications thanks to the infamously repressive Comic Code Authority. Underground comix were punk before punk, as essential to understanding the ’60s and ’70s counterculture as the peace movement and LSD. And Crumb was their godhead.
Crumb was released in 1995 to unrestrained critical acclaim (legendary movie critic Roger Ebert awarded Zwigoff’s documentary a rare 4/4 score, saying “Crumb is a film that gives new meaning to the notion of art as therapy”). And on Saturday 28th September at The Troxy in London, both Zwigoff and Crumb will celebrate the 25th anniversary of this remarkable film. There’ll be a screening, a Q&A with the director and a performance of live music from the film’s soundtrack. Both Zwigoff and Crumb will be playing said music. Expect perversity, trauma, neurosis and lots of jazz.
Not only that, but Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World – an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ classic melancholy drenched comic, starring Scarlett Johansson – will be shown, making the entire evening an unparalleled showcase of outsider art. Frankly, there is no weirder place to be in town. NME thought we’d get Terry Zwigoff on the phone to discuss what you can expect from the event.
Hey Terry. Why have you decided to hold an event like this now?
“Well the main thing is the anniversary. The soundtracks to the two films are being put out on vinyl for the first time. But really I just wanted to perform music with these people. We call ourselves the R. Crumb Hollywood Four. I’ll be playing cello. David Boeddinghaus, the piano player, and Craig Ventresco, the guitarist, are my two favourite living musicians. Crumb isn’t as good a musician, but he’s my favourite living artist. I probably prefer Picasso, but Crumb is the one that is alive.”
You’ve been friends with Crumb for a long time. How did you come to meet?
“I had volunteered to help some friends of mine with a film they were making about experiments that were being done on animals. Real horrifying stuff. I was filing trims – a fairly archaic term in film making now, but basically putting together the cuts that had been made on the film tapes. But they couldn’t get anyone to see the movie because the footage was so upsetting. Nobody wanted to see that stuff. So I started to think about other mediums we could use to get the message across. I’d read this book by James Agee called A Mother’s Tale. He’d written this story about a cow that had escaped a slaughterhouse. Still harrowing, but not enough you couldn’t read it.
“I started thinking, ‘What if we made our film into a comic book?’ Robert Crumb had long been my favourite comic book artist. I just thought he was so smart. I thought, ‘Maybe I could get hold of him and talk him into doing this?’ Finally I found a way to get to him and his first words were belittling and condescending, “So, you want to make a ‘be kind to animals’ comic book do ya?”’
Being a fan of Robert Crumb, that sounds exactly the response I would expect him to have…
“Yeah. And then of course when he did have a go at doing it, he went off and did something completely different to what I had ever intended it to have been. So it didn’t happen. But we did hit it off. We were both hugely into music from the 1920s and 1930s, and we both collected 78s [78RPM records] of it…”
You started your relationship with Crumb as a fan. How quickly did it transcend that and become friendship?
“Pretty quickly. We were similar in our sense of humour and in our outlook on life. We’re both very cantankerous! I remain an enormous fan of his, though. He’s one of the only people on earth I think has ever changed the way I see the world. He’s a visionary genius, really. He sees things that others do not. I remember once he’d lost his keys – he was always doing that and when he did he’d come to my house and wait for me to get home, and he’d sit there sketching to pass the time. This one time he was drawing the scene across my street – something I’d seen for years – and I have never been able to see that scene in the same way since. All he’d done was exaggerate the amount of telephone and electrical wires – ugly, utilitarian crap that I’d never ever noticed before – and now I cannot see anything else!”
What do you do when you hang out now?
“Sadly, we don’t get to see each other enough these days. You see at the end of Crumb that he moved to France, so generally he only makes it over to the States once a year. We’ll sit around and listen to records. But also, the older we get [Zwigoff is 70, Crumb is 76], we mostly just moan about our health. It just happens when you get older. You stop talking about sex. Then you stop talking about food. Then you start talking about how much your feet hurt.”
For someone who’s made great movies – Crumb, Ghost World, and I won’t hear a single bad thing about 2003’s Bad Santa – you haven’t made a lot…
“I guess I find making films therapeutic, and so they take a lot out of me. When I made Crumb I was going through a lot of psychological family issues. I was seeing a psychiatrist and all the rest of it. I think most of the films I’ve made have left me feeling a bit better about the world afterwards…”
What did Crumb make of the movie when it screened?
“He’d already moved to France when it came out, so I sent him a VHS tape of it. He was very upset by it in ways I wouldn’t have expected. He drew a comic strip about it. He said it was an excellent film, but that it was like looking into a mirror at himself – and he didn’t want to look in a mirror at himself. I think he changed his physical appearance afterwards because of it. He lost his trademark hat and grew a beard. I think he’s over it now. I hope so, since we’re doing this event together!”
Tell us about Ghost World. That was an incredibly iconic movie for young weirdos in 2001…
“Well, Crumb got so much critical acclaim, which was amazing, but it also – and this is much more important to movie people in Los Angeles – started making money, and before you knew it I started getting sent scripts by people who wanted me to direct their films. I was flattered – I’d only ever made documentaries; a feature film is a totally different thing – but some of the scripts were so bad.
“And then my wife suggested [the Daniel Clowes comic] Ghost World, which she absolutely loved. The problem was that there wasn’t much of a story there. The two female characters were great, but I didn’t know how to translate the comic onscreen.I rang Crumb and asked him if he’d met Daniel Clowes, who created Ghost World. He replied, “I met him once; tall, handsome, ladies’ man”, which I’ll be honest is slightly different to how I viewed Daniel when I met him. But I really, really liked him. He cracked me up.”
Ghost World really sums up the alienation I think a lot of young people felt at the time of the millennium. It really captures the era. Did it feel like that making it?
“I think that exposes my failings as a filmmaker, because when I made it I was really trying to make it feel timeless, like it could be relevant to any era and set in any place in America. It looked too LA. It’s so hard to disguise LA because there are palm trees everywhere! I just wanted to depict how I see the world, really. I thought if I could push it into a slightly more exaggerated, nightmarish version of the world, then that would be cool.
“In my mind, America is a place woven out of falsehood, lies, scams and hypocrisies, politicians and TV evangelists, corporations that don’t have the best interests of anyone other than themselves, and it always has been – that’s capitalism! – and that’s what I wanted to capture. Sort of [Aldous Huxley’s classic novel] Brave New World meets [George Orwell’s] 1984. Disgust for a lot of humanity powered that film, it really did…”
– Robert Crumb and Terry Zwigoff appear at The Troxy, London, on Saturday, September 28th. Get tickets here