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Friday, November 20, 2009

The District

I recently had a minor confrontation with someone who claimed that comic book artist and counter-culture icon Robert Crumb is a misogynist. To be fair, I cannot exactly refute the claim. But I've watched the Crumb documentary (which is amazing!) and looked at a great number of his works. And I think that accusing Crumb of being a misogynist is like accusing him of being a racist. He certainly depicts disturbingly racist and sexually violent things in his work. He's deliberately provocative and occasionally pornographic. But as he has said, he's not here to be polite.

Crumb throws a mix of intense imagery onto the page. He can be crude, he can be sublime. He can be bitterly sarcastic and he can be utterly reverent. Labeling him misogynistic feels like labeling Nabokov a pedophile or Oscar Wilde a degenerate. Perhaps they were. But you're really boxing yourself in if that's all you see.

Which is all to say that I watched an animated Hungarian film called The District this week. And while I found it mesmerizing... I'm having a devil of a time thinking of anyone to recommend it to. Its portrayal of a cruel urban landscape with corrupt cops, degraded sexuality, prostitutes and pimps, and an ongoing racial tension between a Gypsy gang and the Ukrainian mob is rendered with surprising color, humor and verve. There is a pride taken in portraying the dirtiness of The District that makes an American blush. This is not supposed to be the setting for an absurdist comedy. At the same time that high brow audiences might frown at the constant swearing and sexism of the film, typical "dudes" that I know would probably miss all the subtle humor and surreal charm. When a gypsy thug recounts the glory of punching countless mastodons to death... or when Budapest is spared because President Bush accidentally nukes Bucharest instead... well, I think these moments of comic gold are lost on my lowenbrau friends.

But if you're a tweener... If you're someone that enjoys the artful debauchery of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde and Robert Crumb... then perhaps this is the perfect film for you.

Here's a sample scene from early in the movie that reminds one of a hipper Eastern European retooling of West Side Story. This is fairly typical of the film's tendency to break out into song... and of the animation style. The clip has no subtitles... but imagine that they are insulting each other with a variety of clever but obvious homophobic/xenophobic jabs.

Sharks vs. Jets battle rap