Director : Terry Zwigoff
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1995
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is an absolutely disarming documentary and one of the very best of its kind. Ostensibly a film about the great counterculture artist Robert Crumb, whose obscenely hilarious and frequently antisocial cartoons both reflected and helped define the ideology of a generation of hippies, outsiders, and misfits, it slowly but surely morphs into a portrait of Crumb’s brilliant, but deeply troubled and dysfunctional family. The film’s revelation is not so much about Robert Crumb as an individual, but rather Robert Crumb as one part of a family that could have very easily produced many Robert Crumbs, but instead collapsed under the weight of mental illness, abuse, and isolation. For many, Robert Crumb is the epitome of weird: a slouching, gangly nerd in oversized Coke-bottle glasses, a time-warp wardrobe of tweed jackets and porkpie hats, and a porn-star moustache whose primary interpersonal trait is to laugh awkwardly at his own tragedies and whose artwork reflects a barely repressed violence and hostility toward virtually everything, but particularly women. But, as the film eventually reveals, Crumb is positively well adjusted compared to his brothers, and the only real distinction we can make between him and them is that he succeeded as an artist and was able to exorcise his demons, even though he may not have been the most talented.
Zwigoff wisely uses a format that is unadorned by voice-over narration or explicit explanations, which allows the subjects to speak for themselves (he took the same approach in his first documentary, 1985’s Louie Bluie, which chronicled the obscure string-band musician Howard Armstrong). The film’s primary interest is in how Crumb’s upbringing and familial relations have informed the obsessive sexual and cultural issues at the center of his voluminous artistic output (the publisher Fantagraphics has compiled his work in 17 volumes of comics and 10 volumes of sketches). At various points in the film, which was shot over six years and bears the weight of that time and the sense of reflection it engenders, Zwigoff gives us long montages of Crumb’s most infamous drawings, which allow us to observe and absorb both the masterly detail of his unique black-ink style, while also marveling at how deeply twisted many of them are. His best drawings are both masterpieces of technique and a pipeline straight into the most depraved inner workings of his psyche, something that Crumb never for a second denies.
At other points in the film Zwigoff, who first met Crumb in the early 1970s when they played in a band together, allows the artist to page through his own comics and sketchbooks, explaining the ideas and thoughts behind his drawings, which gives us the unique and compelling experience of watching over an artist’s shoulder as he tries his best to explain himself and his impulses. The fact that Crumb is hyper-aware of his own odd predilections is enhanced by the fact that he is both articulate and all too willing to talk about it, even (or especially) when it involves divulging embarrassing secrets and thoughts, like his childhood sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny and the perpetually unhealed wounds of his own adolescent experience at the hands of uninterested girls and cruel jocks, both of whom end us as endless fodder for his art.
One of five siblings, Crumb was raised in what on the surface appeared to be a “normal” family, although it is revealed that his father (who died in 1982) was violent and demeaning and his mother abused diet pills. His two brothers, Charles and Max, were his childhood friends, and they spent most of their time following older brothers Charles’ lead in drawing comic books as an escape (Crumb’s two sisters declined to be interviewed for the film and are mentioned very little). Early in the film we see Crumb calling his mother and asking if she and his brother Charles would be willing to sit for an interview, which she promptly turns down. However, something changed at some point because Zwigoff was able to get his cameras into the dark, claustrophobic Crumb family home in Philadelphia and interview Charles and, later, their mother and Robert’s younger brother Max. Like Robert, Charles is all too willing to discuss everything about his life, including his various battles with depression and suicidality, the abuse he endured at the hands of their father, and the fact that he has never managed to hold down a job and has rarely left the home he has shared with his mother since the late 1960s. Max is similarly ill-suited to modern life, as he lives in a cramped apartment and spends most of his time immersed in some self-created form of spirituality that involves a great deal of sitting cross-legged, sometimes on a bed of nails.
In a lesser film Charles and Max would come across as just frightening or pathetic or downright weird, and while Zwigoff’s film never shies away from their social and mental maladjustments, it also draws attention to their intelligence, honesty, and artistic prowess. It becomes clear that Robert and his artwork were forged in a hotbed of sibling rivalry, especially with Charles, something to which they both still admit. In fact, Charles notes that he stopped drawing when he determined that Robert was a better artist, although looking over Robert’s shoulder as he thumbs through his brother’s childhood work suggests that it might have been the other way around. Zwigoff is both thoughtful and provocative in structuring most of the film around these family dynamics, as it threatens to steal the spotlight from Robert Crumb’s undeniably crucial place in modern art, but ultimately enhances it by helping us understand that artistic genius is neither born nor practiced in a vacuum.
Robert Crumb is a man haunted by many demons, and interviews with his current wife, ex-wife, son, and ex-girlfriends attest to his numerous interpersonal complications, while interviews with Time art critic Robert Hughes and Mother Jones editor Deidre English underscore how divisive Crumb’s art can be, with the former praising him as “the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century” and the latter criticizing him for often crossing the line from social satire into degrading pornography. At two hours in length, Crumb feels entirely too short, although one can’t deny that Zwigoff has been particularly efficient in packing every moment with something endearing or revelatory or shocking; in short, the film fascinates at every turn and leaves you wanting more. Its greatness, though, is in its balance of redemption and tragedy: how it shows us via Robert how thrilling a unique mind can be and then suggests via Charles that such a mind is a truly terrible thing to waste.
|Crumb Criterion Collection DVD|
|Crumb is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray (SRP $39.95).|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 10, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new director-approved, high-definition transfer of Crumb was taken from a 16mm interpositive and digitally restored. Since it was shot over six years on 16mm, the film is never going to look amazing, but this new transfer, which is slightly windowboxed, has it looking cleaner, sharper, and more detailed than I’ve ever seen it while also maintaining the inherent roughness and graininess of its native medium. I couldn’t ask for the film to look better. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, is clean and free of aural artifacts and ambient hiss.|
|Criterion’s new DVD of Crumb contains two audio commentaries. The first was recorded exclusively for this disc by director Terry Zwigoff, and the second is borrowed from the 2006 DVD and features Zwigoff talking with film critic Roger Ebert. Both commentaries are great listens and offer a wealth of information about both the making of the film and its subjects. Also on the disc are 51 minutes of unused footage divided into 14 scenes, all of which could have easily been incorporated into the film without feeling redundant or unnecessary, and a lengthy stills gallery. In honor of the power of the printed page, Criterion has also been good enough to include inside the case a full reprint of Charles Crumb’s “Famous Artists Talent Test,” which is discussed and briefly glimpsed in the film, and an insert booklet with a new essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and full-color reprints of artwork by Charles, Jesse, Max, and Robert Crumb.|
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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