- Rated R
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
eird sex. Obsession. Comic books.” That’s what the movie poster for “Crumb” said back when the movie came out in 1995. If you were trying to figure out a way to market this documentary at that time, those are as good of jumping off points as any, and yet there’s no question that “Crumb” is about so much more.
I don’t recall what exactly it was that drew me to “Crumb” 15 years ago, as I was only tangentially familiar with Robert Crumb’s art, having spent countless hours in various head shops – many of which still stock R. Crumb comics to this day. It may have been the “David Lynch presents” tag that is attached to the film. As director Terry Zwigoff explains, Lynch literally had almost nothing to do with the film; by the time he’d seen “Crumb,” it was practically finished, so there wasn’t much he could do for it – except add his name, which Zwigoff jumped at, simply because he knew that it would bring many more people out to see the picture. It’s entirely probable that I was one of those people. Of course, the reviews at the time could also have gotten me into the theatre, as the movie was being hailed all over the place, and with good reason: “Crumb” is, simply put, one of the great documentaries. There are far more important documentaries out there, sure, but few offer up the same amount of sheer entertainment value as “Crumb.” This is likely only true, however, if everything the man is about doesn’t offend your potentially delicate sensibilities.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Robert Crumb, this movie is an ideal introduction. (If you are familiar with and appreciate the work of Robert Crumb, then it’s unfathomable that you haven’t already seen the film.) He’s an artist who was more or less responsible for kick-starting the counter culture underground comix movement of the ‘60s. Much of his work is as intelligent, thought-provoking and flat-out hilarious as it is angry, disturbed and violently sexual. Not all of it’s like this, mind you, but certainly enough for him to have gained a pretty notorious reputation over the years.
“Crumb” displays, delves into, and analyzes just enough of Crumb’s work to leave you wanting more, and never showcases enough to drag the picture into some sort of masturbatory celebration of the man’s work (Crumb himself is fairly self-deprecating about his talents). In one section, two fellow comic book artists – both female – have a pretty serious go at his stuff, decrying it as nothing more than sick pornography. Then Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes shows up and declares Crumb to be “the Bruegel of the last half of the 20th century” (he goes on to explain that there was no Bruegel in the first half). Opinions are divided, and it’s in that area that the documentary takes off into genius, as it shows us the man inside, and how he came to be the person that unleashed this enormous cache of abnormal depravity on the world.
The title of the film is simply “Crumb,” and that’s probably because it isn’t just documenting Robert Crumb. His wife Aline is a strong, positive force in the movie, just as his brother Charles is this strange, depressed creature. Clearly agoraphobic, the man hasn’t held a job in years. He lives with the Crumb matriarch, Beatrice, and some cats, sitting around all day, medicated and reading old paperbacks. What’s most amazing about the story of Charles is when we discover how brilliant of an artist he himself once was – maybe even better than Robert. Indeed, if not for Charles’s childhood bullying insistence that all the Crumb children create comics together (spurred on by his obsession with the Disney film “Treasure Island”), chances are Robert Crumb would never have gone on to find the fame he now has. There’s a third brother, Maxon, who’s at least out on his own and seems to have something of a career as a painter, but his grip on the world is nearly as questionable as Charles’s. There are also two Crumb sisters – both of whom refused to be interviewed for the film – which infers a whole other story we never get to see, but can almost imagine by the time the picture ends. Add into the mix both of Robert Crumb’s children, as well as his first wife, an old girlfriend, and numerous associates, and you get this startlingly clear picture of who the man behind this work really is.
When thinking about Robert Crumb, the portrait this movie paints of him is impossible to escape. He’s a man out of place and time, in a benign “Hey, you kids get off my lawn” sort of way. He wanders around San Francisco, aghast by what society has devolved into. He’s disgruntled with the human race, has no tolerance for commercialism, and straight up admits to having major issues with women. Crumb’s a complex man with a peculiarly reasonable voice. So much so that he makes it OK to be a fucked up individual, and proves that no matter how unusual you may be, there are ways to channel that state of misfit into something positive. Well, to some people anyway.
Criterion Collection DVD Review:
As is to be expected from Criterion, the transfer is as lovely as a 16mm, 1.33:1 aspect ratio movie is probably ever going to look. There are two commentary tracks: the first is with director Zwigoff (who, after “Crumb,” did “Ghost World,” “Bad Santa,” and “Art School Confidential”) and was recorded in April of this year, and the second is with Zwigoff and Roger Ebert circa 2005 that’s been ported over from a previous release. Both are great tracks, but the one with Ebert is a keeper for reasons too numerous (or perhaps obvious) to mention; good thing they kept it, then. In order to get the faithful to upgrade, this disc includes 50 minutes of deleted scenes, many of which are priceless, what with titles like “Going to the Mall” and “Sex Life Before and After Fame” and all. Two of the deleted scenes include optional Zwigoff commentary, one of which is a scene of R. Crumb playing with the band the Cheap Suit Serenaders, of which Zwigoff is also a member. Granted, many of the deleted scenes are rough, but it doesn’t matter because it’s like buried treasure regardless. There’s also a short stills gallery, a gorgeous Criterion booklet (is there any other kind?) featuring an essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum and some really nice Crumb artwork. The cherry on the cake is a second booklet – a seemingly complete reproduction of the hilariously warped “Famous Artists” talent test which was filled out by Charles Crumb and is briefly seen in the movie.