Crumb (1995)

Documentary by Terry Zwigoff
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics 14445
Video: 1.33:1 full screen, color
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Audio commentary by Roger Ebert & Terry Zwigoff, Scene from Zigoff’s new Art School Confidential
Length: 120 minutes
Rating: ****

Reissue of this “two-thumbs up” documentary is well-timed by Sony considering that although at the time of its release it made quite a splash both with critics and audiences, the current success of documentaries in general at the box office hadn’t yet happened. Robert Crumb – better known to alternate comics fans as R. Crumb – came to sudden fame in the 60s with his sometimes psychedelic, sometimes trenchant social commentary, and sometimes disgustingly self-revelatory artwork. His artistic genius as well as his odd sexual obsessions (turned on by women with big boots, sturdy legs and ample derrieres) are dealt with directly – nothing held back – as we move thru his odd and unusual life and past history.

The depressing nature of his dysfunctional mother and two brothers is seen in his visits to them, and the revelation at the conclusion of the film that one of the brothers committed suicide a year after the film was premiered. At the same time we see what motivated Crumb to pour all his energy into is drawings.  He and his brothers started drawing their own comics early on.  Robert is seen reliving his painful childhood by drawing images from school annuals of girls in his class who ignored his nerdy self. He says on the soundtrack he felt people just didn’t relate to him and he would be spending his life with “comics and cats.” This material is backed up to wild scenes such as a photo shoot at the studio of “pin-up” photographer Eric Kroll, as Crumb revels in his element – surrounded by models perfectly fitting his sexual fetishes. He admits that his relationship with the opposite sex changed when he got famous.

The image of Crumb as a misanthropic artist is strong in some of his actions, yet many can sympathize with his horror over boomboxes on the street, too many cars (Crumb doesn’t drive), senseless rap and rock, etc.  He describes how he went to a couple of rock concerts in the Haight-Ashbury in the 60s and fell asleep! He’s shown playing a Scott Joplin rag on the piano, and has made some recordings with a trad jazz group. Sometimes his contrariness seems self-defeating: He had a bad experience with the production of the Fritz the Cat animated feature based on his series and is seen rudely turning down a serious request from fellow cartoonist Dan O’Neil to make a Mr. Natural feature film.  Crumb claims there hasn’t been a decent animated film since the 1940s. Well! I for one would go nuts over a Mr. Natural movie – my favorite Crumb character!  The conclusion of the documentary shows the preparations for Crumb and fellow-cartoonist wife and child to move to the south of France – along with his huge collection of old jazz 78s. (He traded for the house into which they would move a collection of his original sketches for Zap Comix and other priceless early work.)

– John Sunier

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