Crumb, Blu-ray (1995/2010)

by | Aug 12, 2010 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Crumb, Blu-ray (1995/2010)

Documentary director: Terry Zwigoff
Studio: Zwigoff/The Criterion Collection Special Edition 533 [8/10/10]
Video: 1.33:1 color from 16mm interpositive, 1080p HD
Audio: PCM mono
Extras: Two commentary tracks: Zwigoff alone (2010) and with Roger Ebert (2006), 50+ minutes of unused footage, Stills gallery, Printed booklet with essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and artwork by Robert, Charles, Maxon and Jesse Crumb
Length: 120 minutes
Rating: *****

I see that my original review of the DVD was nearly 15 years ago and is no longer in our site archives, so I’ll start over. This intimate documentary portrait of the quirky underground comic artist and his dysfunctional family was made by his close friend Zwigoff over a period of eight years.  At first Crumb turned down the idea – as he had and did most other film projects suggested to him (he was definitely not seduced by the money) – but eventually came around in his less-than-enthusiastic style.

Since I was familiar with most of the film’s actual soundtrack, I listened all the way thru to the director’s solo commentary.  (Ebert does most of the talking on the commentary track they shared.)  Zwigoff’s comments on his friendship with Crumb and other aspects not brought out in the film are fascinating. He also mentions his constant financial struggles in making the film, though it was shot only on 16mm – which I had forgotten. He said it probably wouldn’t have had the success it did at the New York Film Festival if Star Wars’ soundtrack maven Walter Murch had not volunteered to do the final audio mix for free. The many outtakes also fill in numerous aspects of Crumb’s story – though some have only a white screen where there is a soundtrack but no picture to go with it.

Zwigoff criticizes the general attitude of the public to his film’s portrayal of Crumb’s dysfunctional family, but how anyone could say this very peculiar family is not dysfunctional I don’t know. The soundtrack music of mostly ragtime and early jazz piano – courtesy of David Boeddinghaus – fits perfectly Crumb’s collecting and playing of old 1920s and ‘30s blues and jazz 78s. But I have to disagree with Zwigoff substituting a shot of Crumb playing the piano (there is also a video in the extras of him playing banjo in The Cheap Suit Serenaders) with a new track by Boeddinghaus, because Crumb had played the 1900-vintage tune Narcissus, which tied in perfectly with his brother’s earlier statement relating his own narcissicism to his mental illness. There is a great deal about Crumb’s childhood and his relationship with his two brothers – one of whom committed suicide a year after the film premiered. Crumb’s clothing – like everything about him – is old-fashioned, from the 1920s or ‘30s, like his music. He hates hippies (the audience for his original Zap Comics) although his son looks like one.

If you’re not already a fan of Crumb’s comics, you may be put off by some of the images in the film. He is frankly up front about his sexual perversions which come out in some of his characters – women with thick thighs, for example. Then there are his caricatures of “jungle bunnies” and shocking behavior from cats, gurus, you name it. How any viewer can miss understanding his in-your-face satire and caustic comment on the dark side of American society I don’t know. Crumb himself, as a talking head, carries the film with his expressive face and self-effacing, uncomfortable, grouchy comments on people, art, anxieties, hang-ups, you name it. Some of the talking heads – such as the TIME art critic – are 100% supportive of Crumb as a genius equivalent to Hogarth and Goya, while others inveigh against his anti-feminist views towards women or his more shocking drawings being seen by children. How he came to be a celebrity is explored, and in his commentary Zwigoff fills in some of what has occurred since the 1995 premiere of the film: Robert and his wife and daughter are still in the south of France, to which they were moving (with his 1500 priceless 78s) at the end of the film, and his one remaining brother (the sitter-on-the-bed-of-nails) has achieved some success thru selling his paintings. His two sisters who refused to be interviewed for the film are in touch with Robert again, and his son is a successful cartoonist. Crumb’s latest non-Zappy creation is an illustrated version of the entire book of Genesis – which is being exhibited at various art museums!

Altogether a most elucidating documentary, especially with the extras and commentary track.  There’s plenty of humor as well as tragedy in it. Crumb may have his eccentricities in spades (pardon the expression) but you can’t say that he’s not a natural.  Like my personal favorite Crumb character, Mr. Natural.

 – John Sunier

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