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The visual and emotional power of Crumb (1994) comes directly from the two artists who created it. One is Terry Zwigoff, who started his directorial career with the 1985 jazz documentary Louie Bluie, showing an instant flair for treating offbeat subject matter with a finely tuned balance of seriousness, impudence, and wit. The other is the truly inimitable Robert Crumb, better known as R. Crumb, a founder of the underground-comix scene and a smart, sardonic enemy of the decency, decorum, and propriety used by more timid souls - which means most of us - to keep our imaginations and desires at bay.
If the volcanic vulgarity and insinuating weirdness of Crumb creations like Mr. Natural and Devil Girl and Fritz the Cat aren't for you, then Zwigoff's freewheeling documentary probably won't be either. But if you're on the lookout for adventure, step right up for the volatile mixture of disturbing human problems and Zap Comix-type outrageousness that was R. Crumb's everyday life when the film was made in the middle 1990s. That's the period when Crumb got so fed up with American hustle and greed that he moved to rural France, taking his wife and young daughter with him.
Instead of squeezing Crumb's unusual story into a standard chronological pattern, Zwigoff wisely chose a less conventional approach, roaming through Crumb history with a curious eye and sympathetic attitude that allow the cartoonist's personal and professional characteristics to emerge spontaneously. Crumb and his drawings are on camera almost all the time, giving you ample opportunity to observe his many oddities and get a sense - an unstable, constantly shifting sense - of what makes him tick.
Not surprisingly, he comes across as one strange dude, marching so doggedly to his own drummer that it's easy to think he could have become an unemployable hermit if fate had dealt him a slightly different hand. His eccentricity has a melancholy side that occasionally shows through his toothy smiles, as when he says that his daughter, Sophie, is the only woman he has ever loved, or when he says that cutting ties with his mother, brothers, and sisters (because he's moving to Europe) arouses no feelings in him at all. On the flip side, his insistence about living life entirely on his own terms is a great source of integrity, leading him to turn down hugely lucrative offers if he thinks - as he usually does - that the deal might compromise his independence. He walks the walk when it comes to despising fame and fortune. Not for nothing did he leave San Francisco for a little French village in the countryside, where he still lives outside the spotlight almost twenty years later.
R. is not the only Crumb in Crumb, as the title hints. His two sisters declined Zwigoff's requests to be interviewed, but his brothers, Charles and Maxon, are the movie's chief supporting characters. Compared with them, R. seems like Mr. Average American, and encounters with the pair produce some of the film's most unsettling moments. Charles has a history of ailments including a seizure disorder, clinical depression, and sexual dysfunction, all of which he discusses candidly in front of Zwigoff's camera. Bits of conversation and piles of paperback books in his bedroom testify to his love of reading, but his physical and psychological ills, and the medications he takes for them, have evidently reduced his ability to do anything very well except argue with his mother, usually by shouting from another part of the house. Robert seems vaguely ill at ease when Charles speaks about his chronically poor health - nervousness would explain R.'s little bursts of inappropriate laughter - but Charles takes everything in stride. Or so it seems until the documentary's last moments, when a printed text gives the mournful information that he committed suicide a year after he was filmed.
Maxon has fewer minutes on the screen, but they are fascinating ones. As much a full-blooded Crumb as his brothers, he is a practicing ascetic who sits on a bed of nails every day and is last seen swallowing a long, slender tape which will come out of his other end in three days, cleansing his innards as it snakes through his gastrointestinal system. Viewed one way, all this seems unlikely for a brother of America's most wild and woolly underground cartoonist; but viewed another way, Maxon is displaying the same kind of discipline that R. has employed to build and sustain a major career. Both brothers are cultivating native talents and working very hard at what they do, and it's hard to say which of them (although not poor Charles, alas) is leading the more fulfilling life.
Crumb gives glimpses of R.'s talents in areas other than drawing and cartooning, but it doesn't explore them in any depth, which is one of the movie's shortcomings. When he sits at an old upright piano and plays a poetic tune, it's clear that he has strong musical talent, but you'd never know he led and sang lead vocals for R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders, with Zwigoff playing cello, saw, and other instruments, or that he has released CD mix-tapes of his favorite cuts from the vinyl 78s in his extensive collection. But this is a small omission from a generally wide-ranging film.
Crumb is pushing 70 now, and you can only hope he'll get together with Zwigoff for an update on his life, work, and philosophy. Zwigoff himself went on from Crumb to make fiction films: the marvelous Ghost World (2001), the bittersweet Bad Santa (2003), and the less successful Art School Confidential (2006), which is based (like Ghost World) on work by commix artist Dan Clowes, who also gets screenplay credit. It's regrettable that Zwigoff has been absent from the screen since 2006, and that even the sequel to Bad Santa is being directed by someone else. But we still have Crumb as a testament to his creative energy and a promise of things to come. It's a marvelous monument to the deliciously spooky gifts of R. Crumb, a unique commix creator and one of the most indelible screen personalities in memory. What's important in life, he reminds us, is to keep on truckin'.
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Producers: Lynn O'Donnell, Terry Zwigoff
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
Film Editing: Victor Livingston
Music: David Boeddinghaus
Cast: R. Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Beatrice Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Robert Hughes, Dana Morgan
by David Sterritt