Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Robert Crumb
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 120 Minutes
Release Date: April 25, 2006
“Robert Crumb is the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century.” – Robert Hughes, Art Critic, Time
Robert Crumb doesn’t come across as the cultural icon that he is. Bad postured, myopic, fetishistic, and nebbish…not exactly leading man material. But his gift helped usher in an era of underground comics, and to an extent, even helped the art form find above ground respectability.
It was his longtime friend Terry Zwigoff who first approached Crumb with the idea of making a documentary on him. The quiet, reclusive artist didn’t seem like the kind of man who would consent to such a thing, but consent he did, and the resulting film Crumb has to be one of the best feature documentaries ever created.
What makes it work? Is it the close personal look at the man and his creations, the comic books that laid bare his insecurities, neuroses, sexual fantasies and more? Is it the study of the family he came from that helps us realize Robert, with all his tics, may have been the most normal and unscarred to come out of it? Is it the argument over whether his work is serious social satire and cultural criticism or a blatant affront to women, minorities, and basic moral decency?
It’s a bit of all of those things. But mostly, it’s just Crumb himself. He’s the kind of character few of us will ever know…though if you’ve read his comics over the years, you feel like you do. Robert Crumb may be a shy, somewhat introverted fellow in real life, but with pen and paper, he found an outlet to explore, ponder and lay bare every impulse that made him who he was.
I mean, what can you say about a man who admits he was once sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny? Or the strange fantasy world of his comics where unrealistically proportioned women sometimes have horrible bird heads, or no heads at all? Or the fact that he became such a symbol of the 1960s when in fact it was a decade he never felt like he fit into?
Crumb is a relaxed, natural look at the man and his art. It ranges from funny to moving, from warm to disturbing, usually all within a few breaths. Somehow with Terry Zwigoff, Crumb was mostly relaxed, open and unguarded, providing filmgoers with a look inside a mind that was extraordinarily talented but weird enough to challenge our very notions of what’s normal and what is not.
For instance, if you think Robert is a little off, wait until you meet his brothers. Charles, a talented artist in his own right who actually got the family started in the business of creating comics, is now a heavily medicated shut-in living with their mother. He’s lost his ability to function in the outside world and never leaves the house. Maxon, on the other hand, lives in a shabby hotel room in San Francisco where he begs, paints, sits on beds of nails, and regularly passes a cloth through his digestive system.
They share stories of their lives growing up…usually peppered with laughter, but we can’t help thinking that what we’re seeing really isn’t all that funny. Our final impression might be one of awe that Robert actually turned out as normal and functional as he is. All three brothers retreated into fantasies to escape their drug dependant mother and their abusive father. But only Robert found a way to turn it into something that not only gave him escape, but probably saved his life and his fragile sanity as well.
We see it all in Crumb’s comics…his resentment toward bullies, his fears and loathings when it came to women, his strange sexual appetites, his take on the growing bankruptcy of American culture. These are things that can eat away at a person’s soul if kept repressed. We kind of sense that it already has with Charles. But with Robert, his art became his outlet.
The film’s finale shows Robert and his wife Aline packing up their modest California home to move to France, where Crumb has acquired a house by trading a case of his sketchbooks for it. More than a decade later, they’re still there. Apparently, Crumb’s output has dwindled in the years since, and the people of France seem more keen on his heyday work than his current productions. Zwigoff speculates that leaving America was hard on Robert’s art…he has nothing left to rebel against. I prefer Roger Ebert’s speculation, though: maybe at long last, R. Crumb is happy.
FINAL NOTE: Charles Crumb committed suicide shortly after his appearance in this film.
This new remastered release is an improvement over the first issue. Colors are brighter and detail more apparent. There is still some noticeable grain here and there, as this was a low budget film, but nothing distracting.
The audio track isn’t too demanding, as much of the film is either dialogue or the music off of old records. But the spoken words are clear and well-rendered…that’s about as much as you can ask for with a movie of this nature.
The main extra is a commentary by Zwigoff and film critic Roger Ebert, which is an enlightening and informative listen. There is also a preview clip of Zwigoff’s new film Art School Confidential, plus a bevy of trailers.
It’s really hard to explain why I think Crumb is such a great movie. It’s more than being about a fascinating subject, or the personal, intimate ways it looks at him, or even the generous amounts of strange and unforgettable comic creations. Maybe it’s mostly about how a man can overcome his own psychological shortcomings and even make a pretty darn good living out of them. The American dream is being able to channel whatever you’ve been given into something successful. Robert Crumb may just be the more surreal embodiment of that dream.