Review by Michael Jacobson
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 120 Minutes
Release Date: August 10, 2010
“How perfectly god d—ned delightful it all is, to be sure.”
Crumb is a funny, profoundly disturbing and deeply probing documentary into the life and mind of one of America’s most iconic comic artists. It’s either a story of how one man turned depravity and decadence into an art form, or the story of how releasing that depravity and decadence saved him from complete despair.
That man is Robert Crumb, who rose to fame in the 60s with his unique and unforgettable underground comic images. His pen was sharp and filled with satire that pushed envelopes, including sexual content, racial boundaries, and violence, but all of it came from an intensely personal place. His cover for Janis Joplin’s album Cheap Thrills, his “Keep On’ Truckin’” images, and Fritz the Cat helped elevate him to…well, the mainstream is a bit of a stretch, but they certainly lent him a fame and notoriety most underground artists never achieve.
He is the subject of the second film by director Terry Zwigoff, a long time friend who persuaded the elusive Crumb to be the subject. But it was more than just the man, the myth and legend he was after. Knowing something about Crumb’s upbringing and family life, Zwigoff wanted to get a little of that into the film. And it’s that aspect that elevates the material above the normal pop culture documentary.
We see Crumb and his art, but we also see two brothers. Charles, the eldest, was the one who first got the brothers into the business of comics. A talented artist in his own right, he never left home and is now a medicated loner who spends his life in his room re-reading paperbacks.
The younger, Max, lives in a small apartment in the Bay area, where he paints with oils (impressively, I might add) while sitting on a bed of nails and passing a long piece of cloth through his digestive system.
All three grew up in the 50s under an aggressive Army veteran father and a mother hooked on amphetamines. All three never seemed to find adjustment as adults. But Robert Crumb managed to find success and an outlet for his anger and disappointments in life, and that outlet might be the reason why, as strange and twisted and bizarre as he is, he ended up the most normal in his family.
Zwigoff also introduces us to some of the women in Crumb’s life, from an ex wife to a current one, to a former sweetheart. All give insight into the strange appetites of the nebbish artist, whose fetishes and admitted loathing of women found their way into his comics on a regular basis. We see the critics…one praising him as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, another saddened by his overt misogyny and sometimes shocking depictions of both women and minorities.
What we see is an artist completely inseparable from his art. Every drawing by Crumb reflects the deepest, darkest workings of his mind, and whether the end result was hilarious or disturbing (frequently both together), none of it was born out of a need to create controversy or sensationalize. It all came as a means to cope.
This is a fascinating documentary of the highest order because it manages to find its way through the achievements and ups and downs of life into aspects so personal and deep that you just don’t expect to see such revelation in a movie. It’s easy to take any artist and speculate what makes him or her tick, but how many documentaries actually find the answers?
The full frame transfer works decently in high definition, but the cameras and film stock weren’t exactly Hollywood caliber, so a lot of detail and cinematographic embellishments weren’t possible. It looks fine given the source material, but nothing that really showcases what the medium is capable of.
Likewise, the uncompressed mono soundtrack is serviceable, but considering most of the soundtrack is dialogue accented by old 78 RPM recordings, nothing much jumps out. Spoken words are clear and dynamic range, by nature, is minimal.
There are some good extras here, starting with a pair of very enjoyable commentary tracks. There is a brand new one by Terry Zwigoff, and one from some years back where he’s joined by critic (and fan of the film) Roger Ebert.
There are also 14 unused scenes and one of the year’s best booklets, which features artwork by all three of the Crumb brothers and Robert’s son Jesse, a very talented artist himself.
Crumb is the kind of documentary that reminds you what the art form is supposed to be about in a day and age where opinion pieces and propaganda movies prevail. Criterion deserves credit for recognizing this as an important film and giving it the Blu-ray treatment when few, if any other studios, would have had the faith.