(United States, 1994)
I am admittedly not a big fan of documentaries. I'm not sure of the reason for this, but, even to this day, I rigorously avoid documentaries unless I think they're too "important" to miss (or if I'm interested in the subject matter). So, when I entered a theater playing Crumb in early 1995, I went more on a whim than for any other reason (there probably wasn't much else playing that weekend), and was subsequently blown away. This is easily one of the most provocative, insightful documentaries ever to have been committed to celluloid. Before going, I knew very little about R. Crumb (except that he was the creator of Fritz the Cat) and had no preconceptions about him. Two hours later, I emerged with a series of impressions that have never left me. Forget the fact that Crumb happens to be a documentary - it is a brilliant, compelling character study about the kind of individual who is so twisted, brilliant, and deeply conflicted that his story arrests the attention of everyone who is watching. Crumb is not the most "important" documentary ever to have been made, nor is it the best-known or the most troubling, but, as far as I'm concerned, it is one of the most accomplished, and the one that stands out the most forcefully in my memory.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
R. Crumb's claim to fame is founding the underground comics movement in 1967, when issue #1 of his "Zap Comix" was released. Crumb is also the creator of the "Keep on Truckin'" logo, the artist for the LP cover of Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, and the originator of Fritz the Cat, which Ralph Bakshi turned into the first X-rated animated feature. Crumb, made with even-handed passion by Terry Zwigoff, does not attempt to be a complete chronicle of the cartoonist's life. Instead, the movie chooses to examine certain facets of his personality, his and others' impressions of his work, and the forces which contributed to the genesis of a product that has been called everything from satirical genius to pornographic filth. Through interviews with Robert Crumb, his brothers Charles and Max, his current wife and ex-wife, his son Jesse, and various art critics, Zwigoff constructs a Picasso-like image of the man and the influences underlying his creativity. One of the most important of these is surely the dysfunctional family environment of his childhood. With a father labeled by Charles as an "overbearing tyrant" and "sadistic bully", and a mother who became an amphetamine addict, it's no wonder that Crumb is filled with anger, disgust, and hate. But, as deep as his bitterness runs, the artist possesses a streak of sardonic, self-deprecating humor that shines through.
Upon viewing the completed version of this film, cartoonist Robert Crumb, whose story it tells, informed director Terry Zwigoff, "After I saw it I had to go for a walk in the woods, just to clear my head. I took my favorite hat off, this hat that I've had for 25 years, and I threw it off a cliff. I don't want to be R. Crumb anymore." Considering the material, the reaction is understandable. This is the sort of movie capable of prompting a viewer to question and evaluate a great deal more than the inner workings of a single man. In addition to presenting one of the most compelling filmed documentary character studies of all time, Crumb asks a lot of pointed questions about life and art that no one can possibly answer, least of all the misanthropic genius at the center of the portrait. Crumb is a rare and powerful documentary that absorbs the viewer and leaves an impression so blindingly clear that the afterimage cannot be blinked away even when the theater is far behind. Crumb and his words will tug at the mind with all the tenacity of a pit bull tearing at its prey.
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