Crumb (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

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.

"My work is full of sweating, nervous uneasiness, which is a big part of me and everybody else," says Crumb. "Most people don't want to see that though, because it reminds them of inadequate parts of themselves." Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects for any viewer of Crumb is to identify elements of their own personality reflected in what Zwigoff uncovers. Crumb doesn't tone down his often-bizarre opinions just because the camera is on.

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 (a film that Crumb hates). Crumb, made with even-handed passion by 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. At one point, Crumb states, "At least I hate myself as much as I hate anybody else." In fact, in omparison to his two brothers, Crumb appears almost normal. Charles is a manic depressive who takes medication to keep suicidal bouts at bay (one year following Zwigoff's Philadelphia interview, Charles killed himself). Max, a confessed sex offender, spends several hours a day meditating on a bed of nails.

Is Crumb a misogynist? Probably, since, in his own words, he harbors inner hostility towards women. But there's more than that to his work. Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes defends Crumb, saying that his work expresses fantasies that are common, but which most of us repress out of fear. Mother Jones editor Deidre English has a different view, indicating that Crumb's fetish for depicting overendowed, headless female bodies is a manifestation of his "arrested juvenile vision." It's even suggested that putting such fantasies on paper is "dangerous." Zwigoff gives both sides of the argument equal time, and never editorializes. It's up to the viewer to decided which position, if either, he or she accepts.

Is Crumb obsessed with sex? No doubt. Apparently, there was a time when he masturbated four to five times each day, and everyone seems to agree that he finds his own work sexually stimulating. The cartoonist's views of sex may not be of the "normal" variety (just ask one of his ex-lovers), but he definitely enjoys certain activities.

Is Crumb disgusted with popular culture and fame? In his own words, "As a teenager...I realized I was an outcast, I became a critic, and I've been disgusted with American culture from the time I was a kid. I started out by rejecting all the things that the people who rejected me liked, then over the years I developed a deeper analysis of these things." Crumb has turned down opportunities to make hundreds of thousands of dollars by going mainstream. He will not sign autographs. And he rejects the romantic notion of love, saying the only woman he has ever loved is his daughter.

Whatever opinion a viewer has of Crumb at the end of this film, an apathetic reaction is unthinkable. Empathy, fascination, disgust, or anger are all likely, but not disinterest. R. Crumb is the sort of person it's impossible to ignore, and Zwigoff's film creates such an honest portrayal of him that some sort of response is demanded. Crumb is a rare and powerful documentary that completely 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.

Crumb (United States, 1994)

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Robert Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Hughes
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Music: David Boeddinghaus
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Ranked #81 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: Documentary
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1