Crumb: Criterion Collection
August 6, 2010
Underground comic book artist Robert Crumb rose to prominence in the 1960s thanks to the creation of popular characters like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, his most famous character (much to his chagrin). Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff knew Crumb personally in the 1970s and in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, he spent six years filming a documentary portrait about his friend. After spending three more years editing it, Crumb was released in 1995 to much critical acclaim and became a film festival darling. Zwigoff not only takes a look at Crumb’s fascinating career but also sheds light on his deeply dysfunctional family and how their influence informed his art.
Crumb’s wife Aline says that when she first met him he was practically catatonic. She’s not afraid to speak her mind which acts as a nice counterpoint to Crumb’s more introverted nature. He is an obsessive collector of blues and jazz music from the 1920s and claims that it is the one thing that connects him to the rest of humanity. His brother Charles is an obsessive reader who still lives with their mother and admits to being detached from the human race.
We find out that as a kid, Charles loved comic books and got Crumb into them which led to both boys drawing their own. There was an intense sibling rivalry between Crumb, Charles and their youngest brother Maxon who had an antagonistic relationship with the eldest, Charles, with Crumb in the middle.
Crumb speaks with refreshing candor about his sexual memories and what aroused him as a kid – cute cartoon characters until he was 12 and then he became obsessed with Sheena from the popular television show, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle in the 1950s. The documentary does not shy away from Crumb’s hostility towards women, his misogynistic tendencies and his perverse fantasies as depicted in his comics. Zwigoff presents us with a critic that takes him to task for these things and one that defends his artwork quite eloquently.
At an early age, Crumb realized that he wasn’t popular or all that attractive to others and decided to be a non-conformist. He began collecting old music and developed his artistic skills. He was determined to become a famous artist. In the ‘60s, he moved to San Francisco and immersed himself in the Haight-Ashbury scene. He took LSD and it not only changed his perspective on life but his style of art, opening it up and freeing his mind. He started drawing all kinds of psychedelic comic books which became very popular.
Over the course of this documentary, it becomes apparent that Crumb was born in the wrong era. He is a man out of time, consciously ignorant of popular culture and ruled by his own personal obsessions. He’s disgusted with America’s aggressive, commercially-driven culture and the documentary ends with him and his family packing up and moving to France. After meeting his reclusive brothers and mother, Crumb almost seems normal in comparison. His art was a way for him to escape his deeply troubled family. He took his dysfunctions and obsessions and found a way to channel it into his art. Zwigoff’s Crumb is a fascinating, intimate portrait of the man that presents him warts and all with unflinching honesty.
There is an audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff done in 2010. He talks about the origins of the documentary. After he met Crumb’s family, Zwigoff knew that he wanted to include Charles and his mother but they took a lot of convincing. Zwigoff talks about the challenge of picking examples of Crumb’s artwork from the thousands he had access to. He also talks about how the budget limitations impacted the film – mostly peripheral people from his past could not be interviewed because of the cost of going to see them. It took Zwigoff years and he was always trying to raise money for it.
Also included is a commentary by Zwigoff and film critic Roger Ebert done in 2006. Zwigoff talks about how he first met Crumb and how they bonded over a love for old music. He admits that Charles was the impetus for making the documentary and that he found him a fascinating person. Zwigoff and Ebert talk about Charles’ dichotomy of being both articulate and a recluse. Ebert asks Zwigoff questions about the film and about Crumb which keeps things going and avoids any lengthy lulls in the commentary.
There is 51 minutes of “Unused Footage” including more examples of Crumb’s artwork, more footage of Crumb and Charles talking about their family, Crumb talking about his sex life before and after he achieved fame, and him telling more stories eccentric brother Charles.
Finally, there is a “Stills Gallery” with behind-the-scenes photographs and portraits of Crumb and his family.