Obviously it’s R. Crumb’s iconic artwork that justifies the existence of Terry Zwigoff’s beloved 1994 film, though the absent initial in the title speaks to what makes Crumb a masterpiece. We learn early on that Robert’s illustrative style, sexual fetishes, and scabrous worldview are inseparable from his relationships to the men in his family, particularly older brother Charles, who inspired Robert to draw and who shaped his sense of humor. But while the famous sibling grants the movie its subject and interest, it’s arguably Charles—and, to a slightly lesser extent, youngest brother Maxon—who makes the film so devastating and emotionally resonant. Crumb—in a similar manner to Grey Gardens, the closest thing it has to a forebear—is ultimately about a family rather than just its protagonist’s eccentricities.
The story of Crumb—Zwigoff laboring for nearly a decade, in failing health, and earning the ire of his subject and close friend—is as well-known among contemporary cineastes as any production legend, and surely accounts in part for the rabid proselytizing we tend to do on its behalf. But if Crumb were merely an interesting film, a bit of outsider-art lightning in a bottle, it wouldn’t inspire such fanaticism. It so happens that Crumb is also as compositionally impressive as any documentary I’ve ever seen, moving from first-person verité revelations to art criticism with the same agility that it switches tones from sexual comedy to existential despair. This means that Crumb embodies the spirit of Robert’s work, which often operates simultaneously on so many different emotional levels that it can elicit a different response depending on the viewer’s mood at the moment.
Watching Crumb again, I found myself convinced that critics and higher-minded film types must also adore this film in part because it presents a romantic view of a man whose life was, by all appearances, quite literally saved by art. Charles’s role in Robert’s life is less a foil than a kind of pathetic funhouse reflection; insofar as Zwigoff portrays them, the brothers seem all but indistinguishable in terms of talent, creativity, perversion, blunt honesty, and distaste for the culture around them. But by the mid 1960s, Charles had already begun to buckle under the weight of unbearable social anxiety. By the time shooting begins, he’s a virgin bi-monthly bather and unsuccessful suicide who still lives with his mother and has never held a job. And then there’s Robert, who’s turned down more lucrative mainstream opportunities than most artists will ever see, and who is able to purchase a house in rural southern France just by selling a small suitcase of old notebooks.
The difference, it seems, is that Robert’s work, however depraved and sickening it got, was always more generous to his audience. He spends much of the film displaying sketches for the camera, including a drawing from the late ’60s that bears his familiar tics: group mayhem, deranged smiles on all the characters, surrealist (read: acid-inspired) flourishes, and what he elsewhere refers to as “the cute curse”—meaning it all looks more wholesome than he intends. Robert recalls a young woman looking at the drawing and remarking on how happy it all seems—a reaction that shocked him, since he meant it to be horrifying.
Even at his most off-putting, R. Crumb’s work still invites a smile. This is the quality that endeared him to the Haight-Ashbury crowd, that made his style so influential in advertising, and that makes Crumb—as unsettling a film about comics as could possibly be made—such a friendly, edifying experience. The deeper Zwigoff plumbs his friend’s gnarled psyche, the more approachable he seems to us. It becomes hard not to relate to this man who very clearly doesn’t want our affection. The film’s title sequence, where Zwigoff’s visual achievement is first displayed, consists of a few slow pans past the Crumb-inspired commercial merchandise and ephemera that decorates the artist’s studio. It’s like a pop-art version of “Dickens’s Dream,” only in place of an aged Victorian gentleman relaxed in a rocking chair, the sequence ends with Robert sitting on the floor, head between his knees, moving gently to the beat of a scratchy 78, his back to the camera. In one graceful gesture, Zwigoff invites us into the world R. Crumb created then reminds us that he doesn’t need the company. The rest of the film, particularly its portrait of Charles, shows us how this attitude came to be, and how much great art the world might not have seen had Robert been perhaps one degree more troubled.
Criterion has scrubbed and spit-polished Crumb with the same care that they afford every release, though the original film is only 16 years old. Having seen the initial DVD version less than two years ago, I couldn't tell any major difference in either the sound or image quality, though both are crystalline and the liner notes attest to some serious work being done. The grain in Zwigoff's film stock lends a suitably antique quality to his footage, and the fabulous sound quality brings out every scratch and pop in the movie's 78 rpm soundtrack.
Given R. Crumb's prolificacy and the widespread adoration of this film, it is somewhat surprising that more extras weren't to be found besides two commentaries and some deleted scenes—all admittedly of interest to fans. An essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and the thoughtful packaging, including a full reproduction of some of Charles Crumb's teenage artwork, certainly do the film justice, however.
A balanced and insightful portrait of a fascinating artist, a wrenching and unvarnished depiction of a tragic family, an incredible statement of friendship, and one of the most inspired depictions of the creative process I've ever seen.