"Astonishing." "Haunting." "Riveting." "Darkly funny." "Remarkable." Those are some of the words critics at other newspapers around the country have been using to describe the extraordinary documentary Crumb, director Terry Zwigoff's painfully candid portrait of his friend, legendary underground cartoonist and world-class misanthrope Robert (better known as "R.") Crumb. To that list of adjectives I would add (at least) one more: "creepy."
Movies that stick with you after you exit the theater are a rare commodity these days. Crumb got under my skin when I screened it more than a month ago, and I still can't wait for my friends to see it so I can talk to them about it. It's that vivid, that warped. It should come as no surprise that Crumb aficionado and noted weirdo David Lynch had a hand in arranging for the picture's distribution.
A cult hero for both his graphic, LSD-inspired, hypersexual drawings featuring big-bottomed women and his searing social criticism, Crumb nonetheless is probably best known in the mainstream for 1) his "Keep on Truckin'" drawing, 2) his cover art for the Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin) album Cheap Thrills, and 3) motion picture animator Ralph Bakshi's adaption of Crumb's Fritz the Cat character into the world's first X-rated full-length movie cartoon. In addition, Crumb virtually single-handedly created the underground comics phenomenon of the Sixties with his publication of Zap Comix in 1968. Counterculture stars Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, and Angelfood McSpade (as well as that horny tabby, Fritz) were born within Zap's pages. Over the years Crumb's work has ignited a firestorm of controversy -- championed by some legitimate art critics, viciously attacked by others. Crumb was featured prominently in the 1990 "High & Low" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his work is extremely popular among collectors in Europe and Japan (so much so that the documentary ends with the artist packing up and moving to the south of France with his wife and daughter after trading six sketchbooks for a villa).
Don't expect a plot. Crumb is basically two hours of intensive analysis of the groundbreaking artist (Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes calls him "the Brueghel of the Twentieth Century") and his wacked-out family as seen through the eyes of colleagues, critics, family members, ex-lovers, and R. Crumb himself. Nothing is spared, from harrowing tales of the artist's father's physical abuse and his mother's amphetamine addiction to the length of Crumb's penis, his offbeat sexual predilections, and even the frequency with which he masturbates.
The word dysfunctional doesn't begin to do the brothers Crumb and their scary parents justice. As children all three Crumb boys (according to the film's postscript, two sisters declined to be interviewed) drew comics together, demonstrating artistic promise and the early stages of a severe case of sibling rivalry. "We were like three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees," assesses younger brother Maxon.
Big brother Charles set the standard, and Robert and Maxon saw no choice but to follow his lead. Somewhere along the line, however, Maxon's and Charles's careers derailed. Only Robert "made it" in the outside world (although, in the wake of this film, Maxon's canvases have begun to find buyers). But "making it" is all relative. Just because R. Crumb can function in society doesn't qualify him as well-adjusted. Check out this crumb of wisdom: "As a teenager, there was no place where I fit in at all. People weren't even aware that I was in the same world. The instant I realized I was an outcast it gave me a kind of freedom. I started out by rejecting all the things that the people who rejected me liked. When I was about seventeen I decided to get revenge by going down in history as a great artist."
Director Terry Zwigoff believes Crumb is getting that revenge. Zwigoff may have been the only filmmaker in the world capable of assembling such a frank and powerful study of the artist. In addition to his experience helming a pair of respected documentaries (Louie Bluie, a bio of obscure bluesman Howard Armstrong, and A Family Named Moe, an examination of Hawaiian music), Zwigoff published several of Crumb's comics in the Seventies and played in Crumb's Dixieland band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders.
During a recent lunch at Tobacco Road, Zwigoff (who vaguely resembles a young Gene Wilder with gray hair and a beard) appears exhausted as he marvels at the fact that the film got made at all. "It took nine years to bring to fruition," he reveals. "There were all these fruitless meetings with potential investors and co-producers who would say things like, 'What do you want to see his family for? Let's take Mr. Natural, do some animation...'" Luckily for all concerned Zwigoff remained true to his vision of a film that would be "as dark and funny and detailed and honest as Crumb's own work."
Persuading the notoriously publicity-shy cartoonist to cooperate fully with the production was no mean feat, but Zwigoff pulled it off. The idea of highlighting Crumb's bizarre family crystallized when the director met Charles, whom he found fascinating -- witty, smart, and enormously talented, yet with an inescapable air of melancholy. "How perfectly goddamn delightful it all is to be sure" is Charles's pet saying.
The temptation to cave in to the pressure to play down the family angle intensified after a few work-in-progress screenings. "The Telluride Film Festival, where Louie Bluie had been a hit, said, 'It's terrible. We're not gonna show it,'" Zwigoff recalls. "They said, 'There's not a festival in the world that's gonna show it.' My own editor thought it ran too long. It violated the rule of thumb that movie bios should not go over one hour. Crumb runs two. It met with a lot of resistance. Everybody wanted me to take something out, like the part about nigger hearts [referring to a Crumb series that was condemned by some as being racist, praised by others as a caustic skewering of racist thinking]."
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And what did the film's subject think of the finished product? "I think he feels it's become a burden," Zwigoff confides. "I don't think he realized at the time just how revealing it might be. He's dismayed by fame and recognition. I think his initial reaction was horror, like, 'Oh my God, what have I done?' He's seen the film three times that I know of and his reaction varied. He was just staying at my house in San Francisco. I think he likes the film now, but he's horrified he's in it.
"Robert's hard-core fans seem to like it the least," the director continues. "They get very uncomfortable with where it goes." (Ironically that's the very quality that makes Crumb's art so appealing.)
As Crumb ends with the artist's self-imposed exile to the south of France, Zwigoff provides an update on the artist's current state of mind. "He likes France," Zwigoff relates. "He felt physically threatened here [in the U.S.]. He's grown a long, gray beard. He looks Amish. He wears a modern-looking windbreaker, some polyester London Fog kind of thing he wouldn't have been caught dead in before. He likes the fact that he doesn't speak the language. He doesn't want to learn. His wife [Aline], who's very sociable, can throw dinner parties, and he doesn't have to pretend like he cares what anybody says.
"Sophie [Crumb's daughter, portrayed in the film as the only woman Crumb ever loved] is growing up. She's very bright and happy. An excellent artist in Charles's style. She made her first film six months ago." Then the artist's old friend smiles perversely. "She's starting to look like a little Lolita," he notes. "Her father's afraid she'll end up on the French Riviera with some playboy.