directed by Terry Zwigoff
(Columbia TriStar, 1994)

I really don't know what to make of this film. When you first start watching Crumb, you wonder why anyone would ever want to watch something this odd, but after about 20 minutes you realize you couldn't stop watching it if you wanted to -- and you don't want to.

The world of Robert Crumb, a pioneer in the world of underground comics, is as disturbing as it is fascinating -- and that is exactly what Crumb is, a documentary about the life of this man and his family. It gives you a disarmingly honest look inside the man's mind, and I'm not sure anyone can really describe what we discover.

In all honesty, I had never heard of Crumb nor seen any of his work (although "Fritz the Cat" does ring a bell) before -- that work is eye-opening to say the least, and you get to see a lot of it during the documentary. Much of it is misogynistic and arguably racist, so I'm sure Crumb fans and anti-fans alike will be most interested in this artist's direct insight into his work. Crumb is a compulsive artist who draws almost constantly, and one gets the sense that it is the only thing keeping him from crossing a line into madness.

This is a really strange man, a recluse who never seems comfortable with himself or anyone else -- it's quite amazing he would allow a film crew in to follow him around for such a significant amount of time. He's not shy about discussing any part of his life or his work, however, taking us all the way back to his childhood. The man's artistic talents, even as a child, are undoubtedly extraordinary and certainly unique in terms of the exaggerated way he tends to draw things, especially people.

Critics on both sides discuss the demeaning, borderline sadistic manner in which he has depicted women at different times in his career, and Crumb readily admits he has some inward hostility toward women (although he has married twice and is the father of two children). On some issues, particularly when it comes to charges of racism, he tends to dance around the questions, passing some of the criticism off as an effect of his drug use in the 1960s.

The most poignant aspect of the film, however, is the story of Crumb's family. In many ways, this is a descent into mental illness -- and it's poignantly tragic. Crumb and his siblings obviously grew up in a dysfunctional family with a particularly puritan, abusive father. His two sisters chose not to be interviewed for this film, but we do meet brothers Charles and Maxon along with Crumb's mother. Charles still lives at home, never leaves the house and has been dependent on medications for many years (his problems apparently include depression, suicidal tendencies and homicidal thoughts), while Maxon (who has a record of molesting women) seems to be far too disturbed to live on his own as he does. The interviews with Crumb and his brothers are the centerpiece of this documentary, if you ask me, and it's just a terribly sad thing to watch.

Just as Crumb's comics are what they are, Crumb is who he is, as seems clear from the details of this documentary. In some ways, he is incomprehensible and rather repulsive, yet you can't really dismiss or dislike him too much just because he's so darn fascinating and different from the rest of mankind. I think those with an interest in psychology will actually get more out of this film than most of Crumb's fans and critics.

review by
Daniel Jolley

1 May 2010

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