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CRUMB (1995)

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

I am writing this the following morning after seeing it, and I have dreamt about "Crumb" all night. The documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb and his two brothers by filmmaker and friend Terry Zwigoff is one of the most brave and honest films I've ever seen. To me, a great documentary is one in which, no matter how brutal or tragic, we feel lucky that the subject has been captured and saved on film to be looked at and experienced forever.

R. Crumb is a comic book artist who seems entirely uninhibited and able to touch his subconscious and draw it on paper with frightening clarity. Of course, this style of art doesn't mesh with the idea of the superclean nuclear family that Crumb's parents attempted to raise him in, or with the mainstream's idea that art should be something that guides us toward a utopia. In the world of "Crumb", a plumbing of the soul for others to experience is true art.

But R. Crumb doesn't seem aware of any of this. As he says in the film's opening, "I get depressed if I don't draw for a long time, but then sometimes I get depressed if I do draw." He is a man who is incapable of doing anything but the most honest, direct work. At one point we see him on the phone with some Hollywood sleazeoids trying to strike a deal for a movie based on one of his characters, Mr. Natural. Although he might make a lot of money on the deal, he turns it down because he thinks it would be crap. To give Mr. Natural animated life would be pointless without Crumb's psyche driving him.

The film turns frightening when it explores Robert's two brothers Maxon and Charles. Charles was the driving force behind the family home-published comic book, "Arcade". R. looked up to Charles, whom he believed to be much more talented than himself, and still does. The camera shows us examples of Charles' early work, obsessed with a young actor who played the boy in Disney's "Treasure Island". Works of later years show an eerie and bizarre "wrinkle effect" in the drawings that gave me the chills. Clearly the work of an unhinged mind. Maxon, who still lives and begs on the streets of San Francisco, is a painter of great talent, but not without the frightening clarity of his brothers. Clearly, R. is the one in the family who "escaped" to make a career out of art. But he didn't really escape. He continues to need to draw to purge his demons. If not for his art, he may have been dead or insane by now.

The movie brings to light the question of where great art comes from. (Accept for the sake of argument, comic books as art.) Is it necessary to suffer so, to live such a tortured and awful life to be a great and true artist? Yes it is, the movie seems to say, if that's what it takes to break through to people's true feelings. But Crumb's art isn't "comfortable" to people. He scares people because they relate somewhere deep inside themselves to what Crumb has boldly put on paper. Frank Zappa has said that when it comes to art, "America is the most chickenshit country in the world." In the past, young artists have emulated the great artists that came before them, but in Crumb's case, do we really want to go where he is?

This is not to say that the movie is not entertaining. For such a recluse, R. Crumb is a funny and interesting subject. His wry way of looking at things is a welcome breath of life.

Rarely has there ever been a work as great as "Crumb", an achievement resting on both Zwigoff's talent and grace and on the enigma and poetry of its subject.

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Rating: 8 1/2 Fellinis (highest rating)


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