Terry Zwigoff's award-winning documentary on the life and work of controversial underground cartoonist Robert Crumb is newly released in a restored high-definition digital transfer approved by the director. Crumb, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, had been shot over a period of six years despite the subject's initial reluctance to take part in the project, and had premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1994. It was widely praised as a candid 'warts and all' portrait of the artist, his dysfunctional family, and his attitudes towards his work.
Fifteen years later, the film has lost nothing of its impact. It does not shy away from any of the controversies and contradictions surrounding the man and his art. Is his work satire or pornography? Does he merely indulge his own perverse fetishes? Are his Amazonian caricatures of women manifestations of his infantile fantasies? Is his work demeaning to women? Is his work racist? Time critic Robert Hughes sees him as a latter day Brueghel and compares him with Goya. One gallery owner compares him to Daumier. Deirdre English (Mother Jones editor at the time), on the other hand, sees his work as both sexist and infantile.
There is no question but that Crumb's art is an attack on what he sees as the perverse values of mainstream American culture — what else would one expect from a counterculture artist? His own commentary as the film follows him sketching in coffee shops, walking the streets of the city, and in conversation with his friends and family makes his dissatisfaction with these values quite clear. He rails against industrialization and capitalism. He looks at the mid-century vision of the idyllic family as perverted. He finds Puritanical attitudes towards sexuality absurd. In the end he takes leave of the country and escapes with his family to France. His work is often sensationalistic. His imagery is often sexually perverse. His vision is a nightmare much like that of Georg Grosz. Still, the extent to which his critique of American culture is valid criticism or simply disaffected depravity will more than likely depend less on the work itself than it does on the eye of the beholder.