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.
Much of the film chronicles Crumb’s family relationships. His mother and his two brothers, Charles and Maxon, appear in the film (his two sisters declined to be interviewed). Charles, the older brother, suffers from depression and is obviously heavily tranquilized. He lives a reclusive life with his mother. A year after the film, Charles committed suicide. Maxon, his younger brother, seems to be struggling with his own demons, seeking spiritual healing through meditation and the mortification of the flesh. Crumb credits Charles with pushing him into his early interest in cartooning as a young boy. Charles, it seems, was the driving force in getting the family to work on comic books, partly one would suspect as an escape from the boys’ problems with their parents and later with their peers in school. Apparently, even as youngsters, the Crumb brothers didn’t exactly fit in.
Perhaps the film’s most illuminating features are Crumb’s own thoughts on the creative process and his own work. He says, at the beginning of the film, that he doesn’t have any plan in mind when he begins a piece. It grows as he works, and as it grows so grows his comprehension of what he is doing. His work is driven by his subconscious. At one point, his wife talks about his art as an expression of his id, again focusing attention on the influence of the subconscious on the creative process. In reference to the charges of sexism, he talks about his compulsion to draw what he draws. In some sense he sees himself in the hands of forces beyond his control. In fact he credits much of what he is most famous for to his experimentation with LSD in San Francisco in the ’60s. If he does not draw, he tells the viewer, he begins to suffer depression. His art becomes a curative force in his life, a way to deal with his demons.
Zwigoff does not stint on reproducing Crumb’s work. From the most famous pieces like the Cheap Thrills album cover and the “Keep on Truckin'” series to the early family comic book versions of Treasure Island, his camera lovingly leads the viewer through the mass of the artist’s work. Whether it’s the “Joe Blow” story from Zap #4 which deals graphically with incest or Mr. Natural’s gift of the headless woman to Flakey Foont, he doesn’t shy away from the controversial either. Crumb’s work is all here, both at its best and at its most reviled; Crumb’s work is here for the viewer to judge and make up his own mind.
While Zwigoff, who is a long-time friend of Crumb’s, asserts that the film is not meant to be an objective portrait of the man, he does manage to avoid hagiography. There is more here than the mere adulation of a friend. Crumb may be an artistic genius, but he is a man with a flawed personality as well. Could he have achieved his artistic success had he been without that flawed personality? That, of course, is something we will never know.
The DVD includes almost an hour of unused footage and a stills gallery. There are two audio commentaries, one by Zwigoff and Roger Ebert from 2006 and a newer one from Zwigoff in 2010. An excellent critical essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum is included in a pamphlet that comes with the DVD. The pamphlet also includes some samples of the brother’s work and a little prose vignette called “The Chinese Curse.” A facsimile of brother Charles’ “Famous Artists Talent Test” which is discussed in the film is also included in the package.