Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is a magnificent example of a film that successfully manages the delicate balance between traditional retrospective talking-head biopic and a more immediate and intimate character piece. The level of access to Crumb and his family is rooted in an off-camera friendship that exists beyond the boundaries of this film, resulting in a unique look inside the otherwise reclusive life of one of the 20th century’s most gifted artists.
Robert Crumb found fame in the 1960s as a co-founder of Zap Comics, a movement of LSD-inspired adult-oriented underground comic books originally written and illustrated by Crumb. Curiously, he never really fit in with the hippie culture that embraced his work. He illustrated album covers for The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin on lead vocals), but insists he was never a fan of the music. Instead he collected vintage 78s, indulging in country blues and jazz artists of the 20s and 30s. This love of music and record collecting is one of many obsessions shared with director Terry Zwigoff. Their genuine friendship off-camera is valuable in sustaining the level of intimacy featured throughout this film. Crumb comes across as the kind of guy who’d be turned off by such a project, giving in only due to the constant pestering of a close friend, as though his participation is more a favour to Zwigoff than a vanity piece for himself. Having said that, Crumb actually agreed to a BBC documentary on his life — written by Crumb himself — right in the middle of filming with Zwigoff: a decision that almost ended Zwigoff’s film. There was clearly no room in the world for two documentaries on the life of Robert Crumb so Zwigoff, feeling betrayed and defeated, decided call it quits. Luckily the final BBC film was quite different from Zwigoff’s, so he decided to continue shooting. Needless to say, his is the much better film.
The level of eccentricity and inner turmoil on display in Crumb may provide detractors (are there any?) with a clear target for claims of exploitation and sensationalism, but any such accusations would be totally missing the point. This isn’t a film about a dysfunctional family; it’s a film about a dysfunctional world as seen through the eyes of its characters. Familial dysfunction is neither uncommon nor is it inherently interesting. To write off the complex family dynamics at work in this film is, in my opinion, short sighted. While Crumb’s brothers might share some extreme eccentricities, the way in which they interact with each other is what’s truly magnificent. As Charles talks about his severe depression and heavy medication Robert thumbs through an old comic book, offering the odd chuckle as they reminisce about the time his brother drank furniture polish in an attempted suicide. Meanwhile his other brother Maxon recalls a time when he couldn’t resist but to pull down the pants of an unsuspecting woman at a local convenience store. Robert seems completely desensitized to such events, almost ignoring them and playing down their severity. It’s this sort of alternate perspective on the world that makes Crumb interesting. This is everything I love about character-driven documentaries.The non-fiction format is at its best when it’s exploring the human condition.
Much has been said about Crumb over the years but one thing I’ve always found interesting is the obvious kinship between the filmmaker and the subject. Crumb’s world is seemingly an exclusive one, open only to close friends and family but we get an inside look via Zwigoff and his personal relationship with Robert. One of the great details in the film is the way in which all of the people close to Crumb talk. They all share this slow, belaboured rhythm of speech, emphasizing the first syllables in every other word as though every sentence is a struggle; a quirk that’s especially evident during ruminations on the unbearable nature of modern living. After hearing Zwigoff’s commentary track you’ll find he shares this same style of speech. Many groups of friends tend to share similar verbal traits after spending long periods of time together and I found this small detail to be quite profound evidence of Crumb’s connection and influence on his family and friends. There’s also a moment in the film in which Robert thumbs through one of his many sketchbooks and points out a drawing saying ‘there’s Terry’, referring to Zwigoff. All of these little details add up to an interesting display of the documentarian/subject relationship and how a strong bond between the two can result in a natural, intimate observational film.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Crumb provides a clean, faithful representation of Zwigoff’s film. While it might not make the home theatre enthusiasts’ ‘demo’ list, it’s certainly a beautifully rendered 1.33:1 transfer of the original 16mm photography. The special features include the previously recorded commentary track featuring director Terry Zwigoff and Roger Ebert. As usual, Ebert offers some great insight on this track and helps Zwigoff relax a bit by throwing him some good questions. For this new release, Zwigoff has recorded a brand new solo commentary and while there is some repetition between the two, it’s still a great new addition. On top of that, Criterion has assembled more than fifty minutes of deleted scenes — presented in 1080p — with commentary by Zwigoff on a select few. Finally, there’s a reproduction of Charle’s Crumb’s art school entry form as featured in the documentary. Definitely cool. It’s such a rare opportunity to see a documentary given this level of treatment and I’m hoping Criterion continues dipping into the non-fiction world for their future Blu-ray releases. — Jay C.