Terry Zwigoff’s critically acclaimed documentary, Crumb, explores the life and career of controversial underground artist, Robert Crumb, as well as his reclusive and troubled family members. Beginning with Crumb’s career, the film thrusts the viewer into the artist’s success by displaying footage from an art show dedicated to Crumb’s work, a motivational speech that Crumb delivered in Philadelphia, sit-down interviews, and still images of the renowned drawings. After providing a sense of who Crumb is and what kind of work he does, the film delves into Robert Crumb’s disturbing past and family life as he visits his two brothers, Charles and Maxon.
Charles, a standoffish and suicidal forty-seven year-old man, has lived at home with his mother since high school, while Maxon, equally as troubled, lives alone in a hotel room in San Francisco. The camera serves as simply a bystander as the brothers discuss various elements of their youth from how they became interested in drawing, to their social awkwardness and unpopularity in high school, as well as their bizarre sexual habits and desires as adolescents. The intimacy of the characters in the film is what truly makes it special; a feat that could only be achieved by Terry Zwigoff because of the close, personal relationship that he had developed with the Crumb family over a number of years before deciding to make the film.
Tracking the growing popularity of Crumb through the 1960s and 1970s while intercutting sequences of his extraordinary family, the film juxtaposes the ups and downs of Crumb’s career with the rocky, unnatural circumstances from which he emerged.
Perhaps the most telling and shocking scene in the film involves Robert and Charles recounting their childhood with their mother, Beatrice. The scene serves as Beatrice’s sole cameo in the film and she appears to be quite outgoing and fun loving which, according to the commentary with Terry Zwigoff in the special features, is completely unlike her. At the start of the filming process Beatrice was entirely against the idea of her family and house being shown to the world. The reclusive mother would not only avoid the camera crew at all costs, but also forbid the filmmaker to shoot any footage of her home other than Charles’ room. After repeated visits from the film crew, Beatrice lightened up and even began to enjoy the idea of being on film, finally allowing Zwigoff to shoot one day’s worth of footage of her and her sons in the living room.
Throughout the filming process Zwigoff was forced to strike a balance between his role as “the filmmaker” and his role as “the friend,” however, no scene required a more artfully constructed balance than the living room scene. Without actually inserting himself in front of the camera, Zwigoff’s presence is felt in the scene, serving as a security blanket of sorts for the family, which allowed him to achieve the results and performances that he needed from Beatrice and Charles. Towards the end of the scene, during a discussion about Charles’ hygiene, Charles himself explains that he only bathes once every six weeks before joking that at least he does not suffer from constipation, spurring a laugh from the family. A prideful smirk creeps across Charles’ face as he glances directly into the camera before caressing his greasy hair and peeking off-screen right towards the camera crew who are equally as enthralled by his comment. The reassurance provided by Zwigoff and his crew allows Charles as well as Beatrice and Robert to feel more comfortable disclosing even their most embarrassing and intimate character traits because they are among friends.
From his over-emphasized, highly sexual depictions of the female form to his spontaneous, ball-point pen drawings of strangers on the street, Crumb always incorporated an element of satire in his work; however, several of his pieces produced during a darker phase in Crumb’s work seemingly took the concept of satire a bit too far which resulted in work that was arguably nothing more than pornography. The best depiction of Crumb over-stepping the line between satire and pornography in the film occurs during a segment in which Deirdre English, former magazine editor, displays a comic from 1969 entitled “Joe Blow.” The 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” type family became a satirical staple in Crumb’s work until he took the mockery too far in “Joe Blow” and his awkward and overtly sexual depiction of a family participating in an orgy amongst themselves. The film intercuts English recounting the comic with still images from the piece, a tactic that allows the film to produce an urgent feeling of awkwardness without showing the work in its entirety. Whatever attempt at satire Crumb had aimed for in creating the work seems to have been completely submerged under the stomach-churning, unnatural nature of the sexual acts that are depicted.
Although scenes such as the “Joe Blow” depiction can be extremely unsettling, the documentary serves as a great metaphor for Crumb’s life and artwork which is equally unsettling in its own right. Complete with an array of special features including deleted scenes, a stills gallery, and commentary from Terry Zwigoff as well as world renowned film critic, Roger Ebert, Crumb is truly a one-of-a-kind documentary. Without becoming overly biased, Crumb straddles the extremely blurred line between such topics as satire vs. pornography and sanity vs. insanity.
Joseph Wright is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Terry Zwigoff
Produced by Lynn O’Donnell and Terry Zwigoff
Executive Producers Lawrence Wilkinson, Albert Berger and Lianne Halfon
Co-producer Neal Halfon
Cinematography Maryse Alberti
Editor Victor Livingston
Music David Boeddinghaus and Craig Ventersco
Sound Scott Breindel
Rerecording Mixer Walter Murch
With Robert Crumb, Aline Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Beatrice Crumb, Jesse Crumb, Sophie Crumb, Dana Crumb, Robert Hughes, Don Donahue, Dian Hanson, Kathy Goodell
Runtime 120 minutes
DVD USA, 1995
Produced and Distributed by The Criterion Collection (Region 1)
Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Sound Mix Mono 1.0
Extras New, restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Terry Zwigoff. Two audio commentaries, one featuring Zwigoff, from 2010, and one with Zwigoff and critic Roger Ebert, from 2006. More than fifty minutes of unused footage. Stills gallery. Plus a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and artwork by Charles, Jesse, Maxon, and Robert Crumb.