Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Robert Crumb (R. Crumb), Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Sophie Crumb
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119
Date: 09/10/1994
IMDB

Crumb (1995)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Art from the Heart

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 bravest and most 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, Bobby Driscoll, who played the boy in Disney's Treasure Island (1950). Works of later years show an eerie and bizarre "wrinkle effect" in the drawings that gave me the chills. These are possibly 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 -- and his subsequent success -- 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 provides 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.

In 2006 Sony Pictures Classics released a remastered DVD to make up for the spotty, 1999 original release. It hasn't lost a jot of its power. But watching it again, I was also surprised how warm the film is for all its fearlessness and depth. Zwigoff and Roger Ebert team up for a very entertaining, and even slightly touching commentary track, and the disc contains a "preview" (one scene) from Zwigoff's latest film, Art School Confidential.

In 2010, Crumb received its ultimate home video edition, a DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. It includes the essential 2006 commentary track with Zwigoff and Ebert, as well as a brand-new solo commentary track by Zwigoff. Other extras include about 50 minutes of unused footage, most of it just as good as that in the finished film. (Sadly, the Robin Williams interview is still not here; Zwigoff was unable to locate it before production deadline.) There's also a stills gallery. The liner notes booklet is a treasure trove, with a new essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and a fascinating collection of artwork featured in the film. As for the new transfer, the Blu-Ray looks as if it's a clearly projected 16mm film, complete with film grain. The soundtrack is uncompressed.