Owen Gleiberman
April 28, 1995 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
119 minutes
R. Crumb, Terry Zwigoff
Terry Zwigoff

We gave it an A

When you look at the work of the legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb, you get the ticklish sensation that you’re seeing the world in all its tawdry grunge and desire-and that it’s dissolving to madness right before your eyes. That’s the feeling you get, as well, from CRUMB (Sony Pictures Classics, R), the extraordinary new documentary that turns Robert Crumb’s twisted life story into a disturbing, exhilarating work of biographical art. A portrait of the artist as misanthrope, as bad-boy visionary, as joker and sex maniac and, finally, as hero, this is one of those rare film experiences that has the giddy effect of being a nightmare and a party at the same time. In his cartoons, Crumb, like some comic-book synthesis of Lewis Carroll, Henry Miller, and Howard Stern, creates an acidhead dreamscape, a place where delectable big-butted superwomen rub up against downhome archetypes like Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, and the laid-back hipster strutters of his famous ”Keep on Truckin”’ panel. A funhouse mirror held up to the obsessions and hypocrisies of postindustrial American life, Crumb’s work has often been described as an explosion of his own id. I’ll buy that, but what makes him such a brilliant and subversive pop satirist is how deeply that id is wired into America’s. Crumb, filmed over a period of six years by director Terry Zwigoff, offers a yeasty overview of the development of Crumb’s art and the controversies that have surrounded its scabrously outrageous displays of sexual and racial fantasy. Yet Zwigoff also examines the emotional sources of that art, and it’s here the film enters a territory as spooky as it is fascinating. Anyone familiar with Crumb’s cartoons knows that he has spent countless panels depicting himself as a dweebish, big-toothed, hunch-shouldered loser. In Crumb, the man himself, wearing oversize spectacles and a porkpie hat that give him the look of a grocery-store clerk from the 1920s, turns out to be a gangly, rather talkative chap with sharp eyes and a whiplash wit that’s almost scary in its acrid detachment. When we first see him, he’s huddled on his floor, listening to one of the old blues 78s he collects with reverence. Then he begins to speak, and his voice, punctuated by a nervously edgy giggle, has the effect of being sheepish and hostile at the same time. Crumb’s words, like his cartoons, amount to an ongoing confession-of compulsive erotic longing, of near-metaphysical paranoia about his inability to fit in. Yet his disgust, like that of most great satirists, is aimed both at himself and at the world ! at large. It’s liberating to hear Crumb take shots at America’s follow-the- pack mentality, whether he’s slamming the hippies who shunned him because he didn’t have the right ’60s look or the mall rats who wear advertisements on their T-shirts. The film, too, hits a note of kinky exuberance when Crumb shows up to star in a photo spread for Leg Show magazine. This is a man trapped, for better and worse, in a shameless love affair with his own hostile, depraved ego. As Crumb goes on, we begin to learn why. The film offers an intimate portrait not just of Robert but of his two brothers, both gifted artists and both complete wrecks. Max, the youngest, is an admitted sexual molester who has become a burnt-out meditation freak. More dramatic still is Charles, the most haunting character in the movie. The first Crumb to begin drawing comic books, he appears in Crumb as a suicidal recluse living with his mother in dimly lit squalor. Pumped full of antidepressants, Charles describes, with a kind of mournful, ironic mockery, his miserable childhood and his general failure to join the human race. We’re shown glimpses of the comics he drew as a teenager, and they are homespun fairy-tale daydreams that gradually turn nuttier, until, in a moment that recalls the chilling ”All work and no play” scene in The Shining, we see his sanity vanish right off the page. What’s so resonant about Charles is that he embodies the Crumb-family mania in its purest form: a self-hatred that verges on self-annihilation. Robert, by contrast, was able to find freedom-through his art, and, of course, through his success. (He may hate the trappings of fame, but he admits he loves the groupies it brought him.) The scenes with Robert and his wife, cartoonist Aline Kominsky, and their daughter, Sophie, are touching. He has made a life for himself-with his 78s, his domesticity. In a ghostly way, though, the family madness lives on in him; it’s there in the pulsating extremity of his cartoons. At one point Robert explains how Charles, as a boy, would respond to even the happiest events with the eerily ambivalent phrase, ”How perfectly goddamn delightful it all is, to be sure.” The drama of Crumb lies in how profoundly one can hear that remark echoed in Robert Crumb. His comic strips just about quiver with life, yet it’s the life of the disengaged; he has never lost the fearlessness of his own satirical detachment. By the end, we realize that Crumb, for all his emotional wreckage, found a kind of redemption, that ! he was able to conjure-and celebrate-a world of lust and anxiety and funk and rage and banality and joy and craziness. A world that’s perfectly goddamn delightful. A

You May Like