Movie Article

R. Crumb's Family Circus

A new documentary focuses on Robert Crumb -- ''Crumb'' highlights the cartoonist’s dysfunctional family

A new documentary focuses on Robert Crumb

Tolstoy believed that all unhappy families are different, but there's none quite so different as the one we meet in Terry Zwigoff's brilliant new documentary, Crumb, about seminal underground cartoonist-godhead Robert Crumb and his deeply dysfunctional family. Madness, drugs, sexual perversity — if not for the redemptive power of art, you'd have met this clan on Geraldo:
Father Charles Sr.
A career Marine and businessman who died at 68 in 1982. He's remembered in Crumb as a ''sadistic bully'' who, in a rage one Christmas, broke 5-year-old Robert's collarbone.
Mother Bea, 75
Portrayed as a one-time amphetamine freak. She now lives alone outside Philadelphia.
Charles Jr.
A gifted cartoonist as a child, Charles pushed his siblings into art. Crumb shows him to be a highly articulate depressive and a recluse in his mother's home. Filmmaker David Lynch once talked of writing a screenplay for Charles to star in. But in February 1993, one year after being interviewed for Crumb, he committed suicide at the age of 50.
Robert, 51
The hugely influential creator of Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, ''Keep on Truckin','' and other underground cartoon icons. A scathing satirist with eccentric — some say misogynist — sexual tastes often depicted in his work, he moved to southern France in 1991 with second wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, 46, also a cartoonist, and their daughter, Sophie, now 13. Jesse, 27, Robert's son by first wife Dana Morgan, is a commercial illustrator.
Maxon, late 40s
An ascetic, mildly disturbed painter/beggar who seeks peace by sitting on a bed of nails in his San Francisco flophouse.

There are Crumbs not seen in Crumb. Director Zwigoff, an old friend of the cartoonist's who spent six years filming him and his kin, says Robert's sisters, Carol DeGennaro and Sandra Colorado, declined to participate: ''Carol said she was shy and wouldn't have anything good to say. She kept turning me down, very politely but firmly. Sandra was much more angry — said she'd sue me if I so much as used her name.''

DeGennaro, 54, a library technician and writer living in Maryland, tells a different story. ''[Zwigoff] could have talked to us to get our perspective,'' she insists, ''but he was more concerned with making some point about the angst of artists.'' Zwigoff, she says, ''called me, once, a couple of years ago. He mentioned coming to talk to me, and I said that was fine.'' She admits she wasn't enthusiastic, but even so, ''he didn't follow through.''

Were Mom and Dad as bad as Crumb suggests? ''My brothers always tended to exaggerate,'' DeGennaro says. ''Our family was dysfunctional, but as I grew up I saw families as bad or worse. Like Charles talking about our mother being an amphetamine addict. My mother does have mental problems, but she only took diet pills for six months to lose weight. I don't view that as being an addict.'' As for Robert's broken collarbone: ''We kids were having a fight and my brother was misbehaving, so my father grabbed him real hard to jerk him away, and his collarbone broke. My father felt terrible about it.''

DeGennaro concedes their father was no sweetheart. ''[He] was a career Marine,'' she says simply. ''He believed in discipline and punished you when you disobeyed. He was tough.'' How tough? ''He was Santini,'' she says, referring to the 1979 film The Great Santini, which starred Robert Duvall as a peacetime Marine who bullies his teenage son.

Of Charles Jr.'s suicide, DeGennaro says: ''An overdose. He'd made references to me a couple of times that he wouldn't live to be 50. He'd laugh about it! Charles always tended to the dramatic. He just chose a dramatic exit.''

Colorado, the widow of writer (and R. Crumb crony) Marty Pahls, has long been on the outs with the family, vehemently objecting to Robert's depictions of women; she was in a fistfight with Robert the day Zwigoff met her in the early '70s. It probably didn't help matters when Robert, in a 1988 interview, referred to some quasi-sexual ''horsing around'' with her when they were teens. Most of the family is out of touch with Colorado, and efforts to locate her for this article were fruitless.

Jesse isn't on close terms with his father, who near the end of Crumb promises to give his son $500 to visit him in France. ''He didn't, though!'' Jesse says with a laugh.

Maxon, at least, ''has never been doing better, mentally or physically,'' reports Zwigoff. ''People have been contacting me to buy his paintings.''

Sophie, says her mother, is now drawing cartoons styled after those of her late uncle Charles.

As for Robert himself, he would not comment on the film, but Kominsky-Crumb reports, ''I wouldn't say [Robert] didn't like it — he felt it was well edited — but it was so intimate it was really shocking. I don't think he realized the power it would have when it was done.''

''He was sort of horrified when he saw it,'' says Zwigoff, who adds that the film's success ''has been excruciating for Robert.'' Though surely not as excruciating as the life the movie recalls.

Originally posted Jun 02, 1995 Published in issue #277 Jun 02, 1995 Order article reprints