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Crumb offers a poignant portrait of a tortured artist


Documentary by Terry Zwigoff.

Coolidge Corner Theatre.

By Rob Wagner
Staff Reporter

Shot over a period of six years, Crumb documents the life "underground" artist Robert Crumb. Winning critical acclaim nationwide as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Crumb deftly studies the personality of an extraordinary artist and his family. In interviews of nearly everyone who ever had anything to do with Robert Crumb, director and longtime friend Terry Zwigoff paints an extremely detailed picture of a man who many believe to be one of the great artists of our time.

The film starts out on a hilarious note, showing Crumb drawing portraits of the girls he once liked in high school. One to whom he was "oddly attracted" is an Eastern European exchange student who never shaved and who smelled constantly.

As we learn, Robert grew up in Philadelphia with his four siblings: Charles, Sandra, Carol, and Max. Carol and Sandra declined to interview for this movie, while Max and Charles supply more information than necessary.

Their father, Charles Sr., was a career Marine and a tyrant of a father. He wanted to raise strong sons, but ended up with three "wimpy weirdos." All three sons turned into artists, but only Robert became apparently sane. For instance, in his apartment Max sat on a bed of nails for three to fours hours a day and passed a long cloth through his digestive system once a month to clean it out. Charles, living at home with his mother, took tranquilizers and attempted to commit suicide several times. Never leaving the house for years, he felt there was nothing worth seeing in the world. Charles committed suicide a year after filming was completed.

This documentary uses its topical slant to weave a very tight documentary. When it makes a point about Robert Crumb, it provides clips of interviews with many people talking about that specific subject. Yet even this style tires quickly.

The movie clearly shows how Crumb is plagued by bad memories concerning his most works. Crumb once lost a copyright lawsuit over "Keep on Truckin'," his most famous work placed on everything from truck mudflaps to coffee mugs. His character Fritz the Cat was turned into the first X-rated full-length animation film, which he viewed as so awful that he killed off Fritz in his next comic book to prevent other movies from being made about it. His album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), provoked him to decline offers for other album covers, including one for the Rolling Stones. His most famous characters in Zap Comics - including Mr. Natural, a naked, bearded old man - were created while he was on LSD.

More important than the descriptions of his work, though, is Zwigoff's poignant biography of Crumb himself, which seeks to explain his reason for existence. Crumb felt that society had rejected him when he was young, and he sought revenge by becoming famous. His drawings, which he could create very quickly, demonstrate this bitterness toward society. Often seen as pornographic, and almost always interpreted as misanthropic, Crumb's works reveal his inner nature.

The supporting cast - the interviewees - sometimes drown the viewer in psycho-babble about his work, at which Crumb immediately rolls his eyes. The best scenes in the film avoid this nonsense so that viewers can judge Crumb and his work for themselves.

Other scenes, describing Robert's childhood and a bully named Skutch, who beat up Charles and whom all the girls liked, also provide a glimpse at Crumb's defining adolescent experiences. The viewer may analyze these views of Crumb, but it is better just to accept Crumb as a visual journey through modern pop culture.