As a lover of comics, movies, and art documentaries, it seemed fitting that I watch one of the most acclaimed films to fit all three categories: Crumb. Director Terry Zwigoff follows around talented and somewhat infamous comic artist and illustrator Robert Crumb over the course of a few years, piecing together his life story and impact on the comics industry through artwork and interviews with family, friends, and ex-girlfriends. His own neuroses and somewhat off-kilter passions are exposed, only to be overshadowed by the serious mental health problems experienced by his brothers and mother.
Admittedly I didn’t know much about Robert Crumb before seeing this. I was of course familiar with his art style and had seen some of his illustrations, but I hadn’t actually read any of his comics and always sort of imagined him just as James Urbaniak in American Splendour. The film reveals him to be a funny, bluntly honest kind of guy with some interesting sexual proclivities and a great imagination. His art is wonderfully detailed and expressive, with a lot of focus on drawing women as full-bodied and curvy, which seemed to delight several of the ladies interviewed.
The “hook” of the documentary is definitely the family stuff, which I imagine was unexpected for the filmmakers. His artistically talented older brother- who got Robert into comics in the first place- is a shut-in living with their mother, taking anti-depressants and spending most of his time reading in his room. His younger brother is an artist as well, but paranoid and epileptic, experimenting with painful meditative techniques. His mother isn’t featured much, but the brothers’ talk about her addiction to amphetamines in their youth, and their deceased father is known only as a disapproving monster. Their two sisters declined to be interviewed, suggesting perhaps even more family secrets left untapped.
As a film it’s put together very well, mixing art and interviews and archive footage, along with some of Crumb’s media events and time spent drawing street life in San Francisco. There is definitely something held back, but that makes it all the more interesting to watch. It’s mostly pretty sad, but does claim some redemptive power through the process of making art. I loved the portrait of 70’s and 80’s alternative culture in San Francisco, especially, and the discussion of the development of the underground comics movement, which I actually would have liked to see more of.
Pair This Movie With: There are definitely shades of Crumb in Marwencol, one of my favorite art documentaries. Check it out.