Criterion // 1994 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // August 4th, 2010
Weird sex. Obsession. Comic books.
Part cleared eyed examination of the career and influences on counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb and part dysfunctional family documentary, Director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) melds the two together into one remarkable film that entertains even as it haunts the memory.
One of the most influential pop culture icons of the previous century, R. Crumb became famous on the strength of one key image that connected in a way that few things do and as "Keep On Truckin'" took off, so did R. Crumb. Crumb examines the artist's life, his influences, his fans, as well as his critics in a way that gives the viewer a sense of the man as well as a taste of both the myth and the legend.
Crumb is clearly a misanthrope who has constantly bitten at the hand which feeds him, but a misanthrope who has the strength of his convictions. He continues to use his art to map out the darkest recesses of his imagination, and in the process displays things a lot of people would consider to be shocking or impolite. Crumb may be naughty and not the nicest of men, but he is a filthy-minded jerk with a finely ingrained sense of something close to nobility, and it's nice to see someone who isn't in a hurry to sell out.
With Crumb, Zwigoff builds a portrait of a man unafraid and unapologetic, but also a man aware of his own failings and darker impulses. Sometimes this moving picture is a flattering one and sometimes it ventures pretty quickly into the territory of the uncomfortable, but through it all it remains truthful. The Crumb on display here is a man amused by the world around him, but one who stands as an anachronism in an ever changing and modern world. It's fitting then that the film was made as Crumb, his wife Aline, and their daughter Sophie were in the final stages of their move to France, a place that Crumb notes is slightly less evil than America. France's gain is very much America's loss.
If this was all Crumb was about, a person could look at it and say it was a interesting peek at an important and complex artist, but to the film's credit that is not all Crumb is or aspires to be about. A more accurate title would probably be Crumbs because the real beating heart of the movie is the way it focuses on Robert Crumb's two brothers, the older Charles and the younger Maxon. Standing as images in front of and behind Crumb, his brothers offer a glimpse of what might have been, if things had gone just a little differently for the famous artist.
Zwigoff's documentary takes on a different tone when either of Crumb's two siblings are featured. It becomes both lighter and more somber -- often at the same time. Charles is the depressed recluse who never left home, and Maxon the angry soul trying to find enlightenment through meditation. Charles the driving force behind Robert's art who found his own work become more confused and more distant as Robert's career blossomed and Maxon who discovered his own artistic ability in the shadow of his older brother's fame. Each man distinctive and different, but each clearly coming from the same stock.
The brothers and their relationship to each other is the triangle that binds Zwigoff's film together. It's these relationships that grant Zwigoff's film depth, texture, and momentum. The women in Crumb's life may have provided (and continue to provide) inspiration, but it was Crumb's brother Charles and his intense love for comic books that pushed and helped structure the ethic for Robert to develop his skill. It's difficult to watch a mind such as Charles Crumb trapped beneath a haze of anti-depressants and wallowing in a sweaty state of hopelessness. Charles' fate is all too obvious from the first time we see him and, while the end result may be unsurprising, it doesn't reduce the impact. The greatest compliment I can pay any documentary is Charles Crumb is someone I would liked to have met.
On the technical end, Criterion once more delivers the goods. I doubt
Crumb will ever be anyone's idea of a reference disc, but what is visible
on the screen looks accurate. The dual-layered transfer has a high bit rate and
it boasts colors that are bright, skin tones that appear warm, and a pleasing
amount of fine detail. The transfer maintains a very film-like look, with a
healthy sheen of grain. Edge-enhancement was virtually non-existent to my eyes
and the source material used
has been cleaned up nicely. Again Criterion shows how to treat catalogue titles. Like the image, the sound on Criterion's Blu-ray can best be summed as accurate. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is of the lossless variety; clean and crisp with a surprisingly warm sound. Dialogue provides no challenges and, if it does, Criterion provides optional English subtitles.
Extras include a double dip on the Terry Zwigoff and Roger Ebert commentary track from MGM's 2006 DVD release, as well as a newly recorded solo track from Zwigoff. If forced to chose, I would probably listen to the earlier commentary, if for no other reason than I prefer multiple person commentaries, Ebert is always a good listen, and Zwigoff is a little dry on his own. There is some overlap of information between the two, but a real fan is going to listen to both tracks anyway and, honestly, both have their merits. Still the real star of the extras show is the unused footage included with this release. Clocking in at about 50 minutes, this isn't your common variety snip and cut festival. There are some gems included here that could have easily made the final cut. R. Crumb, his family, and friends are a pretty engaging bunch and the more time spent with them the better. A photo gallery and a critical essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum close out Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Crumb.
Crumb is something of an American classic. It manages to operate both as a amusing look at an American original, while also offering a look at a truly screwed up family. R. Crumb may the name you recognize, but brothers Charles and Maxon are the ones who command your attention and linger in your memory. For their part, Criterion offers a fine looking high def edition that presents the film better than it probably ever has, with enough special features to keep even the most devoted fan digging into Crumb several times over.
Weird sex. Obsession. Comic books. Criterion. How do you think I'm ruling?
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bonus Footage
* Image Galleries