Terry Zwigoff's 'Crumb' (1994)
Terry Zwigoff's Crumb
by John Anderson
Proof that cranky, banjo-playing misanthropes can be movie heroes, Crumb (1994) is a perfect synthesis of character, access and director Terry Zwigoff's eloquent invisibility. One of the more astute films in any genre to deal with the creative process, Crumb is probably also the first film to posit a counter-cultural icon as the product of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A portrait of the artist--underground comix star R. Crumb--as open wound and downbeat prankster, Crumb has to be considered now the Birth of a Nation of nerd chic. Alternately intimate and objective, it portrays a man who whines, giggles and kvetches his way through two hours of the most revealing nonfiction cinema ever produced. It was a sensation when first released, partly because of its audacious regard of so-called pop art as something for the ages: Critic Robert Hughes, famously, compares Robert Crumb to Bruegel. The women who know Crumb best cheerily dub him a sexual deviant. But Crumb, throughout, maintains an acknowledgement of--and indifference to--his own peculiarities, and for that becomes an object of our affections.
Narratively, Crumb is less a story than it is an olde curiosity shoppe of neuroses and creative impulses--or rather, impulses that lead to creativity--and features a roster of characters too odd for fiction: the touchingly damaged Charles Crumb, for instance, whose own comic-book genius is such a revelation; or Maxon Crumb, the less endearing but no less demented brother, whose practices of self-mortification suggest a deeply troubled soul. The brothers, and their mother too, are all morbidly fascinating people, but they are not included by Zwigoff in the film for their freak-show qualities. They illustrate, with a certain amount of ancillary dread, how Robert Crumb's genius is something like a cosmic/comic/psychic mutation. All the Crumbs were formed in the same domestic crucible (kept roiling by the late and apparently tyrannical Charles Crumb Sr.) but in R. Crumb's case--and his case only--the result was not just a dysfunctional human, but a functioning artist.
To try and locate gravitas in Crumb by avoiding the fact that it is a film about creativity is to miss the point entirely. Yes, the film is insightful about family life in 1950s America: how post-war reality flattened the distorted/distorting dreams of financial and moral prosperity, and deflated Big America idealism in light of the tacky facts of middle-class life (despite the Leave It to Beaver image promoted by television). As a psychological study, Crumb is a smorgasbord of tics, twists and spasms. But what makes it an "important" film--and you don't have to consider Crumb's Mr. Natural, Mr. Snoid or Angelfood McSpade with lofty regard to think of the film as a singular achievement--is its take on art.
The impact of Maryse Alberti's cinematography cannot be overstated either. No herky-jerky (and by definition hammy) handheld camera techniques for her, but rather a clean, declarative perspective that reveals all and never distracts. Zwigoff, too, maintains a hands-off policy; his voice can be heard a few times, pursuing a question, but there are virtually no intertitles, and no narration, save for that provided by Crumb himself.
Crumb is a purist's movie, a successfully formalist exercise, as much a defense of "values" (artistic, not "family") as it is a tribute to the Daumier of hippiedom. Most importantly, Crumb leaves us convinced that there's nothing accidental or offhanded about great art, and that R. Crumb is a great artist. Zwigoff, too.
John Anderson is a critic for Variety and Newsday and a frequent contributor to The New York Times.