A movie review by Caleb Brown.
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is an intimate documentary. Its subject is an eccentric and often abrasive personality, but he still has a peculiar and captivating humanity. The film’s greatest success is that it portrays his flaws unflinchingly, and contextualizes his deeply felt alienation through the lens of his comics. While the content is oftentimes shocking, the film thrives on the very tension leveraged from this voyeuristic element. The film is not interested in passing moral judgement on Crumb but instead challenges the audience to understand him. It doesn’t ask for sympathy, but instead asks the audience to find humanity in art that’s deliberately crass. It gives us a psychological profile of the man Robert Crumb and also shows us how that psychology, in addition to the environment which constructed it, reflects in his creative process. In doing so the documentary digs into the nature of the creative process itself, and the suffering that often drives the people behind the art.
While my first paragraph may paint Crumb as a relentlessly bleak, uncompromisingly stern piece, it’s not as intimidating as one would imagine. The film is in fact primarily a comedy. Offbeat jokes, humorous anecdotes and a slew of editing gags give the film a breezy pace. Much of the humor comes from the titular Crumb himself. He is a constantly self-effacing and eccentric fellow, whose humorous asides ride the thin line between playful self-deprecation and a coping mechanism for his own anxiety. Oftentimes he is unaware of the social consequences of his actions, an attitude that spills over into his vociferous defense of his own work over its ‘offensiveness’. The film could easily take the path of least resistance with its comedy, but Zwigoff never seems to openly mock Crumb or his worldview. Instead he allots a measured sensitivity to Crumb, one that’s compounded by the psychological portrait of Crumb’s close family.
Crumb is not an island to himself in his own movie. While his psychology is of keen interest to Zwigoff, the director also shines a light on his brothers. Much like Crumb himself, Crumb’s brothers (Charles and Maxon) are both shown to have severe depression and social anxiety. Their condition is even more severe than Crumb’s, and their presence underlines the hereditary mental illness that affects the entire family. Crumb’s bleak outlook isn’t solely the product of his own mind in a vacuum, but a result of a bleak childhood. Furthermore the outstanding issues with Crumb’s closest family members persist in adulthood. In this his cartoons function as another part of his coping mechanism. They offer a brief respite from the cruel, bleak world Crumb inherited. While his comics are rife with gallows humor that makes light of Crumb’s struggles with mental illness, it’s within a context where he has autonomy over those feelings. These themes go largely unstated in the film, instead Zwigoff lets the audience infer them from the context. He respects both the audience and Crumb’s own artistic vision too much to convey such themes through exposition.
Crumb is a funny film about an extremely morbid man, who uses humor in the context of his art to make light of tragedy. In the spirit of Crumb’s own artwork, Zwigoff’s documentary humanizes Crumb in his awkward moments and also in his moments of frustration and anger at himself and the world. It doesn’t make Crumb out to be a sad clown, but rather a tortured artist whose flaws as a human being are derived from deep personal tragedy. Yet in the end, Crumb is able to find an occupation in which these feelings can be communicated with some clarity. We see a man who struggles to speak for himself clearly, so uses his art to bare his soul instead. In this, despite his spiky demeanor, there is a fundamental relatability to the eccentric Robert Crumb.
(Posted by Mary Johnson for Caleb Brown. Please click on the image of the DVD to find this movie in our catalog!)