Old 05-28-2009, 03:42 PM
Terry Zwigoff's Crumb

Crumb (1994)

This is a film that I somehow knew I was not going to like. It really didn't help that this film broke the first rule of documentaries which is that, when you choose your subject, it has to be someone (or something) interesting. Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff thought he had found that someone in Robert Crumb, but unfortunately, he was wrong.

Zwigoff's documentary attempts to tell the story of Robert Crumb, a somewhat well-known underground comics artist. We get to see many examples of Crumb's work as well as interviews with his brothers, Charles and Maxon, and others who have known him or his work.

The major problem that I had with this film is that it is not informative. All I knew about Robert Crumb I had learned from a graphic novel class that I had taken in college. I knew that he was an underground comics artist that had worked on comics like "Zap" and "American Splendor." When the film was over, I found that the only thing that they had reiterated over and over was that he was an underground comics artist. Total knowledge about Robert Crumb gained: zero.

It was odd also that they hadn't even bothered to mention "American Splendor," which he collaborated on with Harvey Pekar, and is also arguably his most famous work. This didn't bother me much however, because I was forced to read some of it back in the graphic novel class, and all I can say is that it was definitely not impressive, at least story-wise; art-wise, it was decent. In 2003, it was made into a rather mediocre film which suffered from the same problem as “Crumb” in that it had a dull subject, which in this case was Harvey Pekar, a close friend of Crumb’s.

I can see how some people might find Crumb slightly interesting because people like to call him "eccentric" or "out there" but the truth is that the man is very dull and doesn't have an interesting back story. "Crumb's art and career would define the limits of this film if it had been made by someone else. What deepens Zwigoff's work are the scenes with the family members," says Roger Ebert in his "Great Movie" essay.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The family members are just as dull as he is. His brother Charles is a suicide case who takes several tranquilizers to help with his depression, while his other brother, Maxon, spends his days meditating in his room, sometimes on a bed of nails, while drawing every once in a while.

In fact, the first part of Ebert's statement probably would have made a better film. If the film had concentrated on just the art, its influence, and what critics have thought of it over the decades instead of on Robert Crumb himself, it would have made a far more fascinating film. It certainly says a lot when you can delete the artist from his own documentary and not have anything change.

There is no doubt that Robert Crumb is a very talented artist, even though he is racist, objectifies women, and has some very questionable fetishes. It's just that he himself is not a suitable enough subject for a documentary. The film mainly consists of him talking to his family, followed by montages of his artwork. It does get a little credit for including some interviews with critics and other cartoonists though, and as I said, it would have been a lot better, and much more informative, had Zwigoff focused on them.

Looking back over this review, it seems very cynical, but that's just the way this movie rubbed me. There are obviously people out there who have a lot of affection for Crumb and loved this movie. It somehow won slews of Best Documentary awards from critics such as the NBR, the NSFC, the Kansas City Film Critics, the New York Film Critics, and even took the award at Sundance. All I can say is, don't ask me how. 2/4 stars.
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