Robert Crumb was the reluctant face of underground comic books between the late 1960s to the late 1980s. His comics were often controversial, mostly provocative, and always far off the beaten path, and for some reason, people identified with this, and he became rich and famous. Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb chooses to paint a portrait of R. Crumb the person, instead of R. Crumb the successful artist, and tries to offer some insight into the mind of a man who created some truly unique and oddball art.
R. Crumb is a very strange man, so strange in fact that when he first met his wife's family, they weren't quite sure whether or not he was mentally handicapped. He is relatively reclusive and distanced a bit from reality, and this allows him to draw some really absurd and bizarre things. Throughout the film, different personalities try to offer their explanations for his work, and oftentimes they come back to his obsessions: fear of women coupled with a love of sexuality. His work also often reveals his distant nature, as he paints himself as an outsider.
The heart of the film lies within Crumb's interactions with the various members of his family, most especially his brothers Maxon and Charles, who, by comparison, make Robert seem like a gregarious extrovert. Max is pretty far off the deep end, spending most of his days painting surreal art, sitting on a self-constructed bed of nails, and swallowing a long line of cloth to clean his intestines. Charles still lives with their mother, hasn't had a job in 30 years, and spends his days reading and scribbling gibberish in notebook after notebook.
Crumb, the film, is stark and honest in its portrayal of the lives of these societal outcasts. Robert lives right on the edge of sanity, but his brothers have clearly dove right off of that cliff, and it's only possible to fully understand where Robert is coming from when you witness and listen to Max and Charles. They seem to have a repressed hatred for their father, who couldn't seem to accept them for who they were. All in all, it's a very good unconventional documentary that does so much more than simply speaking facts about a famous artist; it makes us sympathize with people who we'd ordinarily write off as looneys.
March 3, 2005