Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 120 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: August 10, 2010
Review Date: July 30, 2010
After introducing audiences to a forgotten artist in a tantalizing 1985 documentary Louie Bluie, director Terry Zwigoff ten years later found an even more scintillating subject for his novel approach to documentaries with Crumb. Exploring the life of renowned artist Robert Crumb whose underground comics gained him first a cult following and then widespread celebration (and denunciation from feminists), Crumb supersedes Zwigoff’s achievements with Louie Bluie with its far more psychologically complex central subject and its look at a dysfunctional family that’s as enthralling as the works that the artist is most well known for. A coruscating examination of genius both lost and found, Crumb is one of the great documentaries.
Art critic Robert Hughes calls Robert Crumb "the Breughel of the 20th century," and examining the controversial works of this master illustrator and artist finds it an apt description. Contained in these tantalizing drawings are notions concerning politics, sexual fetishism, drug use, the fine arts, social injustice, racial prejudice, and other assorted topics. And yet the man from whom these drawings come is an acknowledged eccentric with hang-ups and affection issues we see first hand. In a series of encounters with wives both past and present and children of various ages, the picture that emerges is one of a misfit who nevertheless manages somehow to fit in as much as he can in order to function within the world he’s trapped inside. Zwigoff’s camera never stints in presenting the man as he is, and while freely admitting his problems with dealing with the world as it now stands (a situation that finds the artist and his immediate family making the move to southern France to escape commercialized America), Crumb still stubbornly maintains his own code of conduct, despite charges of misogyny and perversion which have dogged him.
The film’s real power, however, lies in its examination of the entire troubled Crumb family including both his older brother Charles (a recluse for decades; Grey Gardens comes immediately to mind with the interactions between Charles and his mother) and younger brother Maxon, both superb artists themselves but living under the enormous burdens of a childhood dominated by a tyrannical father and a pill-addicted mother. The scenes with Charles in his room surrounded by hundreds of paperbacks he continues to reread rather than buying new ones, reminiscing about his horrific school years (even though he was by far the most handsome and personable of the brothers) are heartbreaking, and his every return to the film is one of fascinating poignancy (especially once one reads the film’s coda that relates follow-ups on the lives of the family members after the filming was completed.)
As old blues, ragtime, and jazz music are passions of Robert (and the director; the two became friends long before the film was made due to their sharing this fervent hobby), old standards dot the soundtrack of the film, often used for background music as pages of illustrations from Robert, Charles, and Max are examined in detail. The illustrations themselves are so one-of-a-kind and filled with such ingenious patter between the characters in the panels that the film might very well lead one to seek out complete works of this master creator. If that’s the case, the film has more than justified its existence. And even if one has no interest in the world of underground comic art, the film will introduce you to one of the most memorable families you’re ever likely to experience.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio has been faithfully delivered here, slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style for Academy ratio DVD releases. Coming from a 16mm source, the film has rather remarkable detail and sharpness. Color is nicely rendered with realistic fleshtones. There are a couple of colored scratches which mar the picture when they appear, but otherwise, the transfer is clean and artifact free. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix is typically low in fidelity in keeping with the ultra-low budget of the project, but there is never any trouble hearing the various people speaking and the old records that are played, even with their tinny sound and scratchy condition, come through clearly.
There are two audio commentaries on the disc. Director Terry Zwigoff goes solo on the first track, the most recent one recorded in 2010, talking with much precision and candor about the making of the movie. Zwigoff and critic Roger Ebert share the second commentary track, another winner where Ebert asks intelligent questions and makes critical comments about the film which elicit responses from the director in explaining what he was doing. For fans of the film, both tracks are must-listens.
There are fourteen unused sequences which are presented either individually or in one 51 ¾-minute grouping. All are, of course, presented in the theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
A stills gallery contains twenty-five behind-the-scenes photographs and also family pictures and illustrations from the Crumb archives.
The enclosed 25-page booklet contains stills, photographs, and Crumb illustrations along with a cast and crew list and an appreciative essay on the man and the film by movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Also included as a hilarious bonus is a reprint of Charles Crumb’s completed entry in the “Famous Artists Talent School” test. It’s loaded with clever and sometimes satirical and even lewd art in his answers to the drawing assignments. The entry form is discussed in a pivotal sequence in the movie, so it's nice to have it here to examine and enjoy completely.
4/5 (not an average)
Crumb is a monumentally significant and absorbing documentary, winner of Best Documentary honors from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles, New York, National Society, and Broadcast Film Critics Associations. This Criterion release comes with a firm recommendation.