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The pen and the piggy-back
A US region 1 DVD review of CRUMB by Slarek
 

Few could question the fact that Robert Crumb is a very talented man. As someone who went to art school and flirted with cartooning but gave it up early for film, I am always impressed when I watch someone who can really draw practicing their art. For some reason I've always been particularly amazed by pen and ink drawings, where you have only one colour to work with and shading has to be created by lines and cross-hatching rather than varying shades of grey or colour, and whose every stroke is a permanent commitment that cannot be erased or corrected or painted over.

Many of you will know the name of Robert Crumb, but a fair few will probably not. His very distinctive artwork found a perfect outlet in the underground comics of the late 1960s, and in the years that followed he achieved a cult fame for his very distinctive style and sometimes casually confrontational approach to his subject matter. Crumb tended to project his life and his fantasies into his drawings and cartoon strips, some aspects of which not everyone will be completely comfortable with. Looking through his early sketch books at one point, ex-girlfriend Kathy Goodell says to him "You really hated women then. You think it's improved since?" to which Robert replies, "Yeah. I hate them a little less now." Easy though it may be to nod in agreement, this smacks a little of Crumb playing up to the label some have placed on him. That he objectifies women in his drawings is beyond question, but this is more the result of sexual fetish than any genuine animosity. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of works, one of which is covered in detail in the film, that almost seem designed to cause offence. A feminist Robert Crumb clearly is not.

If this film was a standard portrait of an artist and his work, however controversial, it would hardly have landed the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a whole slew of other documentary awards. Admittedly Crumb himself is a fascinating figure, a gawky misfit whose talent and fame have enabled him to remain so and force others to accept him as he is. His extraordinary openness about every aspect of his life repeatedly catches you off guard, while his weary cynicism for just about everything actually proves rather endearing – observing passers-by dressed from head to toe in logo-emblazoned clothing, he bemoans their status as pathetic walking advertisements and at this point in his life is in the process of moving to France because, he claims, "it's slightly less evil than the United States." He comes across as a man who was born out of his time and has a particular loathing of almost all aspects of the modern world. "When I listen to old music," he says as he puts on a 78, "it's one of the few times I actually have a kind of love for humanity."

All of which is entertaining, even enthralling viewing, but it's in the dealings with Robert's immediate family that the film chooses to go where few others have trodden, getting sometimes uncomfortably up close and personal with his two brothers Maxon and Charles. Both are intelligent and articulate men, both have considerable artistic talent of their own, and both are clearly very screwed up. Maxon lives in a seedy motel and observes an almost monk-like existence, one that includes spending two hours a day in the lotus position on a bed of nails and regularly swallowing a tapeworm-sized length of cloth to clear out his intestines, while Charles still lives with their mother and has not left the house for years. All three brothers talk openly about masturbation and sexual urges, Maxon cheerfully reminisces the times he spent molesting women on trains, and Charles recalls his fantasies about killing Robert with knife or axe. You can't help wondering at times if it actually occurred to any of them that these chats would end up projected in a cinema, watched and listened to the very people they appear to be hiding from. But accusations of unfeeling voyeurism are misguided. Crumb and director Terry Zwigoff were close friends for years before the film was made and even played together in a band. It's his affection for the Crumb family that prompts Zwigoff to get as close to them as he does, an intimate approach that enables us to engage with rather than marginalise them.

Although their friendship would have made it easy for Zwigoff to pay lip service to his subject, he presents all aspects of the artist's personality with the sort of honesty that Crumb himself regularly displays, and it's this juxtaposition of extremes that repeatedly catches you on the hop. One minute we're shown Crumb as the caring father, balancing his young daughter on his knee and helping his son Jesse to develop his own considerable artistic skills, another he's taking part in a photo shoot with half-naked women in the manner of a cartoon dirty old man. We watch in admiration at his detailed drawings of street scenes and cafe customers, then shift uncomfortably as he cheerfully takes us through a misogynistic cartoon strip about a man who is given a headless woman to use for sexual pleasure.

You are left with the sense that had Robert Crumb not found an outlet for his own internal demons, however benevolent they may be, he too may have ended up like his brothers, locked in a room and controlling his psychosis with medication. But find an outlet he did and the sheer volume of work he has produced is astonishing in itself, especially given the twisted imagination and complexity of many of the drawings. You may not like them, you may not even like the artist, but in getting so close to Crumb and his family and associates, Zwigoff's remarkable film ensures that whatever judgement you make, it won't be for lack of information or understanding.

sound and vision

Just before the main feature starts, a white-on-black caption appears and tells you the following:

This film has been modified from its original version.
It has been formatted to fit this screen.

This screen. Well in my case the aspect ratio of "this screen" is 16:9, and the 4:3 print here certainly does not fit it. I'll admit that I've only seen the film in this aspect ratio, but I've only seen it on TV and DVD, and this caption is effectively informing me that this is not the original aspect ratio. (The IMDB lists the aspect ratio as 1.37:1, but I long ago learned to distrust their technical information.) Certainly there are moments throughout the film where the framing feels uncomfortably tight on the sides, and the end credits are framed approximately 1.85:1. Hmm. Given that this is a re-issue that is designed to improve on previous releases, this is a little disappointing.

In other ways the picture quality is pretty good, given that this was shot on high grain stock in sometimes less than ideal lighting conditions (whether it was shot on 16mm or 35mm I have yet to confirm). Detail is generally good and the colour, when the light is right, is excellent. The contrast is solid, though on the strong side at times – certainly it is higher than on the existing region 2 Optimum disc (an NTSC to PAL transfer that this disc definitely improves on), but the picture is also slightly darker, and I had to crank up my brightness control to see shadow detail in some scenes. Grain is very visible throughout.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack copes well with the acoustic issues of some of the locations, and on the whole is fine. 'The old music' is well enough reproduced.

extra features

Announced originally as a "special edition' – although there is nothing on the box to suggest this status – there is only one extra of note, but it is a goodie. The Commentary Track with director Terry Zwigoff and critic Roger Ebert provides a great deal of background information on the making of the film, on the director's relationship with his subject, and on the various participants, especially Crumb himself. It's a very interesting and informative track, and Ebert feeds Zwigoff well – the director freely admits that were he on his own he would probably have just sat and watched the film.

One other extra is included in the shape of a Sneak Peek of Art School Confidential (2:08), which consists of a short extract from Zwigoff's latest film, chosen at what appears to be random and giving little away – if you really want an advance look, check out the trailer on-line.

There are also Trailers for ten other Sony releases. If trailers are your thing, this should keep you busy for a while.

summary

One of my favourite documentaries still doesn't quite get the handling it deserves. The transfer is good but still feels cropped at times, and surely there could have been more extra material included here – the disc cries out for the BBC TV documentary on Crumb that was shot at the same time as Zwigoff's film and is discussed more than once on the commentary track. In the end it is this very commentary that makes the DVD a still worthwhile purchase for fans who already have an earlier release. If you don't then this is definitely the one to go for.

Crumb

USA 1994
119 mins
director
Terry Zwigoff
starring
Robert Crumb
Aline Kominsky
Charles Crumb
Maxon Crumb
Robert Hughes

DVD details
region 1
video
4:3
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
English
French
extras
Terry Zwigoff and Roger Ebert commentary
Art School Confidential extract
Trailers
distributor
Sony Pictures Classics
release date
25 April 2006
review posted
16 August 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews