CRUMB: THE CRITERION COLLECTION EDITION (DVD)

4 Stars
Year Released: 2010
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
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Robert Crumb is an interesting character on his own, but the examination of his family is what sets “Crumb” apart from a run-of-the-mill “Here’s this guy and here’s what he’s done” kind of documentary. Why did Robert manage to attain worldwide acclaim while his equally-talented brothers floundered? Surely Charles and Maxon Crumb could have become counter-culture darlings too, but perhaps they weren’t willing to let their unrestrained ids loose on the page, as Robert did. Their debilitating mental problems didn’t help, of course.

Watching this film again for the first time since its initial home video release, I was struck by the way director Terry Zwigoff structured his narrative. It unspools much like a work of fiction, starting with the introduction of its main characters and the primary drivers behind their relationships; a pan across some iconic imagery begins the proceedings and we’re introduced to Crumb’s most famous work in the first five minutes. We learn early on that Robert Crumb, his wife and daughter are soon moving to France, a point touched on again and again until the end of the movie, which fulfills that promised plot point.

During the course of the film, we follow Robert as he visits his siblings (except his sisters, who declined to participate) and his mother, ostensibly to say good-bye for now, but also to mine the past for the sake of the cameras. I don’t know that anyone in the Crumb family experiences the epiphany you might expect to see in a fictional story, but a psychologist could say that a few minor breakthroughs have occurred. We’re left to wonder if Charles Crumb’s tragic fate was influenced at all by his uncomfortable conversations with Robert and the decades-old wounds that were reopened.

Zwigoff weaves another element through this story: a Greek chorus of people who comment on the proceedings. Among them are fellow comic book artist Trina Robbins, Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, and Dian Hanson, an ex-girlfriend of Robert’s and then-editor of various soft-core porn magazines. All of them share additional insight into Crumb by analyzing his work, and while they’re not all kind in their views, they’re thoughtful and well-reasoned. We’re left to our own devices here as we view some of Robert’s more controversial work and make up our own minds. That is one of the hallmarks of a good director.

This Criterion edition of “Crumb” includes two commentaries that Zwigoff participates in, one that he recorded with Roger Ebert in 2006 and another that he sat down for in April 2010. As you might expect, the one with Ebert is a guided discussion, as the film critic prompts Zwigoff to touch on certain subjects. It’s the kind of conversation you might hear at a film school event.

The other track is more along the lines of a typical solo commentary, with Zwigoff covering how the film was made, including how he got certain shots, the laborious editing process, attempts made to find other people from Robert’s past, and other topics. It’s a nice complement to the first conversation; there isn’t much overlap between them.

This DVD also includes 50 minutes of unused footage and a still gallery. Unsurprisingly, the cut scenes are rough shape; there are spots where the video goes white while the audio keeps running. A good chunk of it deals with Robert’s post-high school years and his first wife, his visit to the Mitchell brothers’ porno theater in San Francisco, a trip to the mall during which he draws cartoons of passersby, and other random events. Zigoff provides commentary during the Mitchell brothers scene, offering some background on what brought Robert there that day.

Many Criterion DVDs include printed materials, and this one is no different. A booklet contains an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a reproduction of a couple pages of a childhood comic by Charles, and Robert’s “Treasure Island Days” comic and rambling essay “The Chinese Curse.” Criterion also threw in a reproduction of Charles’ Famous Artists Talent Test, which is shown briefly in the movie. Robert notes that the Famous Artist Schools employee who came out to grade the test didn’t know what to make of it, which explains the final grade on the back: “Either F—- or A++++”



Posted on August 10, 2010 in Reviews by
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