Film Reviews

Mad for Art

Being in the presence of madness has an undeniable fascination, and this weird kick is part of the strength of Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's documentary about underground comic artist R. Crumb and his family. Crumb became famous in the 1960s as the creator of Fritz the Cat and the "Keep on Truckin'" character, among others, and this inside look at him and his influences has all the sick appeal of a freak show, with the freaks we meet all being gifted artists whose obsessive efforts at self-expression have a peculiar dignity. While R. Crumb is only seriously disturbed, his story has at least two genuine madmen: his brothers, Max and Charles, both of whom are more than minor players in Zwigoff's disarmingly earnest film about their famous sibling.

Crumb begins with the man Time art critic Robert Hughes has called "the Brueghel of the 20th century" giving a presentation to art students in Philadelphia. The 50-year-old artist in the coke-bottle glasses shows his audience slides of Mr. Natural and the "Keep on Truckin'" guy -- a too-popular icon that, Crumb complains, led to endless lawsuits (in 1977 a judge ruled that Crumb didn't own the rights to his big-footed character). Then, he flashes the cover of Cheap Thrills, the Big Brother and the Holding company album (featuring Janis Joplin), and a still from the movie Fritz the Cat. Said film, Crumb complains, was made by schlockmeisters and was a huge embarrassment to him. In his next slide, Crumb shows how he got his revenge against the schlockmeisters: in a Fritz the Cat comic book, he killed the character by stabbing him through the back of the head with a knife.

Such public appearances are unusual for R. Crumb; for most of his career he's kept himself out of the public spotlight, preferring to live his life through the drawings that appear in his comics. (Drawings that have often included himself, and not always in a flattering way.) Withdrawn creatures such as Crumb can be difficult documentary subjects, but Zwigoff, rather than attempting to bring Crumb forward, has brought him into focus by setting him in context. Former Crumb girlfriends; Crumb's first wife Dana; Crumb's current wife Aline; Crumb's mother, Beatrice; Zap Comix publisher Don Donahue; critics; art dealers; Crumb's children Jesse and Sophie; and Crumb's brothers all tell their stories, and these narratives explain the bony man's peculiar path to fame.

Though he giggles sophomorically about sex, and is petulant when responding to the criticism that his work is misogynist or racist, Crumb speaks lucidly and eloquently of art, and his unpleasant adenoidal voice is almost warm when he helps Jesse and Sophie with technique, and when he talks about the works of Charles and Max.

Art is perhaps the only thing, besides himself, that Crumb takes seriously. Fans of his comics might be surprised by his level of commitment, and by the work that the onetime Zap golden boy is capable of. Crumb had little formal training, but he's achieved a great deal -- in the documentary we see realist portraits and landscapes of intense quality. (European galleries show this stuff, instead of his cartoons.) In one of the Crumb-at-home moments, he's with his son, Jesse, sketching from a coffeetable book containing photographs of women inmates of a 19th-century insane asylum. What Crumb is trying to teach his son is the power of subtle exaggeration.

Crumb explains -- in fact, he seems obsessed with explaining -- that he began to draw because of his brother Charles. When Crumb was three, Charles, the oldest, roped all the siblings into the Animaltown Comics Club. Flipping through Charles' old notebooks, Crumb says sorrowfully that Charles never evolved beyond "crayon and pencil."

R. Crumb is mildly perverse (he has a shoe thing and an unwholesome taste for piggyback rides), but his brothers have severe personality disorders. The youngest brother, Max, is a panhandler, artist and practitioner of Eastern arts. His daily ritual includes begging and meditating on a bed of nails. A merry-go-round through institutions has left him with a sense of humor -- a dose of Haldol, he jests, will cure anything. He also insists that, although he's molested women, he never raped any. Though he seems worried about distinguishing himself from rapists, he's at least, if not more, worried about capturing the right expressions, the right emotions, in his stylized portraits of women.

Charles, the most disturbed of the Crumb brothers, is a pasty, flabby man with childlike eyes. In Zwigoff's interviews, Charles sits on a messy bed in his boyhood bedroom. He still lives there, surrounded by 20-year-old paperbacks. Charles' gentle, furtive ramblings are fascinating, with a mesmerizing "there but for the grace of" pull, and they make up a large and powerful part of the movie. Zwigoff says that Charles is the reason he made the film, that he was taken by Charles' bizarre charisma and wanted to explore not only the nature of art but the gothic family life of the Crumb brothers.

The hapless older brother's relationship with, and the source of his influence on, Crumb is not clearly delineated. It may be that Crumb needed a father figure; their father was, Charles says with a ten-year-old's sly, halting belligerence, a bully and a tyrant. Or it may be that Charles brought art to Crumb, and that for Crumb his passion for art and brotherly love are inexorably linked.

The Crumb brothers, finally, offer useful truth -- not the truth of what is so, but the truth of what we are all able to understand with dark uneasiness. Crumb may be seriously unhealthy as a person, but he's an artist because he is conscientious and thorough. While his own set of passions and frustrations aren't shared by all, his vivid grotesques of contemporary American life are evocative and have resonance -- and are fascinating -- because, like Tony Perkins says in Psycho, we all go a little mad sometimes.

Crumb is not a happy look back at the wacky '60s or a tale of the flowering of alternative art. Instead, Terry Zwigoff's intense documentary about his friend (at least they were friends before the film came out) examines how some people manage to function and even create art despite being seriously damaged -- and how some people, such as Max and Charles, while gifted, are too damaged to function. Crumb is an excellent documentary about the artistic process and filial relationships, but it will give you the creeps, and much to ponder.

-- Edith Sorenson

Directed by Terry Zwigoff.
Rated R.
119 minutes.

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Edith Sorenson