At times throughout Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's justly revered 1994 documentary, Robert Crumb and his older brother Charles seem like variations on the same person. So why did R. Crumb escape the madness and sour gray despair of his upbringing to become a husband, father, and countercultural icon, while the similarly gifted Charles lived a joyless existence at home with their mother, ultimately committing suicide? The answer, the film suggests, is that in spilling the contents of his tormented, sexually obsessed psyche onto the pages of his comic books, R. Crumb found a way to exorcise the formidable personal demons that ultimately defeated his brother.
Thanks largely to his close friendship with Crumb, Zwigoff enjoyed remarkable access to his subject, and to Crumb's family and ex-girlfriends. The result is a queasily intimate, revealing exploration of the creative process and prickly personality of an artist whose penchant for self-effacement shoots well past self-deprecation on its way to self-laceration.
So is Crumb's sexually and racially transgressive work a penetrating satire of middle-class American values, or sexist, racist, hateful pornography trying to pass as scathing social criticism? The answer, not surprisingly, seems to fall somewhere between the two extremes. Though clearly enamored of Crumb, Zwigoff entertains both sides of the debate. It's worth noting that Crumb's primary feminist critic comes off as reasonable and intelligent, though a tad humorless, while Crumb's principal aesthetic defender, Time art critic Robert Hughes, comes off like a comically pretentious blowhard straight out of Art School Confidential, Zwigoff's forthcoming satire of art-school pomposity. Though leavened somewhat by Crumb's professional success and current happy home life, Crumb grows darker and darker until it's teetering on the precipice of a bleak emotional abyss. It's an old aphorism that comedy equals tragedy plus time, but in Crumb, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fuzzy as the one the separates genius from madness.
Key features: An engaging, appropriately cantankerous new audio commentary with Zwigoff and Roger Ebert. Also, a "sneak peek" scene from Art School Confidential that, given Crumb's famous contempt for commercialism and anyone profiting off his image or art, should anger Crumb as much as, well, everything else in contemporary culture.