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Crumb: The Criterion Collection DVD Review

Crumb (1995) movie poster Crumb

Theatrical Release: April 21, 1995 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Tagline: Weird Sex Obsession Comic Books

Featured Subjects: Robert Crumb, Aline Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Beatrice Crumb, Jesse Crumb, Sophie Crumb, Dana Crumb, Robert Hughes, Dian Hanson, Deirdre English, Don Donahue, Kathy Goodell, Trina Robbins, Peggy Orenstein, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Martin Muller

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Before directing the acclaimed offbeat comedies Ghost World and Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff got his feet wet in one of filmmaking's less appreciated genres: the documentary. Zwigoff's first movie, Louie Bluie, about string band musician Howard Armstrong, played at Sundance in 1986. Zwigoff's third documentary (the second is almost too obscure to acknowledge), Crumb,
brought him back to the Utah film festival in 1995, where the Grand Jury Prize became the first of many honors won en route to an unusually well-attended general theatrical release.

Next week, Louie Bluie and Crumb become the 532nd and 533rd titles in The Criterion Collection. The former receives its first DVD release of any kind, while the far better-known Crumb gets its third DVD edition in addition to making its Blu-ray debut.

Crumb profiles eccentric underground comics artist Robert Crumb, pen name R. Crumb. In an early scene, Crumb introduces himself to an auditorium of art students by mentioning the three things he's then best known for: the phrase "Keep on Truckin'", an album cover for the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Fritz the Cat (though he disavows the X-rated animated film). Your familiarity with such things today seems like a long shot, but Crumb's success and modest fame for his often sexually and occasionally racially provocative work is almost irrelevant. Crumb is less about the art and more about the man.

Sunset reflections create an interesting pupil illusion in the glasses of documentary subject R. (Robert) Crumb. Troubled older brother Charles Crumb sits among his old books in the house he still shares with his mother and her cats.

"What an odd man" may be your immediate impression. Marked by long limbs, a mustache, and, above all else, impossibly thick horn-rimmed glasses, the spindly Crumb cuts a distinctive figure and has an off-center personality to match.

The film's biggest and most memorable surprise is revealing that Robert is by far the most well-adjusted member of his family, at least of the three brothers we spend time with (two sisters declined to be interviewed). Charles, who got Robert interested in comics, is a depressed, heavily medicated, and mildly insane shut-in still living with his mother and catering to her every need. (We only get a brief but telling look at Mrs. Crumb on camera.) The epileptic Maxon, residing in a grimy San Francisco hotel (where his filthy bare feet are on full display), still dabbles in art as well as begging and nail-sitting meditation. He opens up about his proclivity for molestation.

As the film's presentation is fairly chronological, we get information about the Crumb brothers' childhood before learning of their middle-aged maladies. Their boyhood is fondly recalled almost entirely with respect to Walt Disney's Treasure Island and the huge creative effect that 1950 film had on them.

From there, we get a sense of Robert's career, which took off in the 1960s counterculture. It is impossible to separate the man from his work, so the film doesn't do this. In an effort to understand what is probably his signature interest (a fascination with the female form, specifically strong, voluptuous big-bottomed women), we get something of a sexual history, hearing from ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife. Crumb's own recollections are often paired with corresponding autobiographical strips. To put Crumb's artistry in context, interviews are also had with critics, subjects, publishers, fellow artists, and even a couple of detractors.

Robert Crumb captures his misanthropy in this comic drawing of himself at a posh cafe. Mother Jones magazine editor Deirdre English explains why she's not a Crumb fan with a look at his incest comic "Joe Blow."

A look at Crumb's contemporary family life is had in footage of his wife Aline and his Game Boy-playing young daughter Sophie. Even with Jesse the somewhat abandoned grown son from his first marriage in the mix, this dynamic can't compete with Crumb's oddball brothers, who he can't help but chuckle with.

Nearly as interesting as the reunited siblings is getting Robert's insights on society over the years. Stubbornly owning a black & white television and clearly counting his thousands of old 78 rpm vinyl records as his prized possession, Crumb may seem like a man fixated on the past and one born later than he should have been, but he's not oblivious to his modern surroundings.
Still, it's almost jarring to see "The Simpsons" trading cards and a Terminator 2 arcade game in his presence. And it's satisfyingly surreal to watch him sketch pedestrians spotted downtown, bemoaning their logo clothing and the noise emanating from boomboxes blaring early rap on the sidewalks. Socially aware, Crumb also shares his thoughts on 1950s commercialism and the '60s free love movement.

Crumb is expertly structured and edited, but both strengths are ones you'll have to look for because Zwigoff's hand is transparent and his documentary is seamless. The movie is endlessly fascinating. The closest it comes to losing steam is when we focus on Crumb's artwork, particularly his near-complete read-through of one of his racy id-driven comics about a headless woman. You definitely needn't be a fan of Crumb's creations, which have been denounced as misogynistic and pornographic, to enjoy this documentary. In fact, it may be helpful not to be overly familiar with or fond of Crumb's crude comics, for that might distract from the true value of Zwigoff's film, which is to capture the essence and influence of a committed artist.

Buy Crumb: Criterion Collection DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: August 10, 2010
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($39.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Crumb understandably feels older than its April 1995 theatrical release date suggests; it was filmed over six years, mostly in the early '90s. Its presentation supports both that feel and the progress-shunning subject; shot on 16mm, the movie appears in slightly windowboxed 1.33:1 "fullscreen" and monaural sound. Picture quality on Criterion's DVD looks great, especially considering the no doubt humble production values. The soundtrack is comprised of new ragtime recordings like the old ones that inspire Crumb. The interview sound levels are pleasantly professional and the provided English subtitles help fill in any uncertainties (like when Crumb's mother calls to Charles from downstairs).

Robert Crumb holds up a copy of Sluts & Slobs magazine, one small piece of his classy magazine collection, in this deleted scene. Robert Crumb does some doodling outside a Shirt Creek in this unused shopping mall footage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Criterion's collection of bonus features begins with a pair of audio commentaries. First, we get an archival commentary by director Terry Zwigoff and Roger Ebert, recorded for Sony's 2006 Special Edition DVD re-release. This is already unusually significant because Ebert, as you probably know, has since been rendered speechless. The movie lends itself to a commentary and these two are the right people to provide it, Zwigoff as a totally invested but invisible filmmaker and Ebert as one of the movie's most important fans. Theirs is an interesting discussion, which benefits from both the director's revelations and the critic's observations. Zwigoff naturally has more to share, confessing various cheats and regretted bits, opening up about everyone depicted,
and touching upon the threat of a competing BBC documentary, discouraging test screening reactions, and an assortment of budget restrictions. This is a most valuable extra worth making time for.

Then, Zwigoff talks alone in a new track recorded this past April. He doesn't have as much difficulty sustaining a solo commentary as he foresaw in the other one, but not enough time has passed for him to record a second one on this movie. As a result, this is remarkably redundant, as the director repeats a number of the same stories and provides very little that the other doesn't. It suffers from the lack of first track's feedback and conversation. Zwigoff details how he met Crumb, takes swipes at Crumb's film tastes and one of editor Walter Murch's films, recalls his commentary with Ebert, and mentions Robin Williams' unused interview (unfortunately not preserved here). But those few exclusive subjects hardly make the two hours fly by. I'm wondering if maybe the studio was having trouble acquiring that Sony commentary, recorded this as a potential substitute, and then didn't want it to go to waste after the better track became available. That's the only explanation I can think of for this needless exercise.

Under "Unused Footage", we find fourteen deleted sequences running 51 minutes and 40 seconds altogether. These aren't mere re-edits or extensions; this is a true near-hour of fine original cut material. For me, the real highlight is a great long scene of Aline and Robert walking around the Country Fair Mall in Woodland, CA, in which he gets burned out and starts drawing sights. Other noteworthy bits: Crumb showing us his collections of photos, (predominantly fetish) magazines, and comics; drawing and playing with scantily-clad strippers; performing with Zwigoff in their string band Cheap Suit Serenaders; and revisiting illustrated letters he wrote as a teenager to friend Marty Pahls. There are also more bits of Crumb just talking (something the movie definitely doesn't provide an excess of), addressing art, sex, Charles, Republicans, his father, his first marriage, working at American Greetings, and his cute comic characters. While reinserting these wouldn't have made a nearly 3-hour Crumb any better than the 2-hour original cut we get, they're a delight to see here and the menu kindly allows quick, clear access while otherwise serving as a "Play All" function.

Two of these unused sequences (8:10) are accompanied by optional Zwigoff audio commentary. Over the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre scene, he shares the story of how an envelope full of cash coaxed him and Crumb to reluctantly write a porn movie for the Mitchells (which never got made). Over the musical performance (Crumb's last with the string band), Zwigoff discusses the group's history and members.

San Franciscan younger brother Maxon Crumb poses next to his portrait of pornographer Dian Hanson in one of the DVD gallery's 26 stills. The Crumb brothers share the couch in the old photo featured on The Criterion Collection DVD's main menu.

A stills gallery holds 26 frames of color and black & white production photos and slides. A few of these are preceded by identifying captions, but most require no explanation.

A couple of things from Sony's DVDs do not carry over here. A preview of Zwigoff's coolly-received dramedy Art School Confidential wouldn't be appropriate here. But Crumb's original trailer, listed on the movie's first DVD (but possibly not included), is definitely missed. Of course, so is an opportunity to catch up with Robert Crumb and his surviving family members featured in the documentary; given his mixed feelings toward the film, I suspect his reluctance rather than Criterion effort keeps us from getting such a retrospective here.

As always, Criterion excels in the packaging department. The DVD's cover is a Crumb self-portrait with someone pointing a gun at his head. The reverse artwork, which shows through the clear keepcase, resembles the indecipherable notebook scribbles (which Wikipedia tells us is "asemic writing") of Charles. Two terrific inserts are found inside. The first is a 24-page booklet.
Slightly above Criterion's delightful standard, it provides plenty of artwork by Crumb and his relatives, including an excerpt of Charles' 1961 Treasure Island comic plus Robert's autobiographical 1978 "Treasure Island Days" and hand-written essay "The Chinese Curse." It also lists chapters and credits, details the director-approved transfer process, and features an essay by film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The second insert is a wonderful reproduction of Charles' 1961 talent test for the Famous Artist Schools of Connecticut, featured and discussed in the film. It is a fascinating reflection of the teenager and of the school, whose official stops grading after the multiple choice section, which is followed by an imaginatively executed complete-the-drawings portion. There is no limit to how much time you may choose to spend studying this brilliant inclusion.

The main menu plays one of Crumb's staticky vinyl records over an old photo of the Crumb brothers. Crumb artwork adorns other selection screens.

Robert Crumb goes for an enlightening stroll downtown, exposing him to brand logos and boombox music in Terry Zwigoff's documentary.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It is easy to understand why Crumb showed up on so many "Best of" lists for its year and its decade; this is a stimulating documentary whose achievements go way beyond chronicling the life of a subversive alternative cartoonist. The film succeeds as a record of 20th century culture and as a portrait of channeling familial dysfunction into art. Besides seeming too entertaining to be real but too genuine to be staged, Crumb also manages to be poignant, revealing, and sad.

It is no surprise that Criterion provides the definitive DVD release the film deserves. Without having seen Sony's two DVDs, I'm still confident I can declare this top-notch presentation superior in terms of audio/video quality. There is also no doubt that this disc is the clear winner when it comes to bonus features and packaging. If you enjoy Crumb, it's really only a question of whether you want it on DVD or Blu-ray. If you haven't seen it, I encourage you to do so now.

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Reviewed August 4, 2010.



Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1994 Superior Pictures, Crumb Partners I and 2010 The Criterion Collection. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.