Portrait of a ladies' man

Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff is still haunted by the bizarre cast of characters from Crumb

There's a moment in the second half of Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's scorching and fearless feature-length profile of the underground comic-book artist Robert Crumb, that confirms movie audiences have entered a very different world than they are accustomed to exploring.

After Crumb and numerous friends, family members, and loved ones have offered their opinions on the nature of male-female relationships, an ex-lover of Crumb's offers her own very cogent appraisal of the controversial dynamics that go along with heterosexual love:

"Women often talk about being oppressed by men," she says as the aghast Crumb sits on the couch beside her at a party. "But in fact the very fetishized nature of male sexuality makes men easily manipulated by women. Men focus on specific female body parts to the exclusion of all else; this gives women enormous power." The speaker is a woman named Dian Hanson. She's a self-proclaimed "career pornographer" who edits Leg Show, Big Butt, and Jugs magazine. If those credentials sound less than stellar for an expert on relationships, then you haven't fully given yourself over to the strange but true cast of characters that comprise Crumb. Since the mid-'60s, Robert Crumb has poured out issue after issue of his sexually explicit, squalid, scatological musings on life in these United States to increasing international acclaim. He's also left behind a family in torment, numerous fellow counterculture survivors, and a series of ex-girlfriends. All of them provide startlingly intimate anecdotes about themselves and the artist for this film.

Director Zwigoff, who's been close friends with Crumb since they met in 1970, dedicated an uncertain, often painful nine years of his life to creating this raw investigation into the twisted origins of one pop icon's muse.

"We shot almost 20 hours of footage," says Zwigoff from his Dallas hotel room. "And then it was the editor and myself, struggling with each other for nine months to make the film more 'dramatic.'

"My producer, Lynn O'Donnell, deserves as much credit as I do for the finished product. Both of us spent many hours hustling investors each time the money ran out. Some of the early support I got was from prestigious Hollywood editors--Walter Murch [who edited The Conversation and worked on other Coppola films] and David Peeples [editor of Blade Runner and The Unforgiven] both saw a rough cut and encouraged me not to change a thing.

"We knew we had a hit on our hands when we screened it for critics at the Toronto Film Festival. They were all pasty, pudgy, bespectacled middle-aged men, just like Crumb's brother Charles. They loved it."

Crumb is much more than a profile of a highly literate misanthrope. With his gawky posture, buck-toothed leer, and eyeglasses as thick as the bottoms of soda bottles, Robert Crumb makes an intriguing commentator--a perpetually horny LSD survivor who strolls through middle age with a contempt for American commercial culture even more intense than when he first scribbled his lurid satirical fantasies for Zap Comix in the '60s. But the film portrays with equally searing candor Charles and Maxon, the two brothers who grew up with Crumb in a Philadelphia project and were forced to raise themselves amid the company of a mother addicted to amphetamines and a father who often beat them.

Early on, the brothers Crumb (there were also two sisters Zwigoff didn't interview) started creating their own comic books. They drowned their childhood sorrows in a steady diet of TV, movies, and animation. The chief motivator was Charles, who appears in the film as a deeply wounded individual but manages to eclipse his famous brother in a series of remarkably self-analytic interviews. Frequently suicidal, he takes heavy doses of anti-depressants, has lived with his mother Beatrice ever since high school, has been unemployed for the last 25 years, and is obsessed with reading the same paperback novels he consumed as a kid

"Talking to Charles was what really clinched my passion for the project," Zwigoff said. "For a while I wasn't sure how much access I'd have to Crumb's family. But even way back in the early '70s, when I first met Charles, he wanted to talk about those issues. When filming began, everybody seemed comfortable with it. To tell the truth, Charles directed most of those scenes [in which he was featured]. I let him run with it."

As for Maxon, he clearly had another reason to grant Zwigoff and crew access to his cramped San Francisco efficiency--he still paints, and with as much twisted brilliance as Robert. Zwigoff confirms that since the film has received so much attention, Maxon now gets offers from interested collectors.

In Crumb, he and Robert examine some of Maxon's work and discover the same tortured attitude toward women that drives Robert's stories. Maxon begs on the street for his living, indulges in some very odd, vaguely Zen-inspired bodily stunts, and has a record of arrests for molesting women--not exactly rape, he clarifies for the filmmakers, although it probably would have led to that if he hadn't been stopped.

Such casual on-screen conversations are the real thorny heart of Crumb, the place where viewers will either continue to watch in macabre fascination or march out of the theater repulsed. Zwigoff and company have included numerous examples of Robert Crumb's spirited but decidedly peculiar depictions of women. We learn he idolizes females with huge breasts and buttocks, but more than that, his licentious sagas of scrawny, sunken-chested geeks and voracious Amazonian women--sometimes with vulture heads, sometimes without heads at all--tell the story of a man who never quite overcame his fear of the female half of the species. Zwigoff enlists two women admirers of Crumb's work--'60s cartoonist Trina Robbins and former Mother Jones editor Deidre English--to talk about certain works by the artist they feel have crossed the line into exploitation and degradation.

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