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.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they score a bull's eye. After being quizzed on the subject several times, R. Crumb himself nervously admits he harbors certain hostilities toward women, and cannot defend his most dirty-minded work except to say he is driven to express these dark impulses with pen and paper--but not in real life. Ex-girlfriend and Leg Show editor Dian Hanson proclaims what he finally cannot say himself--he functions in a permanent state of arrested adolescence, so much so that he cannot help but masturbate compulsively over his own illustrations.

On the offense meter, his illustrations of monstrous females can't compare to how he pictures African-American characters--as gullible, big-lipped natives of the Congo. In one comic, his most famous black character of the '60s, a woman named Angelfood McSpade, is flattered by a couple of Anglo businessmen and finally coaxed to come work in America--where she cleans toilets with her tongue.

Crumb, an avid collector of vinyl recordings by black blues musicians from the '20s and '30s, claims the only complaints about race he's received have come from "white liberals." He staunchly defends his extreme racial caricatures as satires on pervasive American racist stereotypes, but Zwigoff admits he approached the subject with more caution.

"We started to worry it was racist not to have a black person talking in the film," he said. "So we tried to think of every black commentator who might have an opinion on Crumb's work. Not only couldn't we find anyone, but we realized the whole search was racist in itself. We wanted people to make up their own minds about his art, based on those who would talk."

Despite the diverse sensibilities trampled upon by the film, it has opened to almost universal critical praise and box-office victory all over the country. Indeed, several prominent film critics--including Time's Richard Schickel and Newsweek's David Ansen--wondered in print why Crumb wasn't championed at this year's Oscar ceremony by a cadre of columnists and Hollywood powerbrokers like the documentary Hoop Dreams.

"Last year I had to make up my mind whether to submit Crumb," Zwigoff declares. "I went ahead and chose 1994, even though people told me not to, because Hoop Dreams was so PC it was bound to win. Then, after the nominations were announced and the Hoop Dreams controversy started, I read in The New York Times that [Academy voter] Mitchell Block said, 'You know after 20 minutes if a movie is a turkey.' Well, I heard later they shut mine off after 20 minutes.

"When I saw that Crumb was omitted from the documentary nominations, I sent [Academy president] Arthur Hiller a note that included all the film's great reviews. He sent me back a letter saying, in effect, I should be happy to get what I got for a documentary film--so many great reviews."

His final assessment of the Academy is: "Well, I'd just have to say 'Fuck you.' It seems like the more interesting films don't get nominated."

In determining just how commercial he wanted his documentary feature to be, Zwigoff had to make some difficult choices--including the final decision to cut interview footage that featured Robin Williams rhapsodizing on how R. Crumb had influenced his own comic perspective.

"He was very nice and cooperative," Zwigoff asserts. "My producer knew his wife's phone number, so we called him up and asked. He said, 'When and where do you want to film?' The stuff he gave us was wonderful, but it didn't fit the rest of the footage at all, so I decided to leave it out."

Ultimately, perhaps the bravest aspect of Crumb is how the film insists that art doesn't always spring from the noblest intentions, and shouldn't necessarily be expected to uplift us. There's something to be said for indulging (on paper) our most forbidden thoughts and desires--if they help us understand ourselves better.

For 30 years now, Robert Crumb has chronicled the perversity of everyday pleasures--or, perhaps more accurately, the pleasure of everyday perversities--and reminded us that they often spring from a convoluted personal history of love and hate.

"It's not art itself that redeems people," Zwigoff says unapologetically. "Public recognition and money are usually what validates an artist's efforts. Charles and Maxon were both extremely talented, and they wound up nowhere. Robert also drew, but he got the fame and the money and the women."

Crumb. Sony Classics. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Opens July 14.
R. Crumb nervously admits he harbors certain hostilities toward women and cannot defend his most dirty-minded work.

Robert Crumb--a perpetually horny LSD survivor in middle age.

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