Film Reviews

Takes the cake

The biggest controversy at this year's Academy Awards was the omission of Hoop Dreams from the Best Documentary category. That film dealt with two families struggling to survive economic hardship, framed by the saga of two teenage boys pressured to make the NBA and rescue their households.

But also snubbed by Academy voters was another feature-length documentary that dealt--at least in part--with the travails of a family, and in terms of sheer visceral impact and scorching authenticity, it was easily the peer of Hoop Dreams. Don't be surprised, however, that you didn't hear the same cacophonous support for Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, an astonishing invasion into the sludgy, prolific, pathological mind of R. Crumb, the legendary underground comix artist who gave us Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and dozens of other polymorphous perversities.

Where Hoop Dreams took the desperate hopes of struggling Americans and turned them into a benevolent morality play, Zwigoff plunged a scalpel straight into the cerebrums of Crumb and his psychically crippled brothers, Charles and Maxon. The result is hardly what you'd call uplifting, but no American documentary has so intuitively linked an individual's inner universe with the experiences and the people who shaped it since Ira Wohl's 1979 Best Boy.

Ostensibly, Crumb is a profile of the Philadelphia-born, 52-year-old illustrator, a man whose LSD-charged mini-epics for San Francisco-based Zap Comix defined the seamier side of the '60s Haight-Ashbury experiment. He created grotesque stream-of-conscious adventures that involved monstrously deformed women--sometimes headless, sometimes with huge carnivorous jaws or grotesque facial distortions, but always with monumental breasts and buttocks--who chased or were being chased by mindlessly horny circus geeks.

Crumb was right there on the scene, hanging out with Janis and Jimi, chugging hallucinogens, but never quite surrendering himself to the whole counterculture image. He maintained his short hair, coke-bottle eyeglasses, and an arrested-adolescent preoccupation with his own fetishistic sexual tastes, all carried over from a working-class childhood in which his father started beating him when he was five, his mother suffered horrendous mood swings from the prescription amphetamines she took to stay skinny, and Crumb was caught amidst a sadistic talent competition waged constantly with his two brothers. The threesome started drawing their own comics together in grade school.

But if Robert (that's what the "R" stands for), Charles, and Maxon had a shitty childhood, adulthood swooped in like a screeching eagle on Charles and Maxon. As Zwigoff interviews Charles in his mother's shabby Philadelphia street-front apartment, he's a tranquilizer-stoned depressive with a long history of suicide attempts who's been supported by his mother since he graduated from high school. The director finds Maxon in San Francisco, an epileptic with a history of molestation arrests who also doesn't work--he receives welfare and begs on the street for the rest of his livelihood.

Zwigoff identifies the undercurrents of influence from Crumb's brothers, ex-lovers, friends, and his mother pulsing through the comics, albeit reworked with extreme hostility. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to separate the freak-show surreality of the artist's strips with the weird anecdotes Zwigoff elicits from Crumb's associates.

Crumb himself is a gangly, cheerful figure who spends most of the film expressing his hatred for American commercialism, discussing in graphic terms a titanic libido that leads him to masturbate four or five times daily (most often over his own work) and refuse monogamy (even with his current wife), and reconjuring painful memories with Charles and Maxon.

When the three of them laugh about receiving enemas as punishments or Maxon's compulsive need to disrobe female strangers in public, there's a palpable defeat in the conversations that makes their humor sound like the last breaths of dying men. All the while, the music that R. Crumb collects so passionately, vintage ragtime and blues on vinyl, rolls along the soundtrack to lend the proceedings a melancholy dignity.

I hope I haven't scared people away from this searing study of wounded creativity. There's plenty of bawdy humor, never a hint of self-pity from anyone, and R. Crumb demonstrates he's maintained a relatively balanced, productive life--based on the fact he can keep those demons caged in his squalid, twisted art. Crumb is an American masterpiece.

--Jimmy Fowler

Crumb screens Tuesday, April 25, at 7 p.m. with Terry Zwigoff in attendance

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