Zwigoff animates life of cartoonist Crumb Documentary film explores the world of underground artist


Terry Zwigoff blames his unruly hair on a rainy Baltimore day. But the director has been similarly described in other interviews he's done while promoting his documentary movie about cult underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. His hair-raising "Crumb" opens Friday at the Charles Theater.

Lamenting the journalistic fixation on his messy hair, Mr. Zwigoff comes across as a more genial version of his eternally kvetching subject. Slightly built, bearded and a tad disheveled, the 47-year-old Mr. Zwigoff is like a middle-aged poster child for casual nonconformity. It's little wonder he admiringly mentions the 51-year-old Mr. Crumb's mastery of "how to look like a bum."

Just as the documentary filmmaker takes journalists to task for descriptions like the one above, Mr. Crumb complains in the movie that his public image is usually reduced to three landmark moments in the history of underground comics: his drawings of several bearded men walking down the road in "Keep on Truckin'," the Fritz the Cat character that Ralph Bakshi used as the basis for an X-rated animated movie in 1972, and the famous album cover art he did for Janis Joplin's "Cheap Thrills."

"Crumb" gives us those images but also spends time with other R. Crumb comic-book characters, such as Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont and Angelfood McSpade. The biggest character of all -- Mr. Crumb himself -- is the fascinating, if difficult, center of attention.

Mr. Zwigoff, a longtime friend of the artist, spent six years making the movie and managed to get the cartoonist and his family members to talk about the circumstances that led to such weird, irreverent and popular art.

Both schooled in the countercultural milieu of San Francisco circa 1970, Mr. Zwigoff used to play the cello and Mr. Crumb the banjo in a Dixieland string band called the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Each is an ardent collector of 78 rpm recordings of jazz, blues and ragtime from the 1920s. Indeed, Mr. Zwigoff's love of American "roots" music resulted in his other principal movie credit: directing a documentary, "Louie Bluie," about the blues musician Howard Armstrong.

"We have a shared sense of the absurdity of everyday human existence," says Mr. Zwigoff, who published some of Mr. Crumb's comics in the 1970s. "It's what I always responded to in his work. He has a very cynical, critical view of humanity. I don't think most people are critical enough of our society. . . . The stuff he's criticizing is stuff I'm dealing with, too."

Even so, the reclusive Mr. Crumb initially refused to be the subject of a documentary movie. "He was very reluctant. I was after him for a year. I admire the fact that he doesn't seek to promote himself. He has the love-hate relationship with fame."

Mr. Crumb's jokingly dismissive attitude is a running theme in the film. He shrugs off personal questions. He addresses the camera crew, as if to subvert the documentary assumption that subjects will forget the camera is there and reveal their most personal thoughts.

The onion strategy

Mr. Zwigoff says Mr. Crumb said this when he saw the movie: "It's embarrassing from first frame to last. It's excruciating to watch."

Mr. Zwigoff likens his structural strategy to "peeling back the layers of an onion." We see Mr. Crumb in the present; then, discussions with family members gradually take us back to the childhood forces that shaped him. Though the cartoonist maintains his evasive stance, familial insights are revealed as each layer is peeled back.

The present tense in this documentary is 1993, as Mr. Crumb and his wife are about to move from San Francisco to a rural HTC home in France. The move was the decision of his wife, Aline, also a cartoonist, and Mr. Crumb went along as if taking the course of least resistance.

Of these new foreign digs, Mr. Zwigoff says: "He doesn't speak French, and he likes that. When his wife has dinner parties, he doesn't have to talk and can just sit at the table and draw. Still, he's away in the French countryside, living in a village with nobody under 40, and I think he's sort of bothered and very frustrated by it. He feels he lives in a monastery."

"Crumb" really opens up when it becomes clear the film is ultimately about Mr. Crumb's relationships with family members, including two brothers stranger than himself: the heavily medicated Charles, who never leaves the family home in Philadelphia; and Max, who lives in fleabag hotels where he meditates on a bed of nails. Charles and Max are talented artists who never turned their skill to commercial advantage.

"Making the film was always an investigation of the art," says Mr. Zwigoff. "I wondered why Robert was 'saved' through his art, but his brothers were not."

The two Crumb sisters declined to participate in the documentary. Heard in the film, mostly as an off-screen voice, is their camera-wary mother. And present in malevolent spirit is Mr. Crumb's late father, a Marine whose brutal household discipline makes him seem like a monster of mythic proportions.

Likable eccentrics

"I didn't want to feel I was exploiting this friend of mine, but at the same time I sort of knew the story of the film. I'd met his family," he says, adding that he's bothered by critics who've described the family as crazy. "They're eccentrics and certainly a bit different, but who isn't? I liked all these people, but I didn't mind poking fun at them a bit."

As audiences grope toward an understanding of what makes an artist veer so far from the societal norm, they also must come to terms with Mr. Crumb's politically incorrect subject matter, for which he has been accused of being racist and sexist.

Like a gawky, nerdy, pimply, sex-obsessed American teen-age boy, Mr. Crumb has often visualized women as headless sex objects.

"He and I joke about how he depicts women in his work. I've never been upset," Mr. Zwigoff says calmly. "It's a comic strip; it's not real. If I saw a woman with her head cut off in real life, I'd be disturbed. But it's only in a comic strip.

"I think most men hate women, but he's more honest about it. Most people are too scared to talk about it in public. People are so repressed in this country. The 1950s, when I grew up, was a frightening time. Coming after World War II, everybody was so determined that everything be safe and well around them. But it was a safe world of denial. I felt like I grew up in this deprivation chamber."

Art becomes a safe outlet, he suggests. "Crumb would never rape women. He's too much of a wimp. Getting the idea on paper is how he's kept his sanity."

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