What kind of mind invented “Fritz the Cat” or first drew that amiable line of grinning “Keep on Truckin”’ figures that adorn so many of the nation’s mud flaps? Just who is R. Crumb?
In search of the answer, director Terry Zwigoff created a documentary called simply “Crumb,” which is every bit as quirky as the man who gave “Zap!” comics their crackle and pop in the counter-culture 1960s. And while the artist remains just as much of an enigma by the end of this engrossing journey, it is somehow reassuring to discover that the man who draws those gnarled, spaced-out, cross-hatched cartoon characters is as strange and curious as his artwork.
What makes this low-budget, low-key movie so fascinating is the realization that this driven, self-taught pop artist is merely one member of an idiosyncratic family of Crumbs. Listen to Robert’s older brother, Charles, a recluse in his ditsy mother’s home for 30 years before he took his own life a year after “Crumb” was filmed. Watch younger brother Max, a self-described sex offender, eat string and then recline on a bed of nails. Then look again at Crumb’s drawings. Suddenly, they seem like a perfectly normal reflection of the world around him.
Zwigoff stands back and points his camera, collecting crumbs of clues to the essence of “Crumb.” A rigid Marine father who disapproved of his “wimpy” sons. An obsession with comic books that grew into a sexual attraction at age 6 for Bugs Bunny. Awkward teenage years during which he learned that drawing is also a way to attract girls. The attainment of celebrity proved to be uncomfortable for the perpetually shy Crumb.
“Crumb” takes its subject’s art seriously, even as it looks bug-eyed at the Crumbs as social misfits. Zwigoff lines up a parade of art world professionals who reach for high-blown historical parallels to praise Crumb’s work to excess. Time magazine critic Robert Hughes is heard calling him “the Breughel of the 20th century.” To gallery owner Martin Muller, Crumb is “the Daumier of our time.”
Eventually, Zwigoff brings up some tough questions concerning the nature of Crumb’s fixations. Are his big-breasted cartoon women exploitative? Aren’t his caricatures of thick-lipped jungle natives racist? If his art is to be taken seriously, questioning their social context - even decades later - seems fair game. Tidily, however, Zwigoff brings up these issues, gets a few unsurprising sound bite opinions, but never looks below the surface of the debate.
Zwigoff’s enjoyment of Crumb and his comics is a given from the start of the movie. “Crumb” is out to celebrate an artist who many have taken for granted and others have simply dismissed. Of course, you get the impression that either reaction would be just fine with Crumb, who would probably shrug, sigh and return to his sketch pad.
“Crumb” asks us to pause and consider the nature of art and its connection to the artist. It is also enormously entertaining, in an odd way.
xxxx “CRUMB” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Terry Zwigoff Running time: 1:59 Rating: R (for language and sexually explicit drawings)