The Criterion Collection is one of the world's great creations, and also one of its challenges. There are now over 900 titles regarded as worthy of your time, a number that equates to just over half of the films I have seen in my lifetime. Of that set, including the Eclipse line of films, I have watched under 200, or about 15% of the collection. It's a foolhardy pursuit to attempt to cover the breadth of Criterion's offerings—not to mention an expensive prospect, given the $40 cost of a typical Blu-ray—but the existence of a streaming service like FilmStruck makes that goal feel somewhat more achievable.
One of the ways to combat the paralyzing enormity of something like the Criterion Collection is curation. FilmStruck's splash page offers a listing of recently added and grouped-together films in order to steer you into a specific direction. Of course, if you have a strong will, you could always browse or search your way to a specific film. If you're like me, you may visit the FilmStruck site with plans to watch the next film in your self-imposed Ingmar Bergman marathon—I'm currently at 1951's Summer Interlude—and end up leaving the site with a vague sentiment of desolation, cowed by the tsunami of choices you're forced to turn away in order to stick to your guns.
All of this is to say that I was in a particularly adventurous mood when I selected Terry Zwigoff's Crumb for my recent foray back into FilmStruck (I'm still without a device that allows me directly to stream the service on my television, so Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now tend to be more accessible). I knew little about the eponymous comic book artist of the documentary, other than he is an apparent misanthrope with a penchant for illustrating man's (literally) most base desires in a distinctively cartoonish style. I had seen and been fond of Zwigoff's narrative feature, Ghost World, but was not drawn to Crumb with any particular inclination, no pun intended. The Criterion Channel on FilmStruck, however, had recently listed it among its series of Criterion Collection Editions, in which the service makes temporarily available all of the special features accessible on the hard disc. Thus, Crumb was featured on the homepage, and my erstwhile difficult decision was made for me.
Structurally, Crumb is a surprisingly conventional doc, retracing the life and times of Robert Crumb from his troubled adolescence in a Philadelphia project to his burgeoning fame on Haight St. to his retreat from the public eye and eventual resettlement into obscurity in the south of France with his family. We're introduced to his various immediate family members, including his two brothers, Charles and Maxon, both artists of a sort who were defeated by life in different and sad ways. Charles is a shut-in who still lives with his dotty, in-denial mother, and Maxon is a near-hobo, debilitated by a lifetime of epileptic fits and antisocial compulsions. (Crumb has two sisters who declined to be interviewed for the film.) We also meet Crumb's artist wife, Aline, and his ex-wife Dana, with each of whom he has one child. There are a couple of ex-girlfriends who attached themselves to Crumb's specific brand of intellectual hostility and sexual idiosyncrasy, eventually deeming him too much of a heel to stay with.
There's also Crumb's environment and the way it has changed throughout his life. Through his conversations with his brothers, we get a sense of their financially and socially insecure upbringing under the thumbs of a disappointed, World War II veteran father and drug-addicted mother. Crumb managed to escape, hardly unscathed, into the arms of an accepting counterculture but had too much of a chip on his shoulder from teenaged years of neglect and living on the fringe of cool society. Even when fame and the possibility of extreme wealth reared their heads, the truculent artist waved them dismissively away, as we see him do with most things.
There is also the man himself, a gawky, defiantly unlovable pedant whose bleak outlook on the world gives fuel to a wild imagination and tireless talent. Crumb is rarely without a sketchpad onscreen, and his drawings come together with startling speed and clarity. He is a naturally talented artist whose years of experience enable him to see his own flaws and that of his work with a clear-eyed sense that you rarely get from such individuals. He is also incredibly pretentious and sniveling, looking down his nose at practically anyone and everyone, a Dr. House-like comment never far from his mustachioed lips. As subjects of personal documentaries go, he is simultaneously ever-willing to reveal himself, but sure seems to hate the doing of it.
Zwigoff shoots his subject in a way that is reminiscent of the Maysles's Grey Gardens, particularly in the scenes of ruin in which Crumb's immediate family dwells. It is in the editing that the filmmaking comes together, assembling the narrative both chronologically and thematically. We are guided loosely by the story of Crumb's life, but there are detours into subjects like his complicated yet fervent sexuality, his alleged racism and arguments over the value of his work. We hear from people like Time magazine's art critic, as well as other (female) comic book artists, including Crumb's wife, Aline, who is among the few women who support Crumb's work, despite its apparent misogyny. (Interestingly, all the women who stand by the man are current or former flames of his.) The broadness of the film's scope allows for a more complete picture of the artist, who tempers his massive ego with a pervasive negativity about practically everything, including his own work and his very person.
Crumb is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged asshole, unapologetically so. Zwigoff, in particular, seems to be interested in people who generally have little interest beyond themselves, often as armor against an uncaring world. Anyone who watches the film—or rather, any man—and comes away feeling completely alienated has not given it a close-enough look. There is a Crumb in all of us, although hopefully not as much as there is in Crumb.