Crumb (1995): Director Zwigoff on Making his Landmark Documentary

Along with Hoop Dreams, the decade’s other most critically acclaimed documentary was Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, a biographical account of acidic cartoonist R. Crumb, of Zap comics and “Keep on Truckin.” Terry Zwigoff’s film isn’t just a portrait of the artist; it’s also an inquiry into the mysteries of art, the nature of creativity, and issues of mental illness and family bind.

Crumb was very emotional in his reaction to the film. He told Zwigoff that after watching it, he took his favorite hat of 20 years and threw it off a cliff, “because he didn’t want to be R. Crumb anymore.”

Begun in 1985, and completed for $200,000 about 8 years later, Crumb took root “simply because Robert’s a great artist,” said Zwigoff, whose previous films include Louie Bluie, a portrait of obscure blues musician Howard Armstrong, and A Family Named Moe, a documentary on the history of Hawaiian music.

The film chronicles the twisted, biting comic book art of R. Crumb, the artist’s gushing misanthropy, self-deprecation, revelations of glaring misogyny and sexual pathology. But in showing the link of genius to madness, the film keeps coming back to the family, and rewardingly so. Rather shockingly, there is little separation between life and art: Crumb turned the semi-psychotic material of bent adolescence into art, while his brothers were consumed and destroyed by it. The artist becomes black magician here, drawing strength from the dismay of others.

According to Crumb’s wife, Robert thought that the docu would be “some small arty thing,” not realizing “what the film might do to Robert’s life.” “Obviously, it’s an incredibly moving film, and there was no betrayal on Terry Zwigoff’s part, but for Robert it’s a devastatingly intimate look at things he doesn’t want to look at.” “It’s very anxiety-producing to have this kind of information about you and your family out for anyone to see…For people who don’t know us I’m sure it will be very interesting, but we’d bother prefer the film didn’t exist.”

Zwigoff wasn’t interested in doing a “straight biography,” but he didn’t expect the family to figure as prominently in the film as it does. “I think the only reason he let me film them was because he was convinced the film would never be finished-and that if it was, it wouldn’t be seen by anybody. He’s extremely upset that Sony Pictures picked it up and that it looks like it may be successful.”

Zwigoff achieved his intent, elevating the respect for R. Crumb as an artist. But viewers also come away haunted by Crumb’s family, particularly his older brother Charles, who committed suicide in 1993, shortly after the film wrapped.

The artist remembers his father as a “grim guy with a hard-ass attitude about life who thought my mother was mollycoddling all of us–who she was.” The mollycoddling ended in the 1950s when their mother became addicted to amphetamines (in an attempt to control her weight) and developed a wrath to match her husband’s. Mother and father fought constantly, and his mother, who often threatened to punish her children with the administration of enemas, would scratch his father’s face “until it looked like ground hamburger.”

“People may think I looked for the sensationalistic aspects of Robert’s life but they don’t know the half of it,” Zwigoff says. “There’s lots of very wild stuff I chose not to include in the film for a variety of reasons.

As to why Crumb’s art functioned as a healing force in his life, but failed to for his brothers, Zwigoff said: “It’s because he got positive feedback for it. It was the success Robert’s art brought him, rather than simply getting the stuff out on paper, that had a positive effect on his life.

Robert’s a wonderful father, and over the course of Sophie’s life he’s become much more patient and compassionate. “Robert could always cope better than his brothers,” Zwigoff says. “Charles was completely existential and was mired in the belief that life is so absurd there’s barely any point in living it. I wasn’t surprised when he committed suicide, although it worries me that maybe the film had something to do with his decision to finally take his own life.”

He told me when we were filming him that his one hope in life was that he’d live long enough that his mother would pass away and he’d be able to return to Haverford State Mental Hospital, where he’d spent what he considered to be the best years of his life. He had a bit of a social life there, playing cards with the other inmated-he really was very lonely.”

Crumb ends in 1993, with the artist and wife Aline preparing to move from his home near Davis, California, to Southern France, which he considers “slightly less evil” than the U.S.

David Lynch, who’s credited as the film’s presenter, considers Crumb one of the best films “about how artists actually work.” According to Lynch, what Crum dislikes about the film is the very thing people are responding to–the family issues. Most people I know had pretty twisted childhoods,” Lynch said. “I think that’s the norm rather than the exception and an amazing number of people recognize their own lives in this story.”