It's kind of fitting that Criterion is releasing their deluxe edition of Terry Zwigoff's documentary 'Crumb,' about the life of weirdo cartoonist Robert Crub, right after the death of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar was a longtime associate of Robert Crumb's and Crumb illustrated one of Pekar's early comic books. They both loved comic books and old records and they were both superstars of the underground comics movement. There's a great moment in 'American Splendor' (the fictionalized account of Pekar's life, itself a fantastic movie), where Crumb (played by 'Venture Bros' stalwart James Urbaniak) offers to draw one of Pekar's scripts. "It's really funny," Crumb says, in that nebbish, nasal way that betrays something darker just underneath the surface.
Of course, the great thing about Zwigoff's documentary, is that it shows both sides of Crumb. The man is a genius, this is unquestionable, and his artwork, with its unique, sometimes profoundly disturbing mixture of 70s-album-cover wiggles and Golden Age comic book crosshatching is as immediately recognizable as any contemporary American artist. He seems to have been embraced by both the comics underground community (virtually any indie comic artist today cites him as a chief influence) and the more artistically highbrow circles (he's frequently published, to this day, in The New Yorker).
Crumb is the creator of such infamous characters as Fritz the Cat (immortalized as an iffy Ralph Bakshi movie) and Mr. Natural and most recently made waves last year with his illustrated version of the Book of Genesis. (It was complete brilliance.) With his exaggerated, birdlike features and proclivity towards archaic styles and tastes (he dresses like a 1930s jazz patron and loves old styles of music). Much of the movie is other people interacting with Crumb and fawning over him.
And yet, there is a dark side.
Zwigoff, while clearly a friend and admirer, goes to some pretty dark places in the documentary. For one, he not only chronicles Robert Crumb but also gives lots of screen time to two of his siblings, brothers Maxon and Charles. Maxon seems to be suffering from schizophrenia, besides himself being a talented artist, lives in a dilapidated hotel room and spends much of the day panhandling for change. Charles is even more troubled: a middle-aged man with clear mental health issues who still lives with his mother. Just looking at Charles, chubby, with bad teeth, sweating profusely before Zwigoff's cameras makes you feel deeply sad. And in the year between when Zwigoff filmed Charles and the movie's release, Charles had killed himself.
There are also outspoken critics of Crumb's comics, especially the ones that are overtly sexual or violent (or a potent mixture of the two). There is much time in the movie given to an interview with a prominent British art critic who works in the United States who thinks Crumb is the greatest thing since sliced bread. There is also time given to critics of Crumb's who find his occasionally difficult themes, like incest and rape, unacceptable, especially in the child-attracting form of comics. More time still is given to Crumb's weird sexual proclivities, which seem to fit into his bizarre personality.
As a whole, the film, which was presented by David Lynch, is an exquisite portrait of an artist. Crumb is a creative force of nature, you want to frame everything he doodles in his little notebook, and inside that force of nature is a troubled, dark soul. Like most artists, his work is his therapy, and you can feel, at the end of the movie, that this man boy who loves to draw phalluses and breasts, might, finally, be growing up. Zwigoff, using his deadpan sense of humor and keen comedic timing that he would use in later, scripted films like 'Ghost World' and 'Bad Santa,' does a great job of capturing Crumb's demons without ever making the man seem demonic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Crumb' comes to high definition courtesy of the Criterion Collection (spine # 533), which means an extra chunky plastic box. The 50GB disc is Region A locked. One of the most touching aspects of the packaging, actually, is the fact that they acknowledged that Charles, Robert's brother, is really the heart of the documentary (he is). The back of the cover is the indecipherable scribbling from Robert's journals. Also included, along with the great booklet, is the "Famous Artists Talent Test" that Charles intentionally failed, filled with his wrinkled doodles. It really is a breathtaking package; the only time a box has made me well up a little bit.
The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (maintaining the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio) is quite good. It's not going to blow your mind or make your eyes pop out like one of Crumb's drawings or anything, but it is certifiably good.
According to the accompanying booklet: "'Crumb' is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. Approved by director Terry Zwigoff, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 16 mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
So, clearly, a lot of work went into this transfer. Keep in mind this was made in the rough-and-tumble early 90s for what probably amounted to pocket change. When you watch the special features, comprised of nearly an hour of "raw" footage, you get the feeling that this transfer could have been a whole lot worse.
And while it is very good, there are some instances of inexcusable damage. At one point, a giant, jagged blue line slices through the image, which looked like some gnarled lab splice and surely could have been taken care of at some point in the restoration process. But this is a minor quibble; the splice and other instances of large dirt and debris only adds to the hand sewn quality of the movie and doesn't really detract much.
Other than some annoying instances like that, the film looks remarkably good. Skin tones look good, black levels are deep, and even though a whole host of technological processes were used to clean up the movie, there's nary a hint of digital manipulation or the dreaded, ghostly effects of DNR.
The disc's lone audio track, a fine English LPCM Mono track (with optional English subtitles), is more consistent than the video quality.
It's a mono track, so it's obviously not going to knock anybody out, but the main thing is that you can hear, crisp and cleanly, all of the interviewees and make out what they're saying, which you can. Also, the music, both the original pieces from David Boeddinghaus and the old time records that Crumb plays throughout the film, sound dynamic and lively.
From the booklet, again, I quote: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm monaural magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
It sounds about as good as a mono track from a documentary made in the 90s is going to sound. It was quite good.
All the extras presented here are also on the DVD release, which is being released simultaneously. Some of the stuff was on the previously released DVD, but much of it is new.
'Crumb' is a really wonderful documentary. Like its chief subject matter, it's a little loony, a little bizarre, a little dark, and very, very, almost painfully human. If you were a fan when the film came out in the mid-90s, this is a no brainer. With enhanced, if not exactly perfect audio and video, and a host of worthwhile features, it's one for the collection. If you only kind of like 'Crumb' or haven't seen it before and are intrigued by the man, the filmmakers, or that little 'C' in the corner of the box, well, it's still highly recommended.