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  Crumb We're A Happy Family
Year: 1994
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Stars: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Robert Hughes, Martin Muller, Don Donahue, Dana Crumb, Trina Robbins, Spain Rodriguez, Deirdre English, Peggy Orenstein, Beatrice Crumb, Kathy Goodell, Dian Hanson, Jesse Crumb, Sophie Crumb
Genre: Documentary, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 5 votes)
Review: Cult comic book artist Robert Crumb is best known, he thinks, for three things. First, the "Keep on Trucking" logo, which brought him nothing but financial woes; second, the cover to the Janis Joplin album Cheap Thrills, which brought him no reward whatsoever, despite it making a lot of money for other people; and third, Fritz the Cat, most of whose notoriety rests on the film adapted from Crumb's comic which he hated so much that he had the character killed with an ice pick in a later issue. This film follows Crumb as he talks about his work, then also meets his family to sketch in his background, and speaks to critics and old friends to discuss whatever merit his art has. All the while, Crumb prepares to move from his home in America to France with his wife Aline and their daughter.

It's no surprise that Crumb hated this film too, perhaps because of the exposure it gave him - literally. But for a man whose work is so confessional, we maybe should be a little taken aback by his reaction until you watch the film and realise that his story is not being told by him on his own controlling terms, but by Terry Zwigoff, who doggedly followed his subject around for years of economic hard times to see his project come to fruition. The heart of the film is the dysfunctional Crumb family, from the raging, abusive father (deceased by the time of filming) and mollycoddling mother to their five offspring. Crumb's sisters declined to be interviewed, so we don't know how well they turned out, but his troubled brothers Charles and Maxon are willing to open up for the camera.

Following Crumb's life since childhood, the documentary paints as revealing a picture as one of his own comic books. Starting with his early obsession with legs and his lust for Bugs Bunny, things just get stranger, but with the comic books never far away - in fact, it was Charles who made Robert draw in the first place, and keep on drawing throughout their childhoods, a habit he never broke. But while Robert drew other things as well, for the maladjusted Charles the comics were the be all and end all, eventually demonstrating strong signs of his deteriorating mind. Meanwhile, the self confessed nerd Robert was trying to show his sensitive side in the hope that he would attract girls, but found out bitterly that they were only interested in the most obnoxious tough guys who bullied him.

Nevertheless, his artwork saved him and gave him a channel for his frustrations. While his peers were turning into hippies and listening to rock, Crumb was seeking out old jazz records and refusing to grow his hair; however, he did try LSD (or something like it) which had a crucial effect on his drawing, his style loosened up and became more surreal, and he began selling his comics in significant volumes. Over time, his work became more sexual and disturbing in tone, leaving him open to criticism which you get the impression he both relishes and despairs about - critics interviewed like fellow artist Trina Robbins find his later work pornographic in the worst sense, putting out fantasies that are best left private, as we see when Crumb talks us through a strip featuring the sexual exploitation of a living, headless, woman's body.

What drives Crumb, according to this film, is a reaction against repression: the suppressed emotions of his family life and the inhibited culture of America. His exuberant artwork, with its wide eyed, wacky surface and twisted undercurrents, are at best, expressions of his total honesty. Crumb, as we witness, is a constant complainer, admitting he's never been in love and only drawing and his jazz records seeming to satisfy him. We see how he could have turned out by looking at his brothers: cowed, middle aged Charles has lived with his mother all his life and is kept from his suicidal thoughts by heavy medication, while Maxon is an epileptic who fights the urge to molest women and sits on a board of nails for comfort. It's easy to see why audiences made this film a cult hit, either for its freakshow, "At least I'm not as fucked up as those guys" aspect, or for showing the alienated that they're not alone in their worries even if they don't share Crumb's preoccupations. Whichever, the result is fascinating.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Terry Zwigoff  (1948 - )

American director who worked in a wide variety of menial jobs before directing his first feature, the blues documentary Louie Bluie in 1986. Another documentary, Crumb (1994), was a moving portrait of subversive comic book artist Robert Crumb that won great acclaim, as did his adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ comic Ghost World and the subversive Christmas comedy Bad Santa. He worked again with Clowes to adapt the mocking Art School Confidential.

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