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'Crumb': How Comic Kept On Truckin'

PARK CITY, Utah -- "I don't ski," Terry Zwigoff was moaning. "I don't have a cellular phone. I don't have a bottle of Evian water. I don't belong here."

This was last January at the Sundance Film Festival. He looked unhappily around the bar of the Stein-Erickson Lodge, a vast hotel in the mountains above the ski resort of Park City. Cheerful skiers in Thinsulate parkas were sipping decaf cappuccinos. Zwigoff, who was wearing a beard and a sweater with animals knitted on it, shook his head.

"My movie is about a guy who was the most unpopular kid in high school. I could identify with him because I was, too. Now I come here and I feel like I'm back in high school."

We had met at the lodge to discuss "Crumb," Zwigoff's great and astonishing new documentary about R. (for Robert) Crumb, the San Francisco underground comix artist whose style straddled the 1960s like his famous "Keep on "Truckin'" panel. The movie, now going into national release, is not about underground comics. It is about the way Crumb has hung on by his fingernails to life and sanity, using art as his lifeline. "Crumb" is one of those defining experiences, like "Hoop Dreams," like "Gates of Heaven," that shows you how documentary films can reach parts of the human condition that fiction films don't even know about.

Zwigoff looks like vast stretches of his own human condition need first-aid even as we speak. He is small, intense, with worry lines chiseled between his eyes, and although "Crumb" is an enormous hit (and would win the Sundance prize as best documentary), he almost seems to wonder if it was worth the sacrifices he made to film it.

He spent nine years on his film while averaging an income of "about $200 a month," and "living with back pain so intense that I spent three years with a loaded gun on the pillow next to my bed, trying to get up the nerve to kill myself."

The two of you must have made a great pair, I said. You were making a film about Crumb's misery while you were in greater misery.

"I think that helped. It was very hard to talk him into doing it. I had to call in every favor he owed me. We'd been friends for awhile. He just wasn't interested; he doesn't like publicity."

In the film, we meet R. Crumb, his mother, his brothers Charles and Max, his wife, and various friends. We do not meet his two sisters, who wanted nothing to do with the film (one of them, Zwigoff said, has demanded "reparations" of $400 a month from Crumb for his "crimes against women"). There is a great deal about Crumb's art: his in-your-face caricatures of greedy, lustful, violent, scatological characters, flaunting their needs, perversions and desires. There is much more about the conditions that produced it, and as we watch "Crumb" the portrait of an bizarre, dysfunctional family emerges.

There is great unease about Crumb's father, who looks terrifyingly normal in family photographs but severely punished his sons. There is a visit to the family home, occupied by Crumb's mother and by his brother, Charles--who was the first cartoonist in the family, but withdrew to permanent seclusion an upstairs bedroom, never drawing again, or leaving the house. We also meet Max, a San Francisco monk who sits on a bed of nails, drawing a long linen cloth through his intestinal tract to cleanse it, and is also an artist. Crumb was obviously deeply wounded not only by his family, but by high school, where, deeply unpopular, he developed his fixation on women with hefty haunches. One of the few sources of pleasure for his male cartoon characters is riding piggy-back on callipygian girl friends; after Crumb does the same thing at a gallery opening of his work, we understand that the practice is literally, and sincerely, autobiographical.

We also learn that many of the characters who occur frequently in his drawings and comic strips are based quite closely on people he hated or lusted after in high school, and that much of his work is an elaborate process of revenge. As we get to know him and meet his family, it becomes clear that this artistic process has somehow held him together, and perhaps spared him the sorts of existence that trapped his brothers.

"When I started," Zwigoff told me, "I was doing a more conventional biography of what I thought was one of the great artists of our time. But things that led in different directions ultimately shaped the film. I just kept going back to his family; maybe because I was going through this intense psychotherapy at the time. The reason I hit it off with Charles--or Robert himself, for that matter--was because I was just like those guys in high school."

It seems as if Robert's art became a way for him to deal directly with the issues in his life.

"I think the larger part of what kept Robert the saner member of the family was the success from his artwork, not the art itself. Just getting it on paper alone in a room obviously didn't help Max or Charles too much."

Robert is always smiling, I said. It's like everything is a wry joke: Boy, my family is crazy and weird and isn't this funny... "He's laughing to keep from crying." Zwigoff said.

There's one moment when he's talking about his father, and he lapses into silence, and we see this infinite sadness in his face. "Yeah, it's where he says his father never spoke to him again after seeing one of his comics. It's a rare, off guard moment. He's very media savvy and knows enough to keep a front on."

There are several times in the film, I said, where Robert becomes the interviewer, questioning his mother or brothers for your sake. "He's was very helpful to me in that way. But there were other times he was completely uncooperative and seemed to be trying to sabotage the film. I had known him for a long time, and we had played in this same crummy band together. After he agreed to the film, I said the only way I really wanted to do it was by including Charles and Max and his mother.

"I'd met them in the early 1970s. I was traveling with him to New York and he said, 'Why don't we just pull over and stay at my parents' house? I haven't seen them in a couple of years. Would you mind spending a night there?' I spent this incredibly memorable night at their house talking to Charles and his mother, and really liked them a lot, and I always thought it would be no film without them. Of course I had no idea at that point how much they would figure into the film.

"So when we started the film, Robert called them on the phone. They remembered me, they liked me, so yeah, okay, they'd do the film, you know, whatever. So a couple of months later I hired a crew and we got to the motel and his mother said no, she wouldn't film. He went over there and couldn't get a real answer out of her. We were in this motel room for four days. Finally I talked to her all day and she sort of warmed up and said, 'Okay, okay--but you can only do Charles upstairs in his room.' So we filmed him and we're coming down the stairs and my cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, a French woman, says, 'Terry, we must film the mother.' I said I asked her like a hundred times; she doesn't want to be filmed. 'Let me place the light. We will just start filming her.' She throws up this light and his mother is really angry and cursing us and screaming.

"I said, 'Take the light down and let's just go; leave her alone.' 'No, no, we just do it.' So as soon as she turns the camera on his mother, she says, 'Oh, well, it's too late now; I'm in the movie.' And she really got into it."

The scenes upstairs in Charles' bedroom are among the most haunting in the film. Literate, intelligent, and even amused by his own predicament, he has a stack of battered paperbacks, which he reads and re-reads, and in a closet there is artwork from his brief productive period in his teens. He talks about his lifelong obsession with the 1950 version of the film "Treasure Island" and its young hero, played by Bobby Driscoll, who in a sense represents all of the daring that the agoraphobic Charles was never able to muster.

"The one night we spent at his house," Zwigoff said, "two blocks away, the local movie theater, which had been there since they were kids, was playing 'Treasure Island' on a re-release. Robert was trying to talk Charles into going and Charles was going through his unbelievable dilemma. He didn't want to leave the house but he was dying to see this movie again. Robert said, 'Look, me and Terry will walk you over there. We'll sit with you; we'll bring you back.' He couldn't leave the house."

The film was "technically" shot between 1985 to 1991, Zwigoff said, "but there's a period there, about 1986 through 1988 where my back was so bad I was in bed most of the time, suicidal." While filming was going on Crumb's reputation was continuing to grow, nourished by the current popularity of comics and graphic novels about Generation X, and the boom in 1960s art among collectors. Shortly after principal photography was finished, Crumb, his wife and their daughter Sophie moved permanently to the south of France.

"Sophie's 11 now," Zwigoff said. "She's directed her first film; a 90-minute film, feature length. She wrote it, she cast it, she shot it. I asked Robert if it's any good and he said, 'I don't speak a word of French. I can't tell if it's any good.' But he said that technically it's amazing. There are these long, sophisticated tracking shots. He said she studies 'Touch of Evil' on videotape, and is a very happy, well-adjusted kid. "

Are they happier over there?

"He seems to be happier than I've ever known him. He's coming to the states in May. For some bizarre reason he agreed to go on the Garrison Kiellor Show. We have this pretty terrible band that we've had for years, called the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and agreed to go on this show, you know. Turned down the Letterman Show and all these other things but radio was okay."

He doesn't seem too concerned about making a lot of money or becoming famous with his art.

"He was offered, like, millions to license the 'Keep on Truckin' drawing for Toyota, but they only wanted that one drawing. He wanted to sell them a lot of other stuff. He tells them, 'How about I have this girl with her head cut off being stuffed into the trunk of the Toyota?' When they didn't go for that, he turned them down."

What happened to R. Crumb's brothers, Charles and Max, after the filming of the documentary? The following is a spoiler; read no further until you've seen the film, where some developments come as dramatic revelations.

For Charles, life in the upstairs bedroom grew increasingly pointless, and eventually he took his own life. "He saved up an overdose of his medication to kill himself," Zwigoff told me. "Robert called me up to tell me that Charles had killed himself. I was very upset, but Robert just sorta said, 'Well, he was good as dead anyway.' Real callous about it. But later I talked to somebody who happened to be staying at his house when his mother called him and told him. And I asked, 'How did he react when that phone call came in?' And he said, 'He acted like he didn't care, but then I heard him all night long. He went up to his studio and he was pacing all night'." "Charles was the guy he was closest to in the entire world; the one who really shaped his whole sense of humor and his art. It was a big, devastating blow to him. And yet, he was right: Charles was sort of dead already." After Charles died, his mother destroyed all of his artwork and the elaborate journals that are seen in the film, before Robert could rescue them. What's the follow-through story on Max? "Max isn't doing too well. He called me from the hospital a couple of months ago. He'd lost about 40 pounds and he had weird nervous damage to his legs." Probably from sitting on that bed of nails. "No, it's actually a vitamin deficiency. The doctors theorize he had this severe deficiency of Vitamin B-12. He has these crazy theories of diet and nutrition so they got him all screwed up but they were getting him better by giving him vitamin injections and he eventually left the hospital. You know, in the film...I didn't even touch the surface on Max."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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