Insensitive artists


Clearly this special edition of Terry Zwigoff’s already-special 1994 documentary on comix maestro Robert Crumb is timed to push ticket sales for Zwigoff’s new fiction feature, Art School Confidential. Yes, the two films are mutually illuminating—Zwigoff bears cinematic witness to the costs of a creative life more forcefully than anybody—but you’ll also find Crumb’s legacy in plain sight among other filmmakers’ current nonfiction fare, like The Devil and Daniel Johnston. That’s because Crumb sets an archetypal precedent. By so rigorously contemplating a depressive solipsist who’s been venerated almost against his will, the film tests our romanticized ideas about how neurosis (and a seriously screwed-up family) seeds creative brilliance and alt-culture cachet.

And it isn’t boring for even five seconds. Zwigoff was blessed with a rich mine of material: First, there’s the art—typically inventive, often sensitive and always aggressive—which qualifies Crumb as either the sometimes-pornographically riveting peddler of “an arrested juvenile vision” or “the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century,” depending on whom Zwigoff asked. Then there’s the man himself, liberated by long ago having given up unsuccessful pretensions to normalcy and being wide open to whatever lurks within his own id. Crumb grapples with his self-evident hostilities to women and sifts through the emotional wreckage of his troubled family, particularly as embodied by his brothers Charles and Maxon, both variously talented and variously doomed.

Zwigoff’s reflections, nudged along through a dialogue with Roger Ebert, seem drastically unpretentious by comparison with some of the blather plaguing many directors’ commentaries. Like his subject, he’s gratifyingly candid, admitting that his initial motives included jealousy of Crumb’s talent or that he faked good test-screening reviews to avoid cutting some of the movie’s tensest—and best—scenes. In many ways, Crumb confirms the important difference between an affected artistic vision and a truly uncompromising one.