The controversial of Terry Zwigoff’s documentary, Crumb (1994), lies on its subject matter – the underground comic artist Robert Crumb. Mostly recognized by his X-rated character like Frits the Cat and Mr. Natural, audience who performs no knowledge on Robert Crumb may be disturbed by the explicit sexual content of his drawing. Zwigoff neither portrays Robert Crumb from a specific perspective, it simply presents Robert Crumb’s story to the audience unadulterated, nor Zwigoff attempts to judge Robert Crumb or his works. In a sense, the audience is handed the responsibility of judging for itself, as Zwigoff is more interested in exploring the motivation force that hidden behind Robert Crumb.
The structure of Crumb is rather simple. It is organized as a series of journey in which Zwigoff follows Robert Crumb around. While some critics credit Robert Crumb in leading the film’s direction (Rhodes: 2), they omit the diligent of Zwigoff. Through Robert Crumb, audience is introduced to his drawings, his childhood, his family, his friends and etc. By choosing Robert Crumb as the narrator of the film, Zwigoff gives up his control of events in front of the camera. In return, this approach gains greater authenticity and affords the audience the opportunity to look in on and overhear the live of Robert Crumb (Kilborn & Izod: 66-68).
On the other hand, a few critics, comic artists and gallery owners are allowed to talk directly into the camera without Robert Crumb’s present. Here, Zwigoff utilizes the technique of interactive documentary. He employs the on-camera interviews as a means of recording the testimonies of the interviewees. Zwigoff then edits the interview sequences in a logical manner between different viewpoints (Kilborn & Izod: 71-72).
Robert Crumb’s comic is highly controversial in view of its outrageous content. The brilliance of Zwigoff is that he presents the audience both sides of the arguments. In the film, Robert Hughes, a Time magazine art critic asserts that Robert Crumb uses graphic art as social criticism. It serves as a tool for Robert Crumb in exposing the underside of American consciousness, turning comics into a pertinent social portrait of politics, drugs and religion (Rhodes: 1). Critics such as Hughes also defends Robert Crumb's work as a necessary acknowledgement of desires which exist and need to be recognized and dealt with rather than suppressed, ignored, and allowed to continue existing in silence (Rhodes: 1).
Counterpoised to this viewpoint are perspectives such as the one held by Trina Robbins, a fellow cartoonist. Robbins is adamant that Robert Crumb has gone over the line from social satire to pornography. She accuses Robert Crumb’s irresponsibility to put those types of sexual desires into comic (Rhodes: 2). It is between these two camps of necessity versus obscenity that much of the film's discussion of Robert Crumb's work takes place. Zwigoff does not skew or emphasize either of the critical argument. Both are allowed to articulate their opinions. Apparently, the Zwigoff asks the audiences to draw their own conclusion.
The issue of whether Crumb's comic satirizes or supports its racist, sexist content is debated throughout the film. However, it is not the extent of the film’s concerns (Swire: 1). Zwigoff intends to search for the psyche that is hidden beneath Crumb’s drawings. As a result, much of Crumb is scene concerning Robert Crumb with his two brothers, Charles and Max. Through their dialogue, Zwigoff creates an image of Robert Crumb and the influences underlying his "creativity." His dysfunctional family is certainly the major causes. Charles is a psychotic who attempts suicide on constant basis and finally "succeeds" one year after the film releases. Max, an unsuccessful cartoonist on the other hand, is a sex offender who spends several hours a day meditating on a nail bed. The audience, while perhaps enthralls by Robert Crumb’s psyche, yet to find that he appears to be the normal one in comparison to his two brothers, Charles and Max (Leeper: 2).
As well, by setting up this comparison, Zwigoff raises questions concerning public’s attitude towards celebrities. The three Crumb’s brothers are similar in a sense that they are all "insane." Or in another word, they do not function under the cultural norm. However, if the comic of Robert Crumb is acceptable, why do the audience and the society in general rejects Charles and Max? Does fame and fortune extends people’s tolerance? Crumb is the sort of documentary capable of prompting the audience to evaluate a great deal more than the psyche or works of a single man.
With Robert Crumb’s cooperation, Zwigoff receives access to shoot in Crumb’s family situations that are as funny, frank and revelatory as Crumb’s drawings. Despite filmed over a six-year period, Crumb does not attempt to be a complete chronicle of Crumb’s life. Zwigoff sets off to investigate the forces, which contribute to Crumb’s comic that has been called everything from satirical genius to pornographic filth.
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