I approached Criterion’s release of Crumb with one question, “Why?” Why was a 15-year-old documentary about underground comic artist Robert Crumb getting a Criterion Blu-ray release? Wouldn’t a DVD release suffice for a film that’s already seen a 1999 and 2006 DVD release? What could possibly be so stirring that this needed to be presented in 1080p, 24-bit audio? It’s this line of questioning that allowed me to see director Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb for the absolute stunner it is, and this is coming from someone whose penchant for documentaries isn’t exactly outgoing.
Anyone that tries to tell you what Crumb is about is likely to give you a different description from one to the next. Included with this release is an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and he hits this fact right on the head with his opening ‘graph, describing the film as a “classic” but then asking what kind:
A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it?
Rosenbaum concludes Crumb is all of these things (though I get the feeling he falls more into the category of his final statement) and he’s right… at least on the surface. Crumb is all these things and you’re likely to get one of those answers or the pat “it’s about a misunderstood artist” if you ask anyone after they see it. To cite one or all answers isn’t wrong, but it’s a matter of which category you lean furthest to that’s important to your own appreciation for the feature.
In my search to answer my question of “Why?” I found the cultural aspect to be the most prevalent. I have no idea how far before each title is released that the Criterion crew goes about deciding which films to release, but Crumb is a perfect retort to Mr. Brainwash in Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop released earlier this year. Where Crumb scoffs at the idea of doing the artwork for a Rolling Stones cover, Mr. Brainwash brings his unoriginal approach to art to Madonna’s “Celebration” album cover. Crumb laughs at the idea of consumerism and seems disinterested in his own fame, while others revel in it and look for the quickest path to the big bucks.
Why release Crumb on Criterion Blu-ray? Why now? My only response, is to assume Criterion was interested in offering a 15-year-old perspective that remains relevant today. Whether through his words or his art, Crumb takes a look at life for what it is. Our society has grown increasingly materialistic, a sentiment that isn’t in anyway original, but to say it through Crumb’s unique artistic perspective does add something of a new spin.
Of course, this film also explores family dysfunction and sexual obsession as Rosenbaum says. The story of Crumb’s brother, Charles, is heart-breaking and the included artwork of his brothers Charles, Jesse and Maxon in the liner notes as well as an eight-page “Famous Artist Talent Test” application as seen in the film and completed by Charles Crumb adds to the story in ways words cannot.
For a film of this sort to get the high definition upgrade it has to be special and Crumb is. While Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation isn’t likely to have viewers looking at this film in a whole new light it does present the best picture you’re likely to get. The transfer appears to remain accurate when compared to the source without any tinkering outside of standard dust and scratch removal. The picture only truly seems to benefit when the artwork is on display, as the rest of the film looks like a 15-year-old film and this isn’t a complaint.
The features include 52 minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary, a stills gallery and two audio commentaries, one from 2006 with Zwigoff and Roger Ebert and a new one recorded in April 2010 with Zeigoff on his own. The supplements add to the overall value, but the film itself is more fun to explore without the additional perspective. I think a lot can be learned from this film alone, without the help of Zwigoff, though his reflections on the picture are interesting.
As far as a recommendation goes, I think this is definitely a title to consider. Strangely I think the comic-obsessed online masses would love this film, but they are likely not to even learn of this film’s new release, even though they would likely find a kindred spirit as its source. Zwigoff has expertly taken a six year film shoot and turned it into an excellent two hour documentary and something you absolutely must see.