Probably the first risqu material worthy of the term "art" that many American males of my generation ever saw was the work of Robert Crumb, king of the underground comics movement of the '60s. The obsessions and family psychology of this prolific cartoonist, most famous in the mainstream for the "Keep On Truckin'" doodle that enjoyed such inexplicable popularity in the early '70s, are the subjects of Crumb. The documentary is by filmmaker, musician and longtime Crumb friend Terry Zwigoff. What you've been hearing about the film is true--it's a very gripping work, funny and bitterly sad at the same time. Since Zwigoff uses conventional modern-documentary style, with nothing especially innovative in his approach, most of the credit for the film's power comes from Zwigoff's intimacy with his subject--the notoriously shy and reclusive Crumb opened up to Zwigoff's camera with amazing candor, and, more significantly, so did his family. To the furtive glances of schoolkids, or of outraged moral arbiters, Crumb's cartoons seem simply to express the anarchy and joyously vulgar spirit of the counterculture, for better and worse. Read more closely, the best of them prove more subtle, more deeply and quietly witty, and more genuinely subversive and non-P.C. than even the counterculture was ever comfortable with. Indeed, Crumb mostly loathed the music and styles of the rock 'n' roll generation that adored his work, and he generally lampooned the counterculture at least as viciously as he did the establishment. He pulled ugly misogyny and racism and dirty, embarrassing sexual fantasies out of himself and presented them with wise, self-deprecating wit, but without apology, in that unmistakable, beautifully dense drawing style. In the film, Time's art critic Robert Hughes calls him a 20th-century Brueghel. Along with such familiar figures as Fritz the Cat, Flakey Foont and the redoubtable Mr. Natural, one of Crumb's most frequently seen characters is himself--the archetypical gawky, skinny, bespectacled nerd. He seems to caricature himself mercilessly, but when you see him on-screen in Zwigoff's film, you realize that his self-portrait is no exaggeration. With Zwigoff playing Boswell to Crumb's Johnson--sounds like a Crumb-y dirty joke might be floating around in there somewhere--we get a fairly full account of the cartoonist's life and times and interests. Most of it, however, will already be familiar to Crumb's fans; most of it was familiar to me. The examples of Crumb's work we are shown are great to see, although I missed my own favorite, Crumb's deadpan and often poignant "Klassic Komic" of R. Von Kraft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. As a portrait of the artist as a witty middle-aged pervert, Crumb is quite proficient, but the film becomes far more extraordinary still when Zwigoff's camera follows Crumb on visits to his mother and two brothers, Charles and Maxon. Crumb's two brothers are both soft-spoken, articulate and rather charming; both are, judging by the examples of their work which we see, not significantly less talented artists than their famous brother. Both were also, at the time they were filmed, deeply unbalanced emotionally--one a lifelong, hermitlike homebody, the other a potentially dangerous sufferer of sexual dysfunction. As Zwigoff probes the family background of these three brothers, searching for clues as to why Robert was able to get by, at least minimally, in society, Crumb turns into a dissection of the nuclear family that is at once hilarious, harrowing and tragic, yet not depressing. It's leavened by the unexpressed love implicit in Robert's sad, nervous laughter as he listens to his brothers talk. At one point in Crumb, Robert confesses sheepishly, "At 5 or 6, I was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny." Those who share this proclivity will want to check out the Bugs Bunny Film Festival '95, at Harkins Centerpoint through August 31--as will all of us who regard Bugs as the embodiment of American native wit and unflappable calm in the face of spluttering rage and manic overconfidence. The 12 Warner Bros. cartoon shorts on the program are vintage items from the '40s and '50s, exquisitely struck from the original negatives. Most were directed by Chuck Jones, but there are a few by Isadore "Friz" Freleng and Robert McKimson. Along with Bugs and his eternal antagonists Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam are first-rate shorts featuring the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, the amorous Pepe LePew, and the infuriating Michigan T. Frog of the classic One Froggy Evening. Buffs may be surprised to see an entry or two they've never encountered before--one called Eight Ball Bunny was new to me. But even if you know every one of them by heart, viewing such gems as Duck Amuck, Bully for Bugs or Bugs and Elmer's stirring Wagnerian turn What's Opera, Doc? on a big screen, untouched by censors, is irresistible. Among cartoon animals, the Warner stable is without peer--everything else is Mickey Mouse.
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