Terry Zwigoff’s penetrating, thoughtful, and disturbing 1994 essay about the great underground comic artist Robert Crumb, best known for Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural as well as his Keep On Truckin’ drawings, though also a semiprofessional musician and connoisseur of early jazz and blues. Made over a six-year period by a longtime friend and fellow musician, the film’s intimate, multifaceted portrait is exceptional in many respects. For starters, it presents Crumb not as a cartoonist but as an artist, plausibly described by critic Robert Hughes as the Brueghel of the second half of the 20th century. It then shows how difficult it is to assess artists, exploring in considerable depth Crumb’s dysfunctional family background, sexual obsessions, working methods, and political positions. By the end of two hours we’re persuaded that if Crumb weren’t drawing constantly and compulsively he’d probably be as doomed as his brothers Charles and Max, both of whom are also comic-book artists. Never letting his participants or his audience off the hook, Zwigoff traces Crumb’s ideological and psychological ambivalence toward his art through the perceptions of friends, acquaintances, relatives, former lovers, and Crumb himself. Zwigoff not only presents a complex human being and the range of his art but also guides us through a profound and unsettling consideration of what it means to be an American artist. Essential viewing. (JR)

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