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A frank, intimate look at a phenomenal popular artist and his extraordinarily dysfunctional family, "Crumb" is an excellent countercultural documentary. Made by a longtime friend, pic goes a good way toward explaining the whys of the twisted, extremely funny comic-book art of Robert Crumb, just as it puts a positively weird American family up onscreen with the cooperation of at least some of its members.

A frank, intimate look at a phenomenal popular artist and his extraordinarily dysfunctional family, “Crumb” is an excellent countercultural documentary. Made by a longtime friend of the subject, pic goes a good way toward explaining the whys and wherefores of the twisted, biting, extremely funny comic-book art of Robert Crumb, just as it puts a positively weird American family up onscreen with the cooperation of at least some of its members. Film is ideal for specialized theatrical slots and should have a good life on video and selected cable outlets, although it is no doubt too racy and politically incorrect for PBS. Somewhere, someday it will have to be shown on a double bill with “Brother’s Keeper.”

R. Crumb is still the best and most enduring artist to have emerged from the world of underground comics, a mordant satirist and drug-inspired fabulist who rode the wave of anti-establishment irreverence to cult popularity in the mid- 1960s. A social misfit of the first order, Crumb draws characters and outrageous , lewd events with such exaggerated precision that art critic Robert Hughes herein aptly calls him “the Breughel of the 20th century,” so that his work alone justifies the extended attention the film lavishes upon him.

But the man’s singular personality and unimaginable family background take this way behind a mere study of a pop culture figure. A slouching, weed-like figure in thick glasses and ’40s-style hat who looks like a gunsel from some cheap vintage Hollywood crime film, the Zap Comix king skulks in and out of encounters with ex-girlfriends and wife, his kids, sex mag models and, most of all, his mother and two brothers (two sisters refused to participate).

Enough is seen of the family’s earlier years to spot the Crumb boys as nerds and outcasts. All three were talented artists, however, especially brothers Robert and Charles. But the latter stopped drawing early on and is seen in the film living with his mother as a medicated recluse, albeit an insightful and willing participant and narrator of the Crumb family saga, as well as a strangely effective camera subject.

Not only do the brothers talk about their intense artistic rivalry and “sadistic bully” of a father, but they dwell extensively on their youthful sex fantasies and practices, which had considerable bearing on Robert’s later work (his first sex object was Bugs Bunny).

At a lecture, Crumb explains how he feels ripped off in the cases of perhaps his three most famous creations — the “Keep on Truckin'” slogan and drawings, the “Cheap Thrills” Janis Joplin album cover and “Fritz the Cat” in its movie incarnation. Drawing all the while, he visits the Haight in San Francisco where, despite having been such a local hero, he says he could never fit in with the hippie crowd; expresses his disgust at commercialization; drops in on his brother Max, living a marginal existence in S.F.; attends a New York gallery opening, where Hughes and others hold forth on his work, and explains how he traded six of his sketchbooks for a chateau in the South of France, where he has now lived for two years in an attempt to escape what he considers the horrors of modern American life.

Although it’s clear that drugs — LSD in particular — played a major role in Crumb’s creative breakthrough, pic could have used more analytical commentary on this score. Film doesn’t ignore the controversial and, to some people, disturbing misogyny in Crumb’s work; he himself fesses up to it, but isn’t about to start censoring himself as an artist.

But the film keeps coming back to the family, and rewardingly so. Their eccentricities represent a source of easy laughs at the outset, but director Terry Zwigoff spends enough time at the homestead with Robert, Charles and Mom for the viewer to feel deeply how genuinely disturbed they are, and info on certain family members’ fates in the final crawl proves truly upsetting.

Zwigoff has used his enduring friendship with Crumb and knowledge of his work and family to no doubt get closer to the core than anyone else could have, and has also structured his film intelligently. It may be slightly overlong at two hours, but Crumb fans, who will probably increase in number in the wake of the attention the picture will generate, shouldn’t mind at all.

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Production: A David Lynch presentation of a Superior Pictures production. Produced by Lynn O'Donnell, Terry Zwigoff. Executive producers, Lawrence Wilkinson, Albert Berger, Lianne Halfon. Co-producer, Neal Halfon. Directed by Zwigoff.

Crew: Camera (DuArt color; 16mm), Maryse Allberti; editor, Victor Livingston; sound, Scott Breindel. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 9, 1994. (Also in New York Film Festival.) Running time: 119 MIN.

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