Zwigoff proves Crumb does pay

Cinema

THE BIO-PIC has become a by-word for boredom, its stumbling then soaring trajectory dampening our lust for lives. Ignorant of art, Hollywood turns the artist's life into a triumph against the odds - a kind of American dream. Crumb (18), a documentary about comic-book artist Robert Crumb, buries that tradition. This is a portrait of the artist as a seriously weird man, not overcoming but succumbing to his demons. Crumb's art crouches on the border between genius and insanity, fantasy and pornography, satire and cynicism. The most admirable thing about him is his refusal to sell out. His scabrous drawings are both a comment on a land blighted by commerce - in which Hollywood offers Crumb millions to work in animation - and a refuge from it. Crumb's story is an American nightmare.

Terry Zwigoff's film covers all of Crumb's art and delves into every cranny of his dark psyche. Early on, as Crumb settles down to one of his detailed, cross-hatched drawings, with a record on the gramophone, you could be forgiven for thinking him to be a man as quaint and breezy as the vintage jazz tunes he works to. His pebble glasses and shrugging demeanour mark him out as a bewildered nerd. Only the rakish tilt of his hat and the amused sneer so many of his sentences curl into, give the game away. And, of course, the drawings themselves. Fritz the Cat, the "Keep On Truckin' " logo, and the album cover for Janis Joplin's Cheap Thrills are the bright end of Crumb's spectrum. His heartland is a stranger, sicker place, stalked by women with outsize backsides, ape-like heads, or no head at all. Anything goes: in one strip, parents, after incest with their children, conclude: "Gee, we should spend more time with the kids."

Zwigoff never takes sides, allowing Crumb's admirers and detractors equal time. Putting a bullish case for the defence, the critic Robert Hughes describes Crumb as "the Brueghel of the 20th century". Hughes enlists the heavy battalion, blasting Crumb-sceptics with the artistic canon. If Crumb's art is repulsive, then it has Goya's monstrosity. If Crumb uses his comics to masturbate to, well, that was a penchant of Picasso, too. Crumb'sopponents argue there comes a point where his scathing satire slips into pornographic celebration. Crumb not only reveals, but revels in the dark underbelly of the 1950s American conformism with which he grew up. Crumb's second wife - a cartoonist infected with her husband's sardonic drawl - reckons Crumb's art is all id. The viewer is left wondering whether true art is quite so unmediated, so pure.

The most perceptive talking head is a former girlfriend of Crumb's, and a self-styled "career pornographer". This statuesque blonde, creator of, among others, Big Butt magazine, confesses she felt "destined for" pornography, as though she were talking of being headed for accountancy. As well as revealing Crumb's esoteric sexual preferences (piggyback rides) and his penis size (spectacular), she expounds upon the pathology behind his shoe fetishism. Men who focus on women's legs as objects of sexual attraction, she reveals, often subconsciously crave the security of clinging on to their mother's coat-tails. It sounds hokey, but fits Crumb's neuroses like a silk stocking. The film is generally more illuminating about the sources of Crumb's art than its merits.

The key to Crumb's disordered universe lies in his family. His father was a fiercely conventional ex-naval officer who wrote manuals on "Training People Effectively", while trying to bully and beat his children into shape. His mother, an ex-amphetamine addict, lives in the Philadelphia house where Crumb grew up. Crumb's older brother, Charles, a gentle wreck of a man, in boyhood a hugely gifted cartoonist, also resided there at the time the film was being made (while it was being edited, he committed suicide), subsisting on a diet of tranquillisers and Victorian literature. Charles Crumb was the star by which Robert set his illustrious career and he is the star of the film. With Charles, Robert shared a compulsion to draw, and a deep sense of the absurdity of human life. There is something oddly noble about Charles. Sitting cross-legged in his squalid room, his large face sad but dignified, he reminisces and jokes ruefully about his father. You realise that all his humour, and Robert's, is a kind of chuckling in the ruins - of family and of American culture.

In comparing Robert and Charles, and their younger brother Maxon, who has convictions for molestation, we learn about the thin partition between creativity and craziness. Robert recalls entering with Charles, as boys, something called "The Famous Artists Talent Test". Robert soberly completed the drawing exercises; Charles's entry - which we see - is glossed with brilliantly outrageous erotica. "He was pretty far gone at that point, already," Robert laughs. It is a revealing remark: it may, per- versely, have been Robert's restraint that made him the artist, and Charles's licence that doomed him. For all his compulsion and obsession, there is a self- discipline in Robert. Watching him teach his son to draw, we see the steeliness of his observation, and his awareness of the tricks by which artists present the illusion of reality. Charles had the greater gift; it was Robert's crumb of self-awareness that made him Crumb.

There are times in Crumb when its subjects' self-revelation is unsettling. Charles's suicide, though it was the culmination of several attempts, suggests that the Crumbs' self-disgust may have been better held in check by drawing or reclusiveness than movie stardom. But Zwigoff's film rarely feels exploitative, and the fascination of Crumb and his family should not disguise the director's skill and sensitivity in marshalling his material.

The gorilla-thriller Congo (12) has had audiences in the US throwing bananas at the screen. It's a shocker: clunkingly written, dismally acted, haphazardly directed, and with some of the most glaringly conspicuous sound-stages masquerading as the African jungle ever seen in a major American movie. Before it disintegrates into cliche and inept computerised special effects, the tale of diamond smuggling and killer gorillas has a ramshackle charm and mild narrative pull. We are in sub-sub- Spielberg country, with nods at Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Many of the crew are in fact old Spielberg hands (among them director Frank Marshall, cinematographer Allen Daviau, and the author of the original novel, Michael Crichton). The movie is a criminal - and baffling - waste of talent.

John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon (12) is a humane and technically accomplished drama set in the viciously repressive world of contemporary Burma. Patricia Arquette plays an American woman, on holiday, escaping the misery of the murder of her husband and son, only to find herself fleeing the Burmese militia. Overtly polemical, the movie has the feel of a wartime propaganda film. Arquette's assimilation to the cause of freedom- fighting, as much out of despair as empathy, is well caught. And her relationship with her elderly Burmese guide provides for some cross-cultural lyricism, a duet between Buddhist serenity and Western strife. At times, though, the film is more a manifesto than a movie, lacking much sense of the dark soul of Burma explored in contemporary Burmese fiction. Still, there are scenes of real terror, and moments of harsh but consoling wisdom. "Suffering is the only promise life keeps," Arquette is told. "So that if happiness comes, we know it is a precious gift, which is ours only for a short time."

Cinema details: Review, page 82.

NB: The 'IoS' screening of 'D'Artagnan's Daughter' takes place at 10.30am today, not Sunday 9 July as originally advertised.

ALSO SHOWING

Arizona Dream (15). A surreal 1992 comedy directed by Emir Kustirica, winner of this year's Cannes Palme d'Or for Underground, and starring Faye Dunaway, Johnny Depp and Jerry Lewis. Kustirica is much concerned with sexual rivalry, flying fish, Eskimos and (American) dreams. But he is indisciplined, self-indulgent and more cloyingly whimsical than funny.

Miami Rhapsody (15). David Frankel's wise-cracking romantic comedy tries to turn Miami into Manhattan, but is all mannerism and no soul. If you had a dollar for every idea stolen from Woody Allen, you could finance his next movie. And someone should tell lead Sarah-Jessica Parker that playing the Allen role requires mastery of more than one note.

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