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To the prevalent neoconservative imagination (pardon the oxymoron), the late ’60s are an abomination, a Pandora’s box cached in our national attic, stuffed with musty tie-dyes and bell-bottoms, tattered Fillmore posters, and clogged bongs. But survivors of that convulsive era can’t help feeling nostalgia for its lost ideals—among them the convictions that life offers more fulfilling options than amassing money—as well as its vibrant culture, an explosion of creativity in all of the popular arts.

The work of cartoonist R. Crumb embodies what was liberating about the ’60s youthquake: uncompromising self-expression, defiance of social prohibitions, suspicion of all manifestations of authority. His “Keep On Truckin’ ” drawing offered a survival mantra to a beleaguered counterculture struggling to remain afloat in the churning tides of an absurd war. With Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Joe Blow, Angelfood McSpade, and his other characters, Crumb pioneered underground comix, a native art form that continues to thrive in the ’90s. His uninhibited images, with their masterful manipulation of line and stipple, have expanded, often to his horror, the graphic vocabulary of television and advertising. To a far greater extent than the vacuous, self-promoting Andy Warhol, Crumb is the portraitist of our age.

The reclusive cartoonist is the subject of Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb, which is being trumpeted as this season’s best American movie. I feel no strenuous urge to disagree with that assessment, though the film draws all of its considerable fascination from the subject himself. As a work of cinematic art, Crumb has little distinction. Oblivious to the formal innovations of Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, and other trailblazing documentarians, Zwigoff, Crumb’s friend for a quarter-century, largely employs his camera as a recording device, an instrument for capturing the artist and his work, his family, and friends. Shot over a six-year period, the cine-portrait that emerges appears to be objectively balanced, neither exploitative like the Maysles brothers’ noxious Grey Gardens nor a hagiographic con job like Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s Marjoe. Ideally, Crumb deserves a film biographer of equal artistic stature. What he’s found in Zwigoff is an empathetic craftsman.

We first observe Crumb at home, surrounded by pottery figurines, spools, and mugs bearing his designs, rocking almost autistically as he listens to a ragtime piano recording. Then we see him addressing a Philadelphia art school assembly, showing slides of the images that have brought him fame and vexation—the “Truckin’ ” drawing (“that thing is going to follow me to the grave”); Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills album cover, for which he received $600; and Fritz the Cat, the inspiration for Ralph Bakshi’s witless X-rated animated feature, which Crumb considers “an embarrassment.”

After these glimpses of the private and public Crumb, Zwigoff begins to explore the cartoonist’s twisted family history. We hear about his deceased, tyrannical, career-Marine father and see a few glimpses of his addled, paranoid mother. But the main focus is his older brother Charles, a brilliant wreck of a man who coexists, heavily tranquilized, with his mother in their ramshackle Philadelphia home. The doomed inspiration for Crumb’s art, Charles began the family tradition of comic book drawing, illustrating stories depicting his obsessions (notably Long John Silver). His work grew increasingly compulsive before collapsing into imageless logomania and eventual creative silence. Painfully aware of his mental condition but unable and unwilling to alter it, the suicidal Charles haunts the film much as he does his brother’s consciousness. Later on, we meet Max, a younger brother, who is self-sufficient but deeply eccentric—working the San Francisco streets with a begging bowl, painting childlike “modern” canvases, and sitting for two hours each day on a bed of nails. (Crumb’s two other siblings, Sandra and Carol, refused to appear in the film.)

Crumb comes equipped with a battalion of his own obsessions, which, luckily, he has been able to channel in his art. He reveals his erotic fixations on homely childhood classmates, Bugs Bunny, and television’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, as well as his cruel treatment at the hands of Skutch, the school bully. A 1965 LSD trip propelled Crumb through the doors of perception, triggering a series of wild, sometimes terrifying visions that formed the basis of his subsequent creations. He’s remarkably candid in exposing his pain at being a high-school outcast, his vengeful resolve to become famous in order to attract the women who previously shunned him, his compulsive masturbation, his hostility toward women, and his inability to express emotion.

Throughout these confessions, Crumb proves to be a hypnotically commanding camera subject, a flesh-and-blood analogue of the nerdish figures who populate his drawings. Sporting Depression-era hats, thick, disfiguring eyeglasses, nondescript shirts buttoned to the neck, and floppy pants, he’s an assemblage of geeky physical characteristics—horse teeth, greasy hair, oversize Adam’s apple, rounded shoulders, sunken chest. His habitual response to the litany of horrors contained in his family history is a wormy smile and an abstracted, almost sadistic, chuckle. Clearly, he’s someone whose experience has led him beyond shock and surprise, but who continues to be bemused, even comforted, by life’s bitter capriciousness. After asserting that the only thing he truly loves is his young daughter Sophie, it’s somehow fitting that, when he embraces her, she instinctively wipes the traces of his kiss from her face.

To flesh out Crumb’s story, Zwigoff brings in an assortment of talking heads. Art critics and gallery owners compare the cartoonist’s work to that of Bruegel, Daumier, and Goya. His ex-wife Dana, current wife Aline, and former girlfriends disclose intimate details of their relationships with him. (We’re told he possesses “one of the biggest penises in the world,” a claim for which no visual corroboration is provided.) A patient, sympathetic father (unlike his own), Crumb is shown interacting with Sophie and his grown son, Jesse. Feminist journalist Peggy Orenstein challenges him to justify the powerful but grotesque, deformed, sometimes decapitated female figures in his work, which, like his racist caricatures in Ooga Booga and other comix, are profoundly transgressive. Crumb’s straightforward defense is that these are truthful expressions of his inner feelings, but this explanation is less than exhaustive. Like Lenny Bruce and the much maligned, sometimes reprehensible Howard Stern, he’s a satirist who unyokes socially unacceptable but commonly held passions, thereby forcing us to examine the darker corners of our own psyches.

Perhaps Crumb‘s most haunting moments are its privileged glimpses of the artist’s private world. In one sequence, he sits with a sketchpad on San Francisco’s tawdry Market Street, limning peddlers and street people with his pen. In another, he plays a Scott Joplin composition on his home piano, lost in the tranquil spell of the turn-of-the-century music that he regards as “the best part of the soul of the common people.” (He dismisses rock ‘n’ roll, the music of his own iconoclastic generation, with the same contempt he reserves for real estate spoilers.)

Just before the fadeout—the documentary ends in 1993 with Crumb, Aline, and Sophie preparing to relocate from Winters, Calif., to the south of France—Zwigoff presents a montage sequence of Crumb’s “A Short History of America,” a series of drawings depicting a bucolic scene mutated by commercial exploitation into a blighted panorama of industrial development, superhighways, and power transformers. The controlled outrage of these images simultaneously indicts the devastation of our landscape, confirms Crumb’s stature as a nonpareil social artist, and explains why he has abandoned his homeland.