Terry Zwigoff’s landmark 1995 film is an intimate documentary portrait of the underground artist Robert Crumb, whose unique drawing style and sexually and racially provocative subject matter have made him a household name in popular American art. Zwigoff candidly and colorfully delves into the details of Crumb’s incredible career and life, including his family of reclusive eccentrics, some of the most remarkable people you’ll ever see on-screen. At once a profound biographical portrait, a riotous examination of a man’s controversial art, and a devastating look at a troubled family, Crumb is a genuine American original.
In what was a complete surprise (for me at any rate) Criterion releases Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed documentary Crumb on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc and is presented in 1080p/24hz.
The only DVD version I had seen previously was the Canadian Alliance/Atlantis disc, which I believe (though can’t confirm for sure) was a port of the original U.S. Sony DVD. It was awful. In fact, I’d say the transfer for the deleted scenes on this Blu-ray, which were not restored in any way, look better than the transfer found on that disc. Sony would re-release the film on DVD in 2006 with a new transfer and special features, though I hadn’t gotten around to seeing that edition yet. But in comparison to the Alliance DVD Criterion’s new high-def transfer clearly blows away that atrocity, and looks absolutely wonderful. The film was shot over a number of years on 16mm and conditions weren’t always ideal, so I wasn’t holding out much hope, especially when I recall the conditions of the materials used for the original DVD. Yet those that worked on this transfer have managed to pull off a miracle, and the image looks stunning.
The most striking element is the colours. There are times where they can look muted because of the lighting or a number of other limitations, but a majority of the film presents surprisingly vibrant colours, especially when it presents some of the Crumb brothers’ artwork. Detail and definition can be limited because of the source materials or the conditions of the shoot, but overall I was quite pleased with this aspect and thought there was a good deal of detail in the picture, especially in some of Crumb’s jackets. Showing some of Crumb’s artwork, which makes large use of a cross-hatching technique with many fine lines close together, doesn’t present any artifacts or shimmering, something that plagued the Alliance DVD; here the drawings come off clean and sharp, with no distortion or artifacts plaguing them (this is frankly the best I’ve ever seen the artwork presented in the film.)
The most miraculous aspect of the image found here is that there is very little damage present in the print. I recall a few specs scattered about, and there’s a sudden vertical blue line that appears briefly during a final scene with Maxon, but overall this is very clean. Grain is present and the level does vary, but it looks natural and never like noise, which I attribute to the very high bitrate that remains in the high 30s through most of the film.
In all the source limits it in some respects, but I feel the digital transfer itself is perfect. I can’t compare to the newer Sony DVD, which may look incredible (and I’m sure it’s at least better than the previous DVD I saw) but this looks like a film. It’s clean, it’s sharp, looks very natural and is the best I’ve yet seen the it.
The lossless PCM mono track is nothing I can call really special but it still managed to surpass my expectations. It has a slightly hollow sound to it, but Crumb’s laugh manages to sound much livelier than I would have expected and the film’s music, most of which I believe comes from old vinyl records, also has some decent volume and range to it. Nothing particularly special but fine enough.
This is actually where the disc disappoints. Considering the film already had a modest special edition (which really only included a commentary that has been carried over to this edition,) and also considering the film’s subject matter, I would have expected a lot more, but Criterion still manages to include some surprises, though not actually on the disc.
Criterion includes a new audio commentary with director Terry Zwigoff, recorded just a few months ago, in April 2010. Though the notes about the track don’t state the commentary was recorded exclusively for Criterion, Zwigoff does mention the company in the track so I feel it’s safe to say this was recorded specifically for them. At any rate, this does differ somewhat from the Roger Ebert/Zwigoff commentary recorded for the original Sony Special Edition DVD (which has also been included in this edition) but not by a lot. Zwigoff mentions he hates commentary tracks and only did the other one because a.) it was the only way he could get Sony to remaster and rerelease the film on DVD, and b.) Sony agreed to get Roger Ebert to sit with him and take some of the pressure off. Though he doesn’t give himself much credit he does handle himself rather well. Unfortunately for those that have the Sony edition already and have listened to the commentary on there this one isn’t much different, except it lacks Ebert pushing Zwigoff to talk. The director pretty much covers all of the same material, but he at least expands on it. In the Ebert/Zwigoff commentary he mentions briefly about the music he had set to the opening credits, and here he expands on it. He also talks a little more about the BBC, who were making their own Robert Crumb documentary at the same time, then he covers his trying to track down certain individuals for interviews (but was limited by budget,) offers more detail about how he faked comment cards during a poor test screening, and throws more kudos at editor Walter Murch, who he credits for saving the film after he saw it and suggested that no changes should be made, which convinced his producer to leave the film alone (everyone really wanted to cut Charles out of the film and he refused to do that.) Zwigoff does offer a few more stories about Crumb and his brothers and his friendship over the years with the family, expands on details about how they actually met and mentions good things that came out of the film. Plus he adds an amusing anecdote involving Crumb’s taste in films, mentioning Criterion gave him some DVDs to show to the artist. Zwigoff is also surprisingly talkative but does die down a bit during the last 30-minutes with a few dead spots. In fact he stays silent throughout one entire chapter, chapter 11, which is even indexed in the menu as “No Commentary”. It’s a good track and I think it’s worth listening to, even if you’ve heard the Ebert/Zwigoff one, but it still contains quite a bit of duplicate material.
And as I mentioned earlier, Criterion has ported over the audio commentary by Zwigoff and film critic Roger Ebert that appeared on the Sony special edition of the film. As I mentioned I have not actually seen that disc so I can’t say for sure if this is the exact same commentary found there, though I can’t see why it wouldn’t be. You can tell Zwigoff is a little unwilling (and judging by his comments on the other track, it sounds as though he’s really hoping Ebert will carry the entire thing) but Ebert manages to prod and question him enough to keep him talking. Ebert expresses a love for the film (reminding Zwigoff that Gene Siskel also loved the film) and points out all of the things he finds fascinating and thrilling about Crumb and the film, and both even get into detail about some of the more controversial aspects of both. Most of the material found in the previous commentary track is also found here, but there’s plenty of different material, with Zwigoff talking a little more about what the studio wanted cut from the film (and it really doesn’t sound like there would be much of a film left if they got their way) and Zwigoff talks a bit about changes he would make now. It’s an excellent track, and the two have a terrific rapport with one another, making it entertaining and informative. Certainly worth listening to and I’m very happy Criterion decided to carry it over to this edition.
The remaining supplements are found under the “Supplements” section of the menu.
First is unused footage, 14 deleted sequences running about 52-minutes. The footage hasn’t been restored, and there are plenty of moments where the image disappears and frames are missing (though sound continues) but they still look decent, presented in 1080p/24hz. All the material is excellent and actually expands on what’s presented in the film, almost acting like an addition to the film. There’s more musings by Crumb about whatever subject matter pops in his head, and we get more detail about his early work, including his stint at a greeting card company. He talks a little more about his first wife, Dana (who apparently tried to kill him when he told her he was leaving) as well as his father and his brothers. He shows off his collection of materials, including letters from his brother, Charles (which are somewhat bizarre,) magazines he uses for reference (one of which I’m pretty sure is called Dominated and Diapered) and then his secret collection of photos of women he’s known over the years. I also rather liked a moment where he talks about Mad Magazine and another called Humbug, which was obviously a huge influence over him. A number of his notebook covers are displayed, and there’s footage of his band, with Zwigoff on screen. A couple of scenes have an optional commentary track by Zwigoff, the first being for footage shot of Crumb drawing a mural at the O’Farrell Theatre, with Zwigoff mentioning work he and Crumb did on a script for Jim Mitchell. The other track is for the footage of him and the band playing. He doesn’t explain why the material was cut, a lot of which is good, but it’s not hard to figure out why (a scene where Crumb visits a mall is amusing, but it’s too similar to the sequence where Crumb is walking through the neighbourhood sketching.) This is all very good and I highly recommend watching it, it all adds a lot of great information and really does expand on the film. But I do wish there was more, especially an interview Zwigoff shot with Robin Williams that he talks about in both tracks, which I would have been fascinated in hearing. Still, a strong collection of sequences.
The final on-disc supplement is a very small still gallery that presents a handful of photos that I assume were primarily taken over the time of the shoot (not counting older family photos of course.) Though decent, it’s really short, and I was actually hoping that there would be photos of some of the work by Crumb and his brothers, which I was shocked there is very little of to be found in this set. While it could be an issue with rights it just seems like a gallery of his work would have been an obvious addition.
Still, Criterion has included a couple of cool things with this release in their inserts. First, the booklet presents an excellent essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum on the film and its reputation over the years, along with artwork by Crumb, his brothers, and his son (including a sample of Charles’ Treasure Island comic, wrinkles and all.) But the coolest inclusion is a reproduction of the “Famous Artists Talent Test” that Charles took. This insert alone is fantastic, and a clever inclusion on Criterion’s part. In fact, the packaging as a whole seems to pay tribute to Charles (who had killed himself a year after Zwigoff had finished filming) with the Talent Test insert, the booklet cover, which has a sketch of Charles by Robert, and then the interior artwork is made up of the scribbled writing Charles made in his notebooks.
The inserts are great, and the material on the disc is strong, but I can’t help but feel there could be so much more, and it doesn’t feel like too big of an upgrade in the way of supplements over the Sony special edition. Just a little disappointed.
I would have expected more in the way of supplemental material, but I must say the inclusion of the “Talent Test” reproduction is an ingenious one (I loved that I could look a little more closely at it) but it really only made me wish a little more that Criterion could have somehow included more of the artwork from the three brothers. Past that, though, I was more than pleased with the video transfer, which looks striking, and I can’t imagine it looking much better on home video.