If you know director Terry Zwigoff only from his narrative films — Ghost World, Bad Santa, Art School Confidential — you’ve undoubtedly noticed his penchant for idolizing misanthropes. But where his features have often paraded a snotty outsider attitude — bad behavior for the sake of rude laughs — the film that put him on the map didn’t just flaunt that attitude but also analyzed it, exploring its root causes while dissecting its limitations. That film (the highlight of this weekend’s retrospective of the director’s work) is the magnificent Crumb, Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary about his close friend, underground-comics artist Robert Crumb. With a structure that pointed the way for every “talented genius/questionable human being” documentary of the past 12 years, Crumb establishes its subject’s creative legacy early on so that Zwigoff can devote most of the movie’s running time to unmasking the extenuating circumstances that provoked a ’50s Catholic kid from Philadelphia to come up with such groundbreaking, occasionally offensive cartoon creations as Mr. Natural. And while the answer to that riddle is, predictably, a poisonous family environment, Crumb’s kin (sexually stilted brothers Charles and Max, whacked-out mother Beatrice) are grippingly bizarre, no less so because Zwigoff’s cameras treat these sad souls humanely, never cuing the audience to laugh or gawk at their peculiarities.
But Zwigoff wants more than a lurid back story or a simplistically uplifting fable about how a geek overcame his nightmarish upbringing — to be sure, his film forces us to confront Crumb’s misogynistic leanings and sometimes-antagonistic drawings, tying these personal shortcomings into the man’s unhappy past without ever condoning or romanticizing them. What slowly emerges from Crumb, then, is an affectionate, albeit brutally candid, look at a successful misanthrope whose outcast ethic briefly brought him into the mainstream but ultimately couldn’t soften his unresolved childhood hostilities. Zwigoff’s later films have contained their fair share of misfits, but if these characters often come across as merely obnoxious, it’s because they’ve been denied the empathy (and therefore the compassion and the complexity) that the director so lovingly showed to Crumb. American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre; Sun., Oct. 1; www.americancinematheque.com.