Understanding Ralph Bakshi – Part 1: Fritz The Cat

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Ralph Bakshi is one of the most controversial figures in the field of animation. He is simultaneously considered both the guy who saved animation during one of its lowest points (the 70s) but also as the guy who ruined it forever, spawning countless imitators of its “bad taste”, especially in the television format. Considered too shocking and offensive for left-wing audicences and yet too tied to social issues and backgrounds to be appreciated by right-wing audiences. A master of his craft who tried to work withing the limited budgets of a world dominated by bigger studios, or simply an incompetent hack. Someone who tried to get to the heart of what makes animation such a powerful medium, or simply a live-action director with few good ideas.

The truth, and perhaps what makes Bakshi such a peculiar and interesting director to study, is that all of these things may be considered true at the same time. Entering into Bakshi’s world means to enter into a cinematic spheres riddled with endless contradictions and ambiguity. Part of that certainly has to do with the fact that Bakshi himself was a contradictory and complex man. A strong personality, which can be seen clearly by simply watching his movies, and, like all personalities, it has its strengths and weaknesses. Too often writing about Bakshi has limited itsels to only one or few of the countless aspects of hiw work, but a true understanding of the man, and of the why his works continue to endure, for better or worse, requires an analysis of ALL of his aspects, including the most uncomfortable ones, as well as an analysis of the context Bakshi grew in, as a person and as an artist.

Born from a poor Jewish family, they soon emigrated to the United States looking for better opportunities. There, Bakshi grew up in black neighborhoods and was therefore exposed to a social background that’d inform almost ALL of his future work. He soon pursued a career in the Arts and, after graduating, he learned the craft of animation working under Terrytoons, one of the few studios who was still producing shorts as late as the 1960s. Later on, he became director and went on to even open up his own animation studio, Bakshi Productions, through which he was able to produe some episodes of Rocker Robin Hood and Spider-Man. ALL of these experiences would soon allow Bakshi to develop his own personal style and, perhaps most crucially, his own work ethics, based on professionalism and, particularly, the abily to turn out a product in reasonably fast schedules and with tight budgets. The ability to work on such constraints would come in handy more than once during the production of his first feature, as well as major breakthrough: Fritz The Cat (1972), based on the homonymous Crumb comics and characters.

It is with Fritz The Cat that Bakshi had been finally able to make a commercial product that could, for once, actually challenge the mainstream animated feature, at that time dominated by Disney and few others, and, perhaps most importantly, turn down an actual unique and personal work of art – a rarity in that timeframe.

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To produce Fritz The Cat, Bakshi had to overcome a long and tedious productions, as well as making a number of compromises along the way simply to get the picture done. That Fritz The Cat got finished and released was an unexpected success and perhaps even more unexpectedly was the actual commercial success of the picture, much to the dismay of Crumb, Fritz’s creator, who has never truly approved of the picture. However, that Fritz The Cat had been an historically significant feature is something that is, by this point, already well-known. The most enduring question, perhaps, is about the actual quality of the film, and whether it holds any water or any Idead worthy of their name. The answer is a lot more complicated than it seems, but in short, we can call Fritz an artistic success, if anything because Bakshi’s goal with this feature was actually a lot less ambitious than its reputation that has been building up over time.

Fritz The Cat, much in the Spirit of the times, is a movie that lookes at, and not necessarely judges, the counter-culture that was happening in those years – most crucially, the 60s, with a special focus on the youth culture of the times and the racial tensions that have been building since those years. It is also, as it may seem obvious, a reaction against the kind of animated films that have been made up until that moment. In short, Fritz The Cat is a movie built almost entirely out of reaction and dissatisfaction – against a certain kind of social situation as well as commercial and artistic tendencies of the time. This aspect is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness, as we shall see.

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The introduction already sets up the main themes of the movies, by showing a bunch of workers talking and complaining about the youth of today and their own children, or the possibility of having them and watching them grow up in such a “decadent” culture. The attitude that Bakshi takes in letting us see these men (whom conversations were actually recorded on the street) is one of stark neutrality; no judging, but rather letting us see for ourselves, and exposing to us, what a certain class of people may think of certain behaviors and attitudes prevalent in modern society. As to almost confirm the words of these men, we are immediately introduced to our main character, Fritz, who is trying to seduce a group of young women with a guitar – apparentely to no avail. Crucial is the following scene, where these young women converse (or try to) with a black person (here represented as a crow), and what we (and Fritz) hear is a series of cliché and unsincere phrases about ethnic equality and the empowerement of black people. Much to their dismay, the person they’re talking to pretty much ignored everything they’ve just said, spits out a racial slur, and leaves, all of this with an uncharacteristically “feminine” behavior. Here, Bakshi provides an identification between Fritz and the audience, an identification that possibly extends even to Bakshi himself, which seems to be making fun of a certain kind of hypocrisy prevalent towards certain groups of people. This hypocrisy is at the Heart of the film, better embodied by its main character, which is full of the many contradictions and ambiguities of the youth culture of the 1960s – a culture in which, needless to say, Bakshi took active part in. After Fritz attemps, and succeds, at seducing those same women, through a romantic/intellectual poustering, we get also a relatively long series of chases which involte two cops (here represented as two pigs), whom in their appearence and style of animation closely remind us of a certain kind of character embodied in, among others, classic Looney Tunes cartoons: figures of authority, opposed to our main character, not exactly the brightest people and often sources of comedic relief.

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This formal choice, this linkage between the classical animation style that has been so prevalent up to that moment, is fundamental to understand what Bakshi is trying to accomplish. Much in the same way Crumb was homaging classic “funny animals” comic books and comic strips, Bakshi is consciously trying to remind the viewer of old Looney Tunes shorts and cartoons. This homage goes beyond simply using antropomorphic animals and is instead embedded in the animation style which, while crude, is faithful to the exagerrated body movements and expressions which can be found in many shorts directed by Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. This homage goes even further, as Bakshi hired plenty of animators whom have worked exactly on the shorts that Bakshi is referencing throughout the entirety of the picture, such as Virgil Ross and Rod Scribner. The result, while unpolished and inferior overall to Clampett or Jones at their peak, is a REALLY interesting picture, one that constantly refers to the past while simultaneously bringing animation into new directions. The cartoonish animation is, in fact, in direct contrast with the overall somber tone of the movie, as well as its numerous scenes of violence: the two pig cops, for example, experience a violent death in an unusual context (a black riot, with crows used to represent the black community, much like in Dumbo). The effect is shocking and quite unexpected, and goes even further in the arguably best scene of the movie, Duke the Crow’s Death, represented through symbolic imagery of a billiard game, one he used to play.

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One of the key differences between the film and Crumb’s version is the attitude BOTH of them have towards their main character, Fritz; while Crumb is in a position of contempo towards him, clearly seeing him as just another product of a rotten youth culture, Bakshi is surprisingly ambivalent and even slightly sentimental at times. There’s no doubt that Bakshi sees Fritz as the REALLY flawed figure he is, but he doesn’t seem to put us in a position of moral superiority; instead, we’re left with whatever Bakshi lets us see, encouraged to make up our minds about it. In numerous moments, Fritz is put into situations that are bigger than himself, and he’s unable to control them; almost a passive spectator of the events around him, Fritz becomes not a figure to be analyzed in whatever faults he may have to make a general comment on the state of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s but, instead, almost a sort of avatar for whoever is watching, drifting apart from place to place without any apparent causal or logical connection. This result was most likely unvolontary on Bakshi’s part, given that he most likely simply tried to adapt the episodic nature of Crumb’s original comics on the screen; what he ended up with was, however, much different. Instead of casting a judgement on society as a whole, Bakshi provides ALL of us with a sort of “Slice-of-Life” approach, letting us see some of the most topical situations and events, however exaggerated in form and content, of that period. This is probably the reason why Crumb himself was dissatisfied with the adaptation: the Fritz of Bakshi was faithful in term of events, but largely different in Spirit, reworking i tinto a substantially different picture. This move already demonstrates how much Bakshi is an idiosyncractic and personal Artist, able to put a specific, if a bit rough around the edges, Vision.

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In short, thanks to Fritz The Cat, Bakshi was already able to show to the World what other things the Medium could do, and also put himself at the front and center of what could be called a sort of “Modernist Movement” into Animation. Much like its literary and cinematic counterparts, Bakshi reworked elements of a specific tradition and re-tooled them to make a different use of them, as well as starting to abandon traditional narrativer structures almost completely, in favor of a “Stream-of-Consciousness” approach that will be further explored in his next feature, Heavy Traffic (1973).

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