DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: RALPH BAKSHI, PART ONE (1972-1977)

*This retrospective covers only the feature films of .

Coming out of the Warner Brothers cartoon factory, Ralph Bakshi emerged as one of America’s unheralded surrealists. He is as authentic in his way as was. Both share a related aesthetic, which is closely linked to avant-garde cinema tradition, but grounded in the stylistic tenets of Surrealism. Russell, unquestionably flamboyant, probably has the more secured reputation with aficionados, while Bakshi too often is summarily dismissed as a cult animation specialist. Yet, as Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and have proven aesthetically more consistent (and infinitely more interesting) than that hero of male teenage angst, , so too Bakshi likewise may come to be seen as the part of the pulse of Western Surrealism.

Bakshi’s debut, Fritz the Cat (1972), is delightfully of its period and  could probably only have been made in the 1970s (although work on it actually began in 1969). It was a first on numerous fronts: The first X-Rated cartoon, Bakshi’s first feature (his previous work include a number of shorts and the television cult classic animated “Spiderman” 1967-1970), and the first cinematic adaptation of the work of Robert Crumb. Crumb himself thought Bakshi’s adaptation too subdued and hated it (it does lack the original’s bite), as did the cartoonist’s loyal fan base. Critics were divided over it then, and they’re still split on it, which sets the pattern for the whole of Bakshi’s work.

The critics of Fritz The Cat accuse it of blatant racism and sexism. Its defenders proclaim it as brutally honest and immune to political correctness. However, few dispute that Bakshi’s animation style is a highly original, handsomely mounted one.

Still from Fritz the Cat (1972)It is set in the late 60s, as we follow the pot smoking, Candide-like protagonist Fritz out of college, into a Harlem ghetto filled with barroom brawls, riots, unbridled sexual escapades, drug abuse (which includes a heroin addled rabbit), cynicism, graphic anti-establishment violence (the police are literally portrayed as inept pigs), and revolutionary spirit.

Despite budgetary limitations and Crumb’s refusal to endorse the film, Fritz The Cat proved a success, even inspiring a sequel—The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat ( 1974)—which Bakshi was not associated with. Predictably, the sequel flopped, making the original look like a masterpiece.

Heavy Traffic (1973) is Bakshi’s most personal film. Essentially, it is an animated autobiography about the shy, sexually frustrated, pinball-playing aspiring underground cartoonist Michael Corelone (yes, it’s one of many references to ‘s The Godfather). Michael attempts to make his way out of his warring parents’ Bronx home. As his much put upon Jewish mother and philandering Italian Mafioso father play out an urban “Taming of the Shrew,” Michael ambitiously sticks to plying his trade. Heavy Traffic is a paradoxical, heartbreaking, harrowing love letter to counter-culture urban freaks; replete with transvestites, amputees, interracial relationships, construction worker thugs, and God as a rapist. Bakshi is deep into Herbert Selby, Jr. territory here, leaving no demographic unoffended. Within this literal black comedy, the city streets are squalid and awash in Edward Hopper despair.

A beautiful scene depicts Michael in a dilapidated theater watching 1932’s Red Dust (probably the best film of both Clark Gable and Jean Harlow). Bakshi elevates stereotypes to sublime tragedy, reminding  us that often, we choose to live up to those stereotypes. Artistically and emotionally, Heavy Traffic is arguably Bakshi’s greatest, most surreal accomplishment, which validates the argument that art is at its most significant, potent, and powerful when the artist depicts what he (or she) knows.

Like its predecessor, Heavy Traffic was an immediate hit, which led to the film with Bakshi’s biggest cult following and biggest controversy: Coonskin (1974). From its title alone, one can easily surmise intentional provocation. Premiering at the Museum of Modern Art, Coonskin did exactly what its producers probably hoped it would do: create an uproar. Theaters were picketed (mostly by people who had not seen the film), bourgeois audience members walked out of numerous showings, and there were even bomb threats. In a panic, Coonskin was shuffled from one distributor to another.

It is unfortunate that protestors failed to look beyond the vaudevillian, grotesque ethnic caricatures (of Jews, African-Americans, Italians, and women, who all still come off better than male WASPS). With a bit more intellectual investment, the offended may have recognized Coonskin as a brutal satire of films and Song of the South (Disney’s 1947 embarrassingly dated portrayal of an Uncle Tom named Remus, which is largely unavailable, except in the Deep South, of course). As in Heavy Traffic, Bakshi innovatively combines live action with animation[1] to create a stylishly artistic, gritty, urban surrealism. Visceral violence,  bordellos, drug rings, and mafia exploitation of Harlem craft a narrative more haphazard than Heavy Traffic. Still, Coonskin satisfies as a highly original work, in spite of being (sloppily) promoted as something akin to a fireworks display. Scatman Crothers (who also voices in the film) sings the title song “Ah’m a N_ _ _ ger man, ” followed by the first line of dialogue: “F_ _ k you,” which sets the tone. Some consider Coonskin to be Bakshi’s masterpiece, and they may have a point, although the actual film is probably not as shocking as its reputation.

Wizards (1977) finds Bakshi in sword and sorcery fantasy terrain. As with most films of this type, the plot involves a conflict between good and evil, replete with fairies, elves, and warriors. Clearly inspired by the legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, and worked on by, among others, Marvel comic artist Mike Ploog, Wizards will not be mistaken for Disney or George Lucas. Third Reich allegories abound in this post-Holocaust fable, which brilliantly includes actual propaganda footage from Nazi rallies, along with Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). With this, and the high quota of violence and eroticism, Wizards is about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles. As visually striking as it is, Wizards concentrates so much on its look—which is occasionally too layered–that the narrative spirals out of control. It’s not helped by redundant narration. The result is an uneven, but admirably relentless, film, which once was a midnight cult favorite but now appears to be relatively forgotten. In its ballsy political commentary, it certainly has to be off-putting to the rather sizeable right-wing faction of the Dungeons and Dragons crowd. Like most of Baskhi’s work, Wizards is simultaneously dated and ground-breaking.

Part-Two of our Bakshi Retrospective will cover Lord of the Rings (1978), American Pop (1981), Hey Good Lookin‘ (1982), Fire and Ice (1983), and what is most likely his last feature: Cool World (1992).

  1. Some critics and fans have erroneously described Coonskin as another example of Bakshi’s rotoscoping. []

One thought on “DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: RALPH BAKSHI, PART ONE (1972-1977)”

  1. Look forward to the second half of the article. I have always neglected Bakshi, but this overview of his early career makes him appear more interesting to me than before. Perhaps he deserves a second appraisal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *