Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 31, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1982)

7. Hey Good Lookin’

A passion project for Bakshi, “Hey Good Lookin”” had a long history. The film was originally completed in 1978. Only the three main characters were animated while the rest of the cast was live action. At the time, in a pre-“Roger Rabbit” world, the studio said audience wouldn’t accept cartoons interacting with live action actors. Bakshi spent money out of his own pocket, making his next two films intentionally more commercial, in order to reanimate the whole film. Finally, in 1982, four years after production initially ended, the film was released… And subsequently buried. The film is no doubt the most obscure of the director’s work.

Unfairly overlooked, in my opinion. “Hey Good Lookin’” has the anarchic energy and style of Bakshi’s earlier three films but made by a more experienced, studied filmmaker. The film was made in response to the fifties nostalgia fad in the 1970s, with the director intending to show the decade as he actually experienced, with all the violence, horniness, and casual racism that actually went on. The story revolves three teenage kids. Vinny, our protagonist, a member of a street gang called The Stompers, who fancies himself a well-dressed, stylish man. He’s out to prove something. “Crazy” Shapiro is Vinny’s best friend, a fellow Stomper and, as his nickname shows, pretty much a nut. His cop father hates him and actively tries to kill him. As the film progresses, we see just how crazy Shapiro actually is. Rounding out the trio is Rozzie. Someone who knew Vinny as a young child, she’s back in the city as a voluptuous, busty, sexually vivacious young woman, obviously catching Vinny and Crazy’s attention.

The film is loosely plotted. The earlier half mostly revolves around Vinny and Crazy getting drunk and getting into trouble. Once Rozzie and her overweight friend Eva appears, both boys become interested in proving themselves as men. Vinny demands a gang battle (a “rumble”) between his own gang and the black street gang, the Chaplins, even if the rest of the gang is uninterested. Without saying too much more, things end up going pretty badly for everyone. The film ends in violence. A framing device set in (then) modern day New York, involving a homeless man showing an older woman the fragment of his leather jacket and telling her about his life back in the 1950s.

Perhaps I could say Bakshi is making some point about the boundaries of masculinity. Maybe the futility of violence. Perhaps the connection between street violence and sexual frustration? The fact that the film raises any of these questions makes a case for it. However, “Hey Good Lookin’” is mostly about the characters and, perhaps more importantly, the time period. There’s an eye towards detail concerning the 1950s setting. Some live action backdrops are used but mostly we get a gritty, street-level view of New York during the decade.

As for the characters, they’re a vivid bunch. As the film progresses, you can tell Vinny is tiring of his life style. Starting out as a narcissist, obsessed with his hair and his zipper-laden jacket, he grows disillusioned with the life and his friends, especially when the situation explodes into violence. Shapiro is violently insane, no doubt, and you get to see just how much before the film is over. He even proves just how little he cares about those around him. However, a sequence were his father beats him bloody shows his behavior in context. Though introduced as a sexy, boy-obsessed teenage dream, Rozzie maybe gets the worse of it. She might be the most bloody thirsty character in the film, in her own way. The character’s vividness is help by, maybe, the best voice cast Bakshi has ever had. Richard Romanus, David Proval, and Tina Bowman (Later married to Romanus in real life) all give fantastically layered performance. This film has, at times, been compared to Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” no doubt because Proval and Romanus were both in that film together too.

Another important element towards establishing the time frame of the film is the music. Which is a bit of a mix bag in this case. I think the low budget prevented the production from having a period accurate soundtrack. So, instead of hearing actual hits of the fifties, we get 1980s produced sound-alikes. The songs aren’t bad. A few of them, such as the title track or the main love theme, are even pretty good. I’m not sure who sang the songs but they do a decent job of replicating the sound of the time. Even then, it’s hard to overlook the drum machines and eighties production so obvious on them.

Though relatively focused on the main characters, Bakshi still allows his mind to wander to surreal asides several times. The film opens with a trash can and a pile of garbage discussing wither or not heaven exist, in a funny, undeniably memorable sequence. (That sequence ends with the pile of garbage yelling “Fuck this city!” Perhaps revealing the film’s motive and intent?) One of the side characters is the gravely voiced leader of the Stomper gang. While driving around town, he casually abuses his girlfriend, shoving her head through the roof of the car, Tex Avery-style. That scene ends with the car crashing through the wall of a theater, killing a rock band. (Something no body seems that upset about.) No doubt that the freak-out scene to beat in this movie is the climatic acid trip. While standing on the rooftops, shooting at the rival gang, Crazy starts to trip balls for no particular reason. Parking meters and highway signs come to life and laugh or scream at him. He’s eaten alive by giant demons, hugged by giant pairs of breasts. It’s an odd, completely unexplained, extended moment. Perhaps a visual representation of the character’s state of mind? If that’s what the inside of his head looks like, no wonder he’s crazy.

Even with all of the above, the main reason I like this movie so much is probably because it might be the director’s most beautifully animated feature. Especially after two film’s worth of heavy rotoscoping, to see the love and detail put into each frame here is fantastic. Beyond the detail, everything moves so fluently. The character designs are wonderful, exaggerated in an appropriately cartoon-ish manner while still having the character of a human face. The content might be pretty ugly but “Hey Good Lookin’” is very pretty to look at.

Despite the quality, nobody saw the film upon release and it remains mostly unseen to this day. The critics who did see it weren’t impressed. An official DVD release is obviously out-of-the-question, though bootlegs and torrents are widely available. The movie was recently put up for download on iTunes, which I hope is a test-run for an actual release, probably through Warner Brothers’ Archive DVD-on-demand program. If a release like that happens, perhaps the film will be rediscovered and reevaluated. It might very well be the filmmaker’s best work. [Grade: B+]

Monday, August 27, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1981)

6. American Pop

After the box office successes of his fantasy films, Bakshi decided to return to the smaller, more personal stories that made his reputation. “American Pop” is a hugely ambitious film following four generations of the same family while also following the evolution of American pop music. (Hence the title.)

After a long opening credits sequence, an overture of sorts, the story opens in 1890s Russia with a family of Jews fleeing religious persecution. This opening sequence’s dialogue is told through silent movie-style titles. The family soon reaches the new world, America, "the country were dreams come true.". From there, the film walks through the musical movements and events of the decades. From the burlesque bars of the early 1900s, the unionization of American workers, World War I, the roaring twenties, the birth of jazz, prohibition, the rise of the organized crime, the great depression, World War II, swing music, the creation of suburbia and the modern nuclear family in the 1950s, the Beatnik culture, the birth of modern folk music, hippies, acid rock, drug addiction, punk, and into the (then-)modern age of the early 1980s. Each generation is shown as making their own unique stamp on popular culture.

Condensing nearly a hundred years worth of history and music into ninety minutes would be a daunting task for even the best filmmaker. That’s the major problem with “American Pop.” It’s too short. The movie constantly changes protagonists, leaving us with at least a dozen major characters and none of them developed beyond general ideas. One of the sons doesn’t get more then, maybe, ten minutes of screen time. A rock band’s rise to fame happens mostly off-screen. Since the film’s casts and its concepts are innately tied together, some major areas of pop culture are brushed over. The entire hippy movement and Vietnam are basically relegated to one montage. Punk and all of the seventies similarly take up only a few minutes of screen time. For all the time spent on the 1950s, we never really get a good sense of the musical evolution of that era. The movie obviously tries but the run time is a seriously hindrance. “American Pop” probably would have been better served as a mini-series, spread out over many hours.

The second major problem sadly has nothing to do with writing or pacing. As in his last film, Bakshi uses rotoscoping as a shortcut and a crutch. All the main characters in the film are drawn over footage of existing actors. There’s so much of it that you begin to wonder why the movie was even animated to begin with. To save on costuming, production design, and location shooting? This is easily a story that could have been told in live action. (And perhaps better.) The rotoscoping isn’t always successful either, giving character’s very strange facial expressions or sometimes looking like nothing but color scribbled over a moving blob. As a cost-saving effort, it’s fine. As a creative process, rotoscoping does nothing but limit the director’s vision.

The movie’s still not bad, despite its glaring flaws. The soundtrack is, obviously, fantastic. Sam Cooke and Cole Porter are used as a reoccurring motif throughout. George Gershwin, Jimmi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, and Pat Benatar are all prominently featured. Aside from the main songs, Lee Holdridge’s orchestral soundtrack is quite nice, opening up the epic scope of the story while grounding the more personal moments.

Occasionally, the film steps outside of its determined, realistic animation style. This leads to the wilder, best moments. A montage of World War II artillery, gun fire, and battlefield, is cut with rowdy footage of swing dancers. A character’s acid trip during a rock concert leads to an effective freak-out scene that combines animation and live-action. A montage showing drug dealing during the punk age is effectively, and literally, colorful. Many of the backgrounds are painted and frequently full of exaggerated faces and people, a curious decision. The softer, more character-orientated moments are nice too. A young couple stripped down in front of each other, totally in silence. Later on, a son has to protect his drug-addled father from being mugged. Another scene involving the same characters, set on a park bench, says a lot with a little. More scenes showing that level of pathos or creativity would have been greatly appreciated.

The sequences set in the fifties and sixties are the film’s best. No doubt, Bakshi’s personal experiences during these times are a huge reason why. Tony is the most developed and interesting of the film’s characters. The character’s “On the Road” style trip across America finishes up with Kansas, cornfields, and a beautiful blonde waitress. His subsequent involvement with a sixties rock band and the quick fall from fame are also interesting, especially his reaction to the death of a character modeled after Janis Joplin. The early moments set in the 1900s are also exciting, if only perhaps that’s an under-explored period on film. Scratchy-voiced Zelmie is probably my favorite character. (The time period also allows Bakshi to once again let us know how much he hates organized crime.) The Pete character in the late seventies is definitely the most exaggerated and cartoonish person in the film. Ron Thompson’s over-the-top vocal performance doesn’t help any.

The story’s climax is definitely a let-down. Pete’s rise to rock stardom seems really easy. The music choices during this segment makes Bakshi seem wildly out of touch. The culmination of eighty years of American pop music is… Bob Seger? Kids at in a packed arena cheer on… “Devil in a Blue Dress?” “Crazy on You?” Seriously? Out of all the great post-punk and new wave music of the early 1980s, this is what the director came up with? Maybe it’s easier to pick out the great music of a time period in retrospect.

Was “American Pop” Bakshi’s bid for mainstream critical success? Perhaps. Either way, relying on easy methods and canning up his creativity to tell a more down-to-Earth story holds the film back. Even then, it’s not a total failure. “American Pop” has some shining moments. Fans of pop music will probably find something worth while here. [Grade: B-]

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1978)

5. The Lord of the Rings

I think I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m not much of a fan of J.R.R. Tolken’s novels. Certainly, that’s no comment on the quality of Tolken’s work. Hobbits, elves, and dwarves just aren’t much my style. I’m not particularly a fan of Peter Jackson’s much acclaimed film adaptations. Even then, I can’t deny how hugely successful Jackson was in creating a vast, believable universe on screen. I personally might not dig it but it’s still an extremely well-done series of films. Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation of Tolken’s epic is… Less so.

There are a lot of problems with the film. First off, is the animation itself. The use of rotoscoping in “Wizards” was mostly limited. In “The Lord of the Rings,” it makes up ninety percent of the animation. All the main characters are obviously rotoscoped over real people. However, Frodo, Aragon, Gandalf, et al, at least have distinct faces and expressions. Some effort was put into making these characters come alive. The same can not be said for the background characters. This film is a textbook example of how not to use rotoscoping. The Ringwraiths are silhouettes with crowns and cloaks. This doesn’t look great but at least sort of makes sense considering who the characters are. Orks are, basically, extras with plastic vampire fangs or monster make-up or, worse yet, store bought gorilla masks on their faces with some sketchy, dark animation plastered over them. It looks bad. When one of the more thoroughly animated characters have to interact with these barely animated characters, it looks incredibly awkward.

Sadly, the corner cutting doesn’t stop there. Many times, some of the main characters suddenly shifted into the more crude style, especially when running or riding their horses. In the second half of the film, the soldiers of Edoras are portrayed in the same fashion. Like I said, when done with inhuman characters, it’s almost acceptable. It looks awful but it’s almost acceptable. But when done with human characters? Unacceptable. There’s certainly nothing worse in the film then the Balrog. One of the most legitatmetly threatening creatures Tolken ever created is shown as a guy barely taller then every one else, with big, stiff, unmoving wings, and a barely animated lion mask on his head and shoulders. It’s just laughably bad. Later on when Gandalf reappears as the White later in the film, we see still paintings of his battle with the Balrog in the depths of the cavern… Which show a completely different monster, one much more convincing then what was previously shown in the film.

That’s not the only special effects failure in the film. The conflict between Gandalf and Saruman is wholly unconvincing. Basically, some stars and cosmos flash behind them, between them, and… That’s it. Lame. As the film progresses, some characters are literally unmoving, painted into the background.

There was clearly a budgetary limitation here. There wasn’t enough money to fully animate everything that needed to be animated. That raises the questions about why Bakshi even attempted to adapt the story in the first place, but you can’t blame the guy for being ambitious. But what about the shitty pacing? Compressing two novels into one two hour-fifteen minute which is tricky to begin with. From a writing perspective, it’s fair to say screenwriters Peter S. Beagle (of “The Last Unicorn” fame) and Chris Conking failed completely. Battle scenes drag on forever, while characters slash away at indistinct enemies over and over again, no sense of tension ever arising. The scenes of the Ringwraiths chasing Frodo across the river drags on for-fucking-ever. Sequences stumble into one another without rhyme or reason. Suddenly, Mary and Pippin are running with a group of Orks without much explanation. The Fellowship exploring Moria drags on, not much happening. Treebeard appears late in the film and disappears again just as suddenly. The climax of the story, Galdalf the White and his reinforcements storming into Helm’s Deep, is indistinct from the rest of the battle we’ve been watching haplessly drag on for the last hour. Even the early scenes of Gandalf and Frodo hanging out in the Shire are limply paced, reeking with exposition. All of this is avoiding the film’s biggest problem, which is that it DOESN’T HAVE A FUCKING ENDING. The story literally just stops, there’s a voice-over telling us that the story has stopped, and credits. The screenplay is horribly jumbled. The writing and pacing is clumsy, to be kind.

Thus far, I haven’t mentioned my general problems with Tolken’s writing in general. It’s unavoidable for me. I don’t find any of his characters to be compelling. Frodo is a weak protagonist. Most of the story revolves around the other character trying to protect him from getting killed, which almost happens several times anyway. Aragon’s real character development doesn’t happen until midway through the last book. The motivation for the rest of the cast? Who the hell knows. Gimli and Legolas aren’t in this movie much and spends the majority of their screen time fighting off similar looking Orks. Not to mention Legolas' permanent stink-eyes. Gollem, one of the few "Lord of the Rings" characters I actually like, doesn’t have much screen-time in this one, most of it composed of just whining at the hobbits. This is clearly only my opinion and other people might not have these problems with the movie. Sure.

Okay, so is there anything about the movie I liked? There are a couple of nicely animated scenes. A shot of the Shire going through seventeen years is cutely off-hand. The waters of a river forming into a cascading wall of white horses is pretty cool looking. I like the octopus attack, one of the few combat scenes that actually succeed. The background paintings are pretty. The main overture of the score is decent, properly mythic and rousing. Oddly, Wormtongue is actually the best animated character in the film. Some of the performances are good. John Hurt certainly does what he can with what he’s given. Galadriel’s monologue about what she would do with the ring, so effectively played by Cate Blanchett in the live-action adaptation, is almost as good here. None of this really makes up for all the other glaring problems.

I don’t even know how much I can blame on Bakshi. The degree of executive meddling was seemingly high and he clearly didn’t have enough money. Still, the over-reliance on rotoscoping was no doubt his choice and somebody probably should have taken a second look at the script. Perhaps before active production even started, someone should have realized there was no way this story could be told in two films.

Speaking of which, the second half of the film was, of course, never produced. Despite doing quite well at the box office (and probably single-handedly bankrolling the next two films Bakshi made), the critical rejection was apparently enough to put the brakes on future installments. Considering how the first part came out, I’m not exactly sad. “The Lord of the Rings” is just a bungled mess, from beginning to not-end. [Grade: D]

Friday, August 24, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1977)

4. Wizards

“Wizards” is a film that could only happen in the seventies. For a number of reasons. First off, the film is a fantasy epic set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by nuclear war. This combination of fantasy tropes with World War III and science fiction was a common feature in 1970s sci-fi novels and pulp. “Wizards” would be the first film to bring this style of fantasy fiction to the big screen.

The second reason “Wizards” was distinctly a product of its decade is because, simply put, this movie could never be made today. I was legitimately shocked to see the 20th Century Fox logo before the opening credits. Made on a modest 1.5 million dollar budget at the same time as “Star Wars,” it was Fox’s first animated feature. Because of the low budget, the studio let Bakshi do whatever he wanted. A major studio would never take a chance on a cult-favorite filmmaker to mount a project like this today. “Wizards” represents a more subversive, free period of studio animation, when pretty much anything was possible.

This is a weird movie too. It says a lot of about how damn weird Bakshi’s previous three movies were that this was a major step towards mainstream acceptance. Fusing wizards, fairies, and elves with robots, machine guns, and, especially, Nazi propaganda is strange enough. You also have weird stuff like oddball looking two-legged horse… Things, a president (Why is there a president in a fantasy setting?) who wears a mask for some reason, and a few scenes of typically weird, off-hand Bakshi tangents.

All of this is even crazier since “Wizards” is Bakshi’s self-described “kid’s film.” The movie's rated PG, though that rating was much more permissive in the seventies then it is now. You have numerous scenes of characters being bloodily shot down by gun fire in close-up. An early, very effective scene is of a group of elves in a World War I-style trench, overwhelmed by the enemies’ force, leaving a young solider totally traumatized. Truthfully, just the image of Hitler and goose-stepping soldiers is enough to freeze the innocent elfin people in terror. The juxtaposition of cutesy fantasy characters standing aside barbwire fences and Gatling guns is inherently kind of unnerving. The quantity of sex is reeled way back from Bakshi’s previous films, but even then one of the main characters is a busty, scantily clad fairy princess with perpetually erect nipples. Early on in the film, you see a ground of fairies dressed and acting as streetwalker prostitutes. There’s even a brief shot of a topless pixie with bouncing boobies. More over, all the themes of Nazism, WWII propaganda, magic vs. technology, and the cost of war are bound to go over the heads of the kiddies. I guess the point I’m making is that children’s cinema was very different back in the 1970s. The movie certainly has more in common with “Heavy Metal” then with whatever Disney was doing at the time.

Five paragraphs in and let me take a brief segue to explain the film’s premise a little. It basically boils down to the rivalry between two thousand years old wizards: Avatar, a stoned-out old hippy, and Blackwolf, a fascist tyrant. In classic fantasy style, Avatar is joined on his quest by a motley band of heroes: Elenor, the hot fairy princess out to avenge her father’s murder and hot-headed elf warrior Weehawk. Along the way, they encounter a fairies, elves, giant spiders, ice caps, fogs of evil, all on their quest to battle evil and restore balance to the world. This probably makes the film sound like your typical fantasy flick and completely undersells all the weird, subversive elements in here.

The film opens with a live-action shot of a book, classic Disney style that explains the movie is all about the conflict between magic and technology. This might seem like the film lazily spelling out its theme but it’s actually a subversion. If anything, the film is about the inherent neutrality of technology. The character of Peace is a robot storm trooper initially programmed to kill but later reprogrammed to be good. He’s a hero throughout most of the film. Avatar magic-zaps a juke box in early up and uses modern technology during a key moment of the film. Ralph has said the film is meant to be an allegory about the creation of Israel and needing to keep an eye on the ever-present threat of fascism. The latter point is obvious, considering the villain of the film uses ancient Nazi propaganda to rally his apathetic soldiers. I don’t really see the former. Bakshi is obviously terrified of Nazism but doesn’t make much of a point beyond that.

The main positive attribute in the film’s favor is its truly memorable characters. Avatar is an awesome protagonist. He’s not quite like any other wizard you’re likely to see. Frequently swishing booze and honking on a cigar, he’s massively laid-back and comes off like a stoned George Burns. (Though the director and voice actor Bob Holt patterned him after Peter Falk.) The character is primarily characterized by his age, tiredness, and grumpiness. He’s also a little bit of a dirty old man, though how couldn’t you be with a mostly naked babes pressing her giant tits in your face at all hours of the day? His relationship with the rest of his magical band provides a lot humor and warmth. Blackwolf spends most of the film darkly brooding in his fortress stronghold but his ominous voice and tyrannical reign makes him a legitimately intimidating villain. He even has some ambiguity, since sometimes his war seems based out of finding a better home for his radioactively mutated brethren. Even the little Mark Hamil voiced blonde fairy is a lovable persona.

Despite the relatively straight-forward story, the movie still makes room for weird, unrelated asides that characterized the filmmaker’s previous films. Throughout several scenes, the movie focuses on the clueless soldiers of Blackwolf’s army. Bakshi himself voices a solider ranting and raving over a fallen comrade named Fritz. (No doubt, a reference to this.) Later on, one solider has to convince a reluctant gunner to go to war with him. In the film’s funniest, completely unrelated sequence, two soldiers march into a church, filled with religious symbols among them an Academy Award and an old Coke sign, and have to deal with the long winded rantings of a pair of theistic Jewish rabbis. (Bakshi continues to have a strange relationship with his raised religion.) When that ends up taking too long, the soldier just bomb the church. Even the scene of Weehawk and Peace lost in a cave with a poison spewing giant spider seems kind of unrelated to the main story. 

The film was a low-budget affair and that is all too obvious at times. This marks the first time Bakshi used rotoscoping as a budget-saving, corner cutting method. The scenes of Blackwolf’s army assembling is mostly composed of black silhouetted rotoscope footage from old war epic, among them “El Sid” and “The Longest Day,” with a few horns, wings, or red eyes drawn in. While this is occasionally effective, especially when scored to the film’s anachronistic disco score, the technique is generally overused. When the characters have to interact with a rotoscoped tank, it becomes particularly awkward. Another money-saving method is the film’s use of still illustrations. Don’t get me wrong, they are very nice looking illustrations but the camera panning over unmoving pictures really don’t cut it. There’s way, way too much of it here. Susan Tyrell’s laconic narration doesn’t help much either, besides adding to the fairy tale feeling. A few frames of animation are reused as well. My only other major complaints about the film is a character’s sudden moral turn midway through, the off-hand way that moral turn is resolved, and the use the most egregious fantasy cliché: The villain’s lair exploding with his death. The following ending is a bit abrupt as well.

It goes both ways because there’s some beautiful animation in “Wizards.” Shots of random mutant goons messing around in a crowd are beautifully animated. The film’s mat-paintings and backgrounds are frequently gorgeous. Particularly Scorch, the villain’s evil city, which looks like a cross between Coruscant and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” While the seventies animation has certainly aged some, it’s still a unique looking film, no doubt.

“Wizards” is a stone-cold cult classic, too weird for widespread mainstream success but too creative to be ignored. It signaled some changes in Bakshi’s career, not all of them good, but it stands on its own. Maybe not a great film, but a damn good one. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1975)

3. Coonskin

The most controversial film in a career full of them, “Coonskin” was picketed by Al Sharpton and caused rioting. It’s a deeply politically incorrect film about subverting, satirizing, and mocking racial stereotypes by extending them to their most absurd, grotesque, cartoonish limits. It's a rough piece of satire and certainly not for everyone. The film opens with a black character looking directly into the camera and shouting, “Fuck you!” That’s the kind of movie this is.

The plot was loosely inspired by the Uncle Reemus stories. In another live action framing device, which the film returns to several times, a frantic preacher teams up with Barry White to bust a mutual friend and brother out of jail. While waiting for their rescue team, the imprisoned brother waits with Scatman Crothers, who tells him the story of Briar Rabbit, Briar Bear, and Preacher Fox.

The animation sequence that follows initially seems to be “Song of the South” as filtered through ‘70s blaxploitation. The early scenes of redneck cops shooting up a brothel and the trio’s plan to take out the three ruling forces in Harlem; a conman religious figure, a corrupt cop, and the mob; especially sets up that premise. However, the movie quickly reveals itself to be a biting satire on racist iconology. The Simple Savior/Black Jesus scenes are particularly grotesque in their complete revulsion at religious corruption and the ways Christianity has been used to manipulate. The movie even takes its potshots at organized sports, at how becoming an athlete was the only way for a black man to become accepted in a white culture.

The movie doesn’t limit itself to black stereotypes. The Italian Mob, whom Bakshi has a well-known hatred of, maybe get the worst of it. The Godfather is without a doubt the most grotesque figure in the film. Among his group of sons, three of them are incestuous, lisping homosexuals. (There are actually a couple of characters like that in this movie.) One even dresses and acts like John Wayne, for a number of sociopolitical reasons I’m sure. The movie fires specifically at “The Godfather” in the scene were the mob boss’ wife and the mother of his sons, tired of her boys being killed because of their father’s selfish needs, turns on her husband. The revenge is short lived though, since she’s shot down. Still, Bakshi clearly sympathizes with the woman since her death scene has her transforming into a beautiful butterfly.

Despite the fairly straight-forward story, Bakshi brings his typically wild, free-form style to the proceedings. There are a lot of vignettes within the film that aren’t related to the main story, all of them about the black experience in America. One, perhaps the film’s best moment, is a monologue from a mother living in the ghetto about the cockroach that came to live with her, how she fell in love with him, and how he eventually had to live her behind. Other segments are even looser, revolving around a character called Miss America, a blond, voluptuous representation of the country. She’s, let’s just say, less then kind to the black men who accost her throughout the film, providing some of the most biting, and darkly funny moments in the film. Stock footage from “Birth of a Nation” and other racist, early films are trotted out a few times as well. An early use of the Looney Tunes spiral porthole opening thing also seems to cast the film as a piss-take on the frequently racist imagery in classic animation.

In general, Bakshi doesn’t excuse himself from going off on surreal tangents. The scene in which the corrupt, viciously racist cop is drugged with LSD leads to a wild trip sequence, involving giant demons flying around and chewing on people’s eyeballs. The mob boss is assisted by a headless black stud and a group of flying friaries with needles and thread, an odd touch that remains unexplained. One notable sequence has a giant eight-ball exploding into a choir of minstrel singers. The boxing sequences later in the film are highly energetic, cutting between live action and animation.

The voice cast is excellent. Barry White plays Brother Bear and, with his deep rolling baritone, is a naturally strong voice actor. Charles Gordone is wild and verbose as Preacher Fox. If nothing else, the movie is really a showcase for Scatman Crothers who, in addition to narrating the story, also voices numerous characters throughout the film. After years of hearing Crothers on cartoon shows like “Transformers,” it’s certainly shocking to hear him deliver enraged statements on his race. Also listen for an uncredited Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis as the voice of the Godfather. The music is filled with excellent seventies funk. The opening song, a deeply politically incorrect monologue sang by Crothers, is also insanely catchy even if I dissuade you from singing it in public.

“Coonskin,” also released as “Street Fight” and “Bustin’ Out,” was described by the NAACP at the time of release as “a difficult satire.” That’s about right. It’s certainly not the most accessible film but it does provide plenty of food for thought. The film was certainly ahead of it’s time since shows like “South Park” make a weekly business of such things. Sure, a few times I wonder how entitled a white Jew like Ralph Bakshi is to speak to what it was like to be a black man living in seventies Harlem, but never the less the film makes a lot of valid points. After years of general unavailability, it was finally given a proper DVD release just a few months back. Perhaps not the filmmaker’s best film but certainly his most passionate, I recommend you track it down yourself, if any of the above sounds interesting. It’s an intelligent, fiery satire of a highly difficult subject, all carried out in Bakshi’s anarchic, unique style. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1973)

2. Heavy Traffic

After the break-out commercial success of “Fritz the Cat,” Bakshi had the money to finance a deeply personal project, “Heavy Traffic.” An oddball, chaotic story of growing on the wild streets of New York in the 1970s, I suspect the film is highly autobiographical. While it touches on themes like crime, racism, sexism, spousal abuse, and religion, it shows the filmmaker moving away from satire towards a more character-oriented style.

The film is lightly plotted. It focuses on Michael Corleone, a 22-year old amateur cartoonist and a virgin, trying to make his own way. His parents, an Italian dock worker/would-be Mafioso and a Russian Jewish battleaxe, are literally trying to kill each other. His best friend whom he has a ambiguous relationship with is Carole, a black female bartender determined to make Michael a man. Other characters that wandered into the film are a legless bar bouncer romantically infatuated with Carole, a transvestite prostitute, a schizophrenic homeless black man, a gaggle of hookers, a trio of misogynistic greasers, an ancient comic strip executive, and the Godfather.

The film is highly experimental and frequently heavy-handed in its symbolism and humor. There’s live-action framing devices of Michael, played by Joseph Kaufmann, playing a pinball machine. (Because life in New York is chaotic!) Live action footage of the New York skyline and streets are used as backgrounds for the animated characters. We frequently cut back and forth between actual actors and animated figures. Pinball is used throughout as a blatant metaphor for the chaotic life of living in the city. Balls bouncing or spring levels being pulled are intercut with the frenzied sequences.

The character designs explain a lot of the film’s intentions. Michael and perhaps Carole are the only characters in the film that aren’t grotesque caricature. Huge noses, gangly limbs, ugly faces, and bug-eyes, New York as depicted here is a black hole full of monsters and mutants. Michael tries to let the insanity fuel his artwork but it soon starts to get to him. The big city is hell and it drives everyone crazy. How couldn’t it?

The film is also grotesquely violent. There’s a surprisingly amount of the red stuff here, often exaggerated to over-the-top levels. After accidentally pushing a girl off a roof that the guys had presented for Michael to screw, his trio of greaser acquaintances stab themselves to bloody pulps in a frenzy of laughter. After discovering he’s a man, a bar patron beats the cross-dresser black and blue. A scene featuring a mafia boss has his bodyguards, dressed in red Catholic monk robes, shoot him full of holes for some reason, even though he lives. A man is beaten to death with a lead pipe, drowning in his own blood. The film climaxes with somebody getting their head blown off. Maybe the hardest to swallow stuff involves the spousal abuse. At first, Michael’s parents homicidal tendencies are obviously played for laughs. As it goes on though, it becomes more uncomfortable. When Michael’s dad pistol whips his mom out onto a clothes line, his blow sending her spinning around in circles, it goes from funny to unpleasant. I’m not sure how intentional that discomfort is.

The film’s most memorable and successful moments is when it goes really nuts. Michael’s underground comix doodles take over the story a handful of times. Early on, he illustrates the sexual struggles of mom and dad literally, with boxing glove penis and woman becoming a giant breast. In my favorite scene of the entire film, Michael and Carole watch a street performer singing a highly off-key version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” This segues into a wiggly animated sequence set to the original song, illustrating the song’s lyrics in a wacky, perverse manner. I also love an out-of-place moment were Michael’s mom is presented with 1920s era photographs of her parents and family. She monologues ruefully about her past while reviewing each picture. The climax of the story has the film exploding into purely abstract footage, just colorful, oddball, violent images, bouncing around the screen set to discordant music. The confusion at the center of the tale is visually illustrated in this moment.

Michael’s virginity and horniness is another focus of the film. His father is promiscuous and frequently seen with a blue-eyed hooker. His attempts to sleep with the loose young lady his friends have had a few stabs at end in embarrassment and failure. (And is the film’s only non-ironic use of uncomfortable, sexist themes.) At one point, his father brings home a morbidly obese hooker whom he soundly rejects, despite her insistence. Once Carole finally accepts Michael’s romantic intentions, he can’t even complete the task, passing out instead. Despite the two ostensibly being in a relationship, we never see the two mingling. It’s not established if this is a sexual relationship or not much more then just a close friendship.

The only time the film’s outsider perspective really falters is during the scene when Michael pitches his cartoons to an elderly, near death newspaper comic businessman. What follows is a bizarre cartoon about a post-apocalyptic landscape, mutants, God impregnating the last real woman left on the planet, and a gun-wielding Jesus Christ. It’s bizarre but mostly pretentious. Possibly by design but I’m not sure. The fact that the cartoon literally blows the old man’s mind, just being too real for his fragile state, comes off as really self-serious and congratulating.

When the movie crosses over into primarily live action at the very end, not specifying how much of the film was a fantasy and how much actually happened, it’s a bit jarring. Even in live action, the characters act just as cartoonish and over-the-top as they did in animation, which doesn’t exactly work.

Music plays a big role in the film. A jazzy, laid-back cover of Simon and Garfunkel is a musical motif and plays throughout. The Isley Brother’s “Twist and Shout” is used ironically during one of the scenes of violence. The film’s original music is typical of the seventies era and quite listenable. It’s fair to say the use of music isn’t as dynamic as it was in “Fritz the Cat.”

That’s actually the main problem with “Heavy Traffic.” It’s not as funny, energetic, insightful, or exciting as the filmmaker’s first movie. No doubt, it’s creative and highly personal. Certainly, nobody but Ralph Bakshi could have made this. However, it’s a tad inscrutable and the loose storyline leaves you wondering what exactly the whole point was, a bit, besides just putting us in the main character’s mindset. Proceed with caution on this one, guys. It’s a one of a kind film and certainly has recommendable qualities but it’s also not the easiest flick to like. [Grade: B]

Monday, August 20, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1972)

Ralph Bakshi is the original bad boy of animation. He popularized dark, adult, independent animation in the 1970s. His films are not for everybody. He frequently treats transgressive themes in a sarcastic, satirical manner. For fans of demented animation, his work is required viewings. For fans of cult cinema, I'd highly recommend it. For everyone else? Ah, who knows. Let's go on a journey together.

1. Fritz the Cat

“Fritz the Cat” is notorious for being the first animated film to get an X rating from the MPAA, back in the time before that rating was immediately associated with pornography. The film was a major success, no doubt because the then novelty of an “adults-only” cartoon. Anyone looking for hardcore cartoon pornography is going to be disappointed. However, those looking for pointed satire and trippy animation are in for a treat.

Set in the mid-1960s, probably around 1966, the film takes aim at the hippy movement, free love, racism, radical politics, and the life-style of American college students. Early on in the film, a trio of college girls talk to a black man (represented as a crow – more on that later), going on and on about how they understand and relate to the black man’s plight, saying a few grossly offensive things. The girls are obviously interested in the man sexually and… He turns out to be a flaming homosexual. It’s the first big laugh in the film and also the first clue to the film’s central theme: Anyone claiming to be interested in “the revolution” is generally clueless. We are introduced to Fritz himself, not long after that. He quickly latches onto the faux-philosphical, poetic rhetoric to get into the girls’ collective pants. From there on, he becomes a fugitive, incites a race riot, becomes involved with a group of radical terrorism, and, most importantly, has lots of sex and smokes a bunch of pot.

Like the R. Crumb comix strips that inspired it, the film uses funny animals in use of people. Black people are represented as crows. The cops are pigs, of course. A big fat unattractive woman is a literal horse and Fritz’ gripping girlfriend is a female dog, a bitch. The film’s treatment of black urban individuals hasn’t aged all that well. All of the black characters in the film are drug-pushers or criminals. Most of them talk in slurred, jive-talk. Many of them are interested in violent revolution against white America. As bad as these characters might come off, they aren’t any worse compaired to Fritz. Cluelessly, he immediately thinks of himself as one of them and tries to rouse the impartial locals into racial violent. Violence does break out and Fritz gets away with it, scot-free.

Another sequence where the film’s intentional use of cultural stereotypes doesn’t work involves a synagogue full of identical, praying rabbis. The pig-cop characters are largly annoying and uninteresting and the scene where they are searching the synagogue seems to go on for a very long time. It’s the only time when the film becomes ugly and unlikeable… Which is weird, since Bakshi himself is Jewish. It’s a drawn-out, laughless scene.

The movie is well-known as a stoner flick and, indeed, features a few lengthy “freak-out” sequences. Some times these sequences are successful. A car blazes in flames as it shoots up the cables of a giant bridge, color exploding everywhere. Near the end of the film, Blue the Biker Rabbit violently, brutally whips his girlfriend with a chain, beating her bloody, while Fritz masturbates, watches, and shouts at him to stop, despite doing nothing else. Some times the trip sequences don’t work. In the middle section, when Fritz gets high on pot and tries to sex-up a crow lady, seems to drag on forever and reuses a lot of animation.

The soundtrack is hugely important to the film. A long establishing shot of the New York ghetto is precedented with a crow standing to side, snapping his fingers and whistling to a Bo Diddley song. As Fritz and Winston drive across country, swirving around traffic, a thumping rock song plays, introducing the character. The introduction of Blue the Rabbit, riding around on his bike while his girlfriend lures him back with the promise of drugs, is dialogue-less, the bounding rock music being the only soundtrack. The aforementioned chain-beating scene is accompanied by a grinding, noise-rock psych-out. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s pretty awesome.

Bakshi’s animation is frequently experimental. His backgrounds are often sketchy and loose, characters bouncing around them. The scene where Fritz abandons college in favor of a life full of revolution, but actually hedonism, shows him buried in papers while humping a giant, invisible girl. The crosses of road-side telephone poles slowly transforms into the crosses of a graveyard. My favorite scene is the death of Duke the Crow. The character is introduced by playing pool and, when he’s struck down by a stray-bullet, the collision is shown by pool balls colliding. The final beats of his heart are shown by pool balls bouncing around. Personally speaking, brilliant stuff.

All of this might not matter if the film wasn’t so funny. Many of Fritz’ monologues are hilariously self-important. When Winston his girlfriend finds him, he’s living in a garbage can. His response is hilarious. When the movie really gets going in the last act, Fritz’ utterly clueless interaction with the terrorist provides some hilarity. Finally, the end of the film makes it clear that, despite his numerous adventures, Fritz hasn’t learned a damn thing. He’s a wonderfully amoral protagonist.

“Fritz the Cat” rode its novelty and notoriety to a large success, becoming the most successful independently produced animated film ever. R. Crumb, the man who’s cartoon was being adapted here, hated the film, mainly because it politicized his work. (Though, if you’ve seen the documentary “Crumb,” you can probably figure that he hates everything.) In response to the film’s popularity, he killed off the character in the comics. It didn’t end the character’s lifespan, since a much weaker sequel to this film, “The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat,” was produced later without Crumb or Bakshi’s involvement. It’s not perhaps a great film but it is hugely entertaining and established Ralph Bakshi as an infant terrible in cartoons. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Recent Watches: The Hellstrom Chronicle

Over at the Onion’s AV Club, the website where I get most of my pop culture news, they have a feature called Secret Cinema. It’s about obscure, forgotten movies, the films nobody are talking about. Consider this post somewhat inspired by that feature. Back in the early days of the internet, maybe 2003?, I use to frequent a website called It’s gone now but, at the time, it played like a less complex IMDb. It wasn’t as focused on raw information so much as recommending similar films. It was an important tool for me discovering types of movies I had never heard of before in the early days of my film geek-dom. While surfing around the website one night, a series of connecting links led me down a rabbit-hole that probably started with “Koyaanisqatsi” and finished with…

"The Hellstrom Chronicle." The film was described as an oddball combination of documentary and horror about how insects are going to take over the world. Further research revealed that the titular character of Nils Hellstrom was actually fictional and, despite that, it still won the Academy Award in 1972 for Best Documentary. I had to see it.

That was, obviously, like nine years ago. The film was only available as an out-of-print VHS tape for a long time. (Though a quick Google search shows that it’s been on Youtube for about three years now.) Finally, this year, after years of waiting by probably not many more people besides me, “The Hellstrom Chronicle” was finally released on DVD by up-and-coming distributors Olive Films. It wasn’t a Criterion or anything but I still went out and bought the disc.

The film itself is not exactly what I was expecting. It’s in many ways a straight documentary about insects. I suspect that most of the critical acclaim at the time had to do with its then-groundbreaking microphotography of real insects in their natural habitats.

No doubt that much of its footage is truly memorable. Many of the scenes look like they were shot on an alien planet. The camera watches from the inside of a Cobra plant as a fly is crushed and digested. The aftermath of an ant war is brutal, as we see the dismembered insects’ severed legs and heads twitching and dying, an insectual “Saving Private Ryan.” Close-ups of a caterpillar’s legs moving along a tree is odd enough that it takes you a minute to realize just what exactly you’re looking at. The scene of a caterpillar becoming a cocoon feels like an HR Giger painting and the close-ups of fluttering butterfly wings that follows is oddly poetic. Extreme close-ups of huge nests of beetles admittedly are a bit squirm-inducing. Scenes of dancing jumping spiders or the mating habits of black widows set to seventies porno music, provided by Lalo Scifrin, are grin-inducing, possibly unintentionally. The film’s big climax are scenes of army ants devouring lizards, other larger insects, and anything else in their path. All of this is admittedly fascinating.

But it’s not what makes the movie really interesting. The hosts and narrator of our program is Dr. Nils Hellstrom, a character only a few spaces removed from a mad scientists. Hellstrom provides melodramatic, flowery narration over the footage. He talks about how insects are pitiless, emotionless, soulless characters and how this makes them survivors. The film isn’t about an active take-over of the world by insects but is intent on making the point that they will outlive humanity. That they were here before us and will be here after us. That they are the only species that can survive the poisons and pollution humans cover their planet with. He devotes a lot of time to describing the bee hive as a dark utopian society, the only real way a utopia can exist. It’s eccentric, sometimes very silly material. It does, however, quickly set the film apart from any of the nature documentaries you might have been able to find on the Discovery Channel back in the day.

The character’s truly mad scientist tendencies show through a few times, like when he stings a presumably real mouse to death with presumably real bees, or lets mosquitoes bite him just he can squish the critters. A highlight moments is Hellstrom showing how humans can be gods over insects by blasting a wasp hive with a water hose. The damage water reaps on the hive is shown in close-up, slow-motion footage. One of the best scenes of the movie starts with him in a theater watching “Them!” and “The Naked Jungle.” He grins mischievously and says he’s been experimenting on people… Sinister overtones, there. What he’s done, in clearly staged, probably scripted sequences, is place bugs and spiders on people’s food in supermarkets and restaurants. It’s the only moment of humor in an intentionally grim film. Other moments of camps, like Hellstrom visiting a museum full of giant, plastic reproduction of bugs, or milling around a space observatory or some ancient ruins, help elevate the mood a tad.

The end credits even reveal that Hellstrom is a fictional character, though the research was real. It probably wouldn’t have been hard to figure out anyway, considering how loopy the guy comes off as. The scene of him talking with a farmer whose crops were devastated by locust is obviously scripted. The movie is undoubtedly an oddity. As goofy as it is, perhaps fears of insects taking over the world were on people’s mind in the 1970s, since similarly themed sci-fi/horrors like “Phase IV” and “Bug,” which both featured spellbinding close-up footage of insects, followed later in the decade. It’s incredible footage, over-the-top narration, trippy musical score, and slightly off-center tone does make “The Hellstrom Chronicle” a rather hard to forget flick. It probably deserves to be an obscurity but I’d recommend it to adventurous cinema fans. Or anybody with a phobia of insects. [7/10]