Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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-]


Sean Catlett said...

fritz you ain't black enough

I wonder if the synagogue dialogue was recorded during a real rabbinical conversation, without the participants' knowledge? And yeah, it does carry a mocking edge to it. It reminds me of the end of Hertzfeldt's Meaning of Life cartoon. Perhaps Bakshi, while raised in the faith, doesn't practice?

I didn't much like the movie. But! Looking forward to Lord of the Rings and Fire and Ice. Annnnd I suppose Heavy Traffic but I've only seen parts of it.

Bonehead XL said...

I don't know if Bakshi practices or not, but I'd guess not. His films certainly don't show a very positive view of the religion.