Ralph Bakshi: The Animated Filmmaker I Hate to Love
Monday, November 24, 2008
Author: Bryan Ghingold
I must start this paper by saying that to great disappointment, I was unable to get in touch with Mr. Bakshi. In my research, I discovered his home telephone number in New Mexico, and attempted to call him to set up a telephone interview (figuring that would make one Hell of a paper!), expecting either no answer, or to be cursed out and hung up on. My less caustic anticipated response turned out to be correct: he never returned my phone call. I plan to try again, outside the requirements of this paper, and interview him for my own benefit. In researching and writing this paper, I have gained a completely new perspective on and admiration for the works of Ralph Bakshi, despite disliking many of his films. In this paper, I will prove that Mr. Bakshi’s films are more than mere sex-and-race shock evokers by explaining their cultural relevance, consistent message, and social progressiveness throughout. I will also explain what it is about his films that I find so captivating, and what about them I cannot stand.
Mr. Bakshi was born October 29, 1938 in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel). To escape WWII, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Both these facts; Bakshi’s Judaism, and his Brooklyn upbringing are incredibly relevant and evident in the message and aesthetic of his films. He began his career as a cell polisher and inker at Terrytoons Studio; an animation studio that produced prestigious cartoon shows such as Mighty Mouse, and Heckel and Jeckel. He auto-promoted himself to animation when Terrytoons had an animator shortage, by carrying his desk down several flights of stairs and relocating to the corner of the animation room, hoping no one would notice him. This kind of chutzpah or bold behavior is the stuff of legends and myths in Hollywood success stories. For Bakshi however, given the nature of the films he would make in the years to follow, this behavior doesn’t seem at all out of place. Bakshi left Terrytoons in 1967, and wrote Heavy Traffic (1973). He pitched Heavy Traffic to producer Steve Krantz, who told him to shelve it for the time being, and instead, write and direct R. Crumb’sFritz the Cat (1972). Krantz thought that making a film from a previously existing property would be more successful than an original idea. 2 Krantz was correct, and Fritz the Cat turned out to be a success, allowing Bakshi to make Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, Wizards, and many more films and animations throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Fritz the Cat was my first true introduction to the works of Ralph Bakshi (if you don’t count Spicy City (1997), which I used to watch on late night Télétoon in Montreal after my parents had gone to sleep). I saw it in my sophomore year of college, when my friend said “hey Bryan, have you ever seen Fritz the Cat? It’s the first X rated cartoon, based on the comics of this guy named Crumb.” He put a bootleg copy on my computer, and I watched it; over and over again. Not because of the sexuality, not because of the animals, not because I (at the time) had any prior knowledge to the odd humor that belongs to R. Crumb. I was enthralled by its aesthetic; rotoscoping animation over live video, and using still photographs both narratively and esoterically to serve as backgrounds for the animation. I was also enthralled by the film’s place in history; I got dizzy trying to rationalize out loud “it is a film made in the 70’s, set in the 60’s providing social commentary on the Nixon Era (69-74) 70s, using a Vietnam-era hippie attitude as its audience identifier.” At first, I disliked the movie, but respected its message and place in culture. However, the more people I showed it to who responded with utter disgust (“How can you own this!? Are you a sexual deviant? Do you not respect women or police?”), the more I grew to like it, perhaps in defense of its cultural relevance. At the time, I had no idea who Ralph Bakshi was, and I frankly didn’t care. I attributed Fritz the Cat to Crumb, even though he denounced the film, and had his name removed from any aspect of the production; going so far as to kill Fritz in his cartoons for “selling out.” As time (and my interest/obsession with R. Crumb) went on, I began to see the striking difference between Fritz the film and Fritz the comic, and my attention to Ralph Bakshi was renewed.
I read up on Bakshi on imdb, and found some of his more mainstream works, such as Cool World (1992) and The Lord of the Rings (1978). I was surprised, and a little put off by how dated the dialogue felt. Bakshi seems to be a fan of “Brooklyn greaser” dialogue; all his characters want to “make it” (have sex) and “get there” (reach a state of drug induced high where everything seems philosophical), no matter what year the film is set in, or made. I do not like it, personally, but I accept it as a “signature,” much like Kevin Smith features names with short “e” sounds (Oliver Trinke and Gertrude Steiney in Jersey Girl, Miri Linkey in Zach and Miri make a Porno), or Tim Burton features spirals and pale skinned characters (The Penguin in Batman Returns, Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas). This assignment inspired me to research more Bakshi films, includingHeavy Traffic (1973), Coonskin (1975), Wizards (1977), and Cool and the Crazy (1994). All his animated films feature the same aesthetic, dialogue, and social commentary. Bakshi uses his films to comment on race relations in New York City, where New York serves as a surrogate for America. His outlook is grim; as the racial tension in his films is usually broken by one or several built-up sequences of extreme violence. In addition to extreme violence, themes of sexuality, female sexuality, Nazism, anti-Semitism, and phallocentrism are present in almost all his original works.
Bakshi’s 1973 film Heavy Traffic paints the portrait of a New York City shlub, trying to get by as a cartoonist, who falls in love with a highly sexualized black bartender named Carole, drawing heavily on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In his film, Bakshi’s cartooning protagonist is named Michael Corleone, son on Angelo Corleone; a low level mobster who yearns for his “Godfather’s” approval, and is embarrassed by his half Jewish son and his Jewish mother. When he learns about his son’s relationship, he gains an audience with the corpulent, spaghetti-eating Godfather, and puts a hit on his own son, for the crime of racial mixing. The animated portion of the film ends with Michael getting shot in the head, in slow motion, by a legless bouncer who has unreciprocated feelings for Carole. Despite its incredible unoriginality, this is one of my favorite Bakshi films. It’s grungy New York aesthetic is drawn and photographed beautifully, and though I did not live through the 1970s, the race related dialogue feels very real to me. Even when the dialogue doesn’t feel real, it is serving a social purpose. In one instance, Michael is on a roof with “Crazy Moe,” a homeless black man Michael knows. On Moe’s suggestion, Michael releases one of the caged pigeons on the rooftop, only to have it defecate on his face. Michael yells to the sky “Why you little… dumb stupid… I set you free and you shit on me!” At witnessing this, Crazy Moe rolls around on the ground laughing, then looks straight at the audience and says “I likes that bird.” Though the racial commentary couldn’t be more obvious, it is a great sequence that sums up Bakshi’s views on white and black social interaction.
It is obvious Bakshi sympathizes with the black community’s complaint of black oppression. Several of his films feature the black minority struggling to overcome their pigeonholing by society. One of the major sequences in Fritz the Cat is when a very peaceful, levelheaded crow (surrogate animal for black culture) is shot and killed by the [white] US Army during a riot Fritz [the quintessential white trying desperately to assimilate the black struggle as his own, to seem more worldly than he actually is] incites. At this point in discussing race and Bakshi films, I do not feel I could produce a successful paper without mentioning Coonskin, later renamed Street Fight, for it’s VHS release. This Bakshi film, which has gone out of print as a VHS, and does not have a planned DVD release stars Scatman Crothers, Phillip Thomas, and Barry White as three black prison escapees who become friends through their business partnership, as they try to find their place in Harlem and black society. Along the way, they encounter competition in mob crime, black on black racism, and white on black racism. It is regarded as a controversial film, and despite having supporters in the black community; there is no doubt it offends.
I had to watch this film twice to fully let it sink in. I did not find it terribly offensive, if you look at the three main characters for what they stand for socially, and look past the fact that Bakshi chose to set them as escaped convicts (his vehicle to transmit the message of racial issues in America). The leader of the group, Brother Rabbit, voiced by Phillip Thomas, represents the young, intelligent black youth. He is a young guy who has to overcome the stigma of being a violent young black man. True to Bakshi’s sometimes-confusing layered character development, there are instances where Rabbit is incredibly violent; using guns and bombs to kill black gangsters. Barry White voices Sampson; an imposing man of incredible strength who reserves his power until it is needed, and then defeats any obstacles in his way. He serves as the surrogate for black power. Often times when Rabbit is being hot headed, it is Sampson who talks him down, showing the responsibility black society has to not abuse their strength, despite the fact that white society treats them poorly. Finally, Scatman Crothers’ character, Preacher Fox, represents the bitter old age of the oppressed black man… vicariously living and rebelling through his two younger companions, but ultimately defeated; conceding that a better life and better treatment are reserved for a younger generation. Not surprisingly of his role, Preacher Fox commits the least actual violence, but eggs Rabbit on, playing to his bad temper and short fuse. Ironically, he acts as the devil on Rabbit’s shoulder; pushing him toward the violent decision, leaving Sampson to try and convince him to keep his cool. For a film called Street Fight, there is very little fighting. Most of the movie consists of the three men driving aimlessly in Harlem, talking about social and political conditions for the black race in the 1970s. I was expecting something more “Fritz” like or more “Heavy Traffic” like, which had a faster pace and more captivating story. I got the message, but did not enjoy Street Fight as a narrative. Visually, I enjoyed the aesthetic, but it was nothing new; grungy, rotting New York, rotoscoping, blending of live action footage with animation. Compared to the other films of its time, it must have had a very unique look that I admire.
The next film I screened turned out to be my least favorite, and Bakshi’s favorite. Wizards is an incredibly fantastic story that takes place in a fictitious Earth, several million years after a nuclear holocaust destroys our way of life. Bakshi uses this fictional setting to tell the story of how the combination of media and human evil can lead to enslavement and death, by beating the dead horse of historical allusions that is the Jewish Holocaust. In the film, the antagonist, an evil wizard named Blackwolf is defeated in battle and sent into exile by his brother, the aged wizard Avatar. While in exile, Blackwolf discovers amongst the rubble of the nuclear war that ended our time Nazi propaganda films, films of the death and destruction caused during the Holocaust, and a projector. He shows these films to his armies, and it rallies their spirits, filling them with bloodlust until they are strong enough to wage a war on the forces of good. He then uses the same films, and projects them into the sky during the battle, causing the soldiers on the side of good to freeze in horror. As their hearts break at the sight of such atrocities, the evil army gains the upper hand. Avatar has to come out of retirement, and he and his young and beautiful protégé Elinore begin a long trek to defeat Blackwolf. It utilized the same staples of Bakshi’s visual and linguistic style, and the only thing to set it apart from other Bakshi works was the fact that it takes place several millions of years in the future (perhaps in what used to be New York City) rather than the present day of the 1970s.
The reason I disliked it so much, was that it seemed Bakshi was adhering to the conventions of epic tales, but then quit halfway through. From the synopsis I gave, and in every other epic tale, you would expect Avatar to die on his second encounter with Blackwolf. It feels appropriate for him to die, and for Elinore or the “wandering warrior” Weehawk (who happens to be a young attractive male) to defeat Blackwolf. But Avatar doesn’t die. Avatar defeats Blackwolf a second time, marries Elinore, and complains on the ride back home that it is taking to long because he wants to “make it” with her. Weehawk, who from the moment of his introduction, I want to see grow past his ways of war and fall in [reciprocal] love with Elinore just goes away after Blackwolf is defeated. He doesn’t even stick around in their lives. Bakshi sets up the epic battle, the epic journey, the epic warrior, the epic wizard, the epic villain, the epic beauty, but he doesn’t deliver on any of them.
For as much as I disliked the film, that is how much Bakshi loved it. He stated of all the films and cartoons he made, this is by far his favorite; because he sees it as the ultimate expression of children’s fantasy. In his interview on the Wizards DVD, Bakshi puts down the Walt Disney way of making films, specifically mentioning their structure and false-ness. He feels that censors do not bind him, be they visual, thematic, or lingual because he is on the fringes, and that makes for a truer movie.7 I agree with his sentiment on censorship, but I cannot appreciate this film. I understand that some of the greatest films in cinematic history violate genre rules, but I do not feel with Wizards that Bakshi violated the correct rules.
The last Bakshi film I screened for this research project was his first and only feature length all-live action 1994 film Cool and the Crazy. It was very interesting watching a Bakshi film without animation. As I was watching it, I found myself wondering what he was like on set- if he knew how he wanted to frame certain shots, if he knew how to direct acting talent as opposed to vocal talent, if he would utilize some of the filmmaking techniques not as easily available to animated films, such as craning and sweeping camera movements, mise en scene, etc. While I was watching it, I had to look it up on the Internet Movie Database to make sure there weren’t two Ralph Bakshi’s who made films! With the exception of the dialogue, this film did not feel like a Bakshi movie. The setting is unnamed, but looks like California (though New York is referenced in the film), there is no reference to black culture at all, and the film doesn’t seem to have any social or cultural statement to make.
Set in the 1950s, this film stars Alicia Silverstone and Jared Leto as Roslyn and Michael, a young couple who got married due to a pregnancy right out of high school. Michael works hard for a living, and doesn’t have time to satisfy his wife’s sexual desires. On the advice of her promiscuous friend Joannie (Jennifer Blanc), Rosalyn begins an extramarital affair with a wild greaser named Joey (Matthew Flint). Things turn south relatively quickly, but beyond the odd punch or bloody nose, there really isn’t any grand display of violence. Bakshi made this film for the Showtime network, so despite being made for TV, he had relatively few boundaries. I was unable to find articles to answer the plethora of questions this film left me with, such as why Bakshi made a live action movie, why (when the script was his own), does it not have anything deep to say, and why does it deviate so far from his other works in terms of visual and thematic elements? Was there studio or career pressure involved in making Cool and the Crazy? These would all have been great questions to ask him if he returned my phone call. The sunny, beachside aesthetic didn’t fit his films either. Even the gritty parts: the shady diner where Joey hangs out, the grungy apartment where Rosalyn, Michael, and their baby live, were clean and shiny and had that “Hollywood glorification” edge to them.
After giving almost every film in my paper a negative review or reaction, it is a wonder I admire Bakshi as much as I do. I own several of his films, and follow his career closely; eagerly anticipating his current work in production: Last Days of Coney Island, just recently removed from imdb and trapped in development Hell because of budgetary issues. I suppose even though I don’t find interesting the stories Bakshi chooses to tell, I love the way he tells his stories. His films are a visual treat; every one a warm hug from the 70s nostalgia I wasn’t a part of, but will gladly embrace. His themes of black struggles, gay persecution, women’s subservience, and subsequent, sexual un-fulfillment (which says a lot about what Bakshi thinks of men and the “macho” attitude) are still pertinent today. I would say it is a shame Bakshi never caught on and made it to the mainstream, but I have a feeling he enjoys his place in American culture, and wouldn’t want it any other way.
Entry: Ralph Bakshi. The Internet Movie Database. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000835/>
Special Feature: Ralph Bakshi: Wizard of Animation. Wizards. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1977. DVD.
Perf. Robert Crumb. Crumb. Dir. Terry Zwigoff. Superior Pictures Productions. 1994. DVD.
Heavy Traffic. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1973. DVD.
Street Fight. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1975. VHS.
Wizards. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1977. DVD.
Special Feature: Ralph Bakshi: Wizard of Animation. Wizards. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1977. DVD.
Cool and the Crazy. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. American International Pictures. 1994. DVD.
1.Entry: Ralph Bakshi. The Internet Movie Database.
2.Special Feature: Ralph Bakshi: Wizard of Animation. Wizards. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1977. DVD.
- 3.Crumb. Dir. Terry Zwigoff. Perf. Robert Crumb. Superior Pictures Productions. 1994. DVD.
- 4.Heavy Traffic. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1973. DVD.
- 5.Street Fight. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1975. VHS.
- 6.Wizards. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi Productions. 1977. DVD.
- 7.Cool and the Crazy. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. American International Pictures. 1994. DVD.
- 8.Cool World. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Paramount Pictures. 1992. DVD
- 9.The Lord of the Rings. Dir. Ralph Bakshi. Fantasy Films. 1978. DVD
Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit