Tuesday, May 03, 2005

An Evening With Ralph Bakshi

Friday night, I went to see the Ralph Bakshi program at the Egyptian. I got to see Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic on the big screen, hear the man talk, and get two shorts, a series of Coke commercials he did in the 60's with Peter Max, and the trailer for Wizards (playing the following night). The first short was an early thing from the 60's about an Archie Bunker-type and his hippie son, very good natured and fun. The other one, from 1980, was called "The Cigarette and the Weed" (not weed as in marijuana, it consisted of a conversation between a cigarette butt and a weed growing in an industrial dock area), and that was pretty awesome. It had apparently never been screened before. The Coke commercials were fucking amazing psychedelic pop art freakouts.

Fritz the Cat, as I've said before, is a movie that I think gets no respect. Most people know of it by reputation, but even those who have seen it seem to dismiss it as a novelty: the dirty cartoon. Much like Dazed and Confused, its very subject matter invites dismissal. It is, in fact, a pretty brilliant piece of character observation and social criticism that is, at the same time, a blast to watch (excepting perhaps some overlong slapstick sequences involving the police). It's a story that makes me think of Huck Finn, not only for the sense of youth and adventure, but for the way it plays with the racial issues that are always just under the surface of American life. And seriously, how can you talk shit about a movie whose opening theme song begins with the line "Hey all you fuckin' intellectuals?"

Another problem contributing to the bad rep is the fact that R. Crumb hates the film, and takes any opportunity to say so. He blasts Bakshi's film in the first scene of the documentary Crumb, which is probably the most common place for anyone of the current generation to have heard of it. This is all the more strange, since the film represents one of the most perfect matches of filmmaker to source material imaginable. Bakshi shares so many traits, good and bad, with Crumb, from the depiction of heavy, voluptuous women to a disturbing misogynist streak, that it's difficult to imagine his first film being anything BUT an adaptation of one of Crumb's works. Crumb's Fritz, however, exists only in a few fragments, each a couple pages long, and thus not quite suitable to be transferred to the screen in it's raw form. Bakshi had to expand on the material, and he probably takes the story in directions that Crumb never would have, but he remains true to the character. Thus, there are scenes directly lifted from the comics, but often with better punchlines. Come to think of it, why doesn't anyone ever bring this movie up when they're talking about the great comic book adaptations?

The film is also very dated, but not necessarily in a bad way. It feels extremely specific to a time and place, both in the specificity of cultural references and in the style of the art. Fritz is a movie from the counter culture, about the counter culture, but it makes surprisingly astute observations about hypocrisy and class within the counter culture. Much of the comedy comes from the ironic situation of privileged white kids who want nothing more than the cultural capital of being a marginalized minority. From the girls swooning over the crow in the park, to Fritz finishing a speech about how attuned to the problems of the black community he is by calling the black bartender "boy," race and class are constant themes. In this cartoon world, all black people are crows (and all policemen pigs), but Bakshi finds an extra dimension to that joke that Crumb would never think of. "I wish I was a crow," Fritz tells the old pool hustler in the harlem bar. "If I was a crow, I'd fly away from this shit." The episode ends with a visual depiction of a all-American apocalyptic fantasy: a full-on race war, with the government sending in fighter planes to literally bomb the ghetto ("Aim for the concentrated areas," we hear commanders ordering to the pilots). Fritz doesn't even notice the old man shot through the chest trying to protect him, and seems more concerned with reveling in the glory of his revolutionary status than worrying about the entire neighborhood of black people whose slaughter he has caused.

The most interesting aspect of the film is, of course, the art. Bakshi does some great work in transposing Crumb's art and ideas (many not even from the Fritz strips) to film, adding brilliant sunbursts across the sky, or gorgeous flames engulfing Fritz's dorm room. The most impressive scene is the pot-smoking orgy, with a strange haze moving slowly across the screen that implies clouds of smoke wafting past while setting a stoned rhythm for the scene. When the cops begin banging on the door, one character turns his head toward the sound in slow, overlapping increments that look like LSD trails. I've never seen anything in film that more successfully conveys the feeling of being stoned. There are several great sequences, including the death of the old crow and the scene that introduces the biker bunny, but my favorite a transtition scene with "Bo Diddley" playing on the soundtrack and a crow snapping his fingers. It has nothing to do with the plot, aside from possibly setting a mood as Fritz travels into Harlem, but it's one of the coolest combinations of music and image I've ever seen (Heavy Traffic has a similar sequence using Chuck Berry's "Maybeline").

Heavy Traffic is a much darker film, and much less enjoyable. Bakshi said it was his favorite, and that he had incorporated elements of his own life into the story. Describing it to my wife from vague memory (I'd seen it once, back in high school), I compared it to early Scorsese films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and it does indeed have that 70's, urban grit to it, but it's nowhere near as serious...much more "cartoonish." The sex and violence is pretty extreme, and actually gets tiresome, and there is a misogynist streak a mile wide running through it. It's a repulsive, and pretty offensive, flick. That said, it's a pretty neat film, certainly not like any other animated film I've ever seen.

Bakshi spent alot of time talking shit about Disney. "Disney has everyone, even the animators conned. They've convinced everyone that noone wants to see an animated film unless the animation is absolutely perfect and pristine. They have most animators believing that they can't do it themselves, because you can't make an animated film for less than $20 million. Bullshit, I made Fritz the Cat for $800,000, and it's even easier now with computers to fill in the backgrounds. What matters in animation is originality, energy, the artwork." He claimed that he was starting his own animation studio, with all the animators that Disney fired, and is working on a semi-sequel to Heavy Traffic. And yes, he mentioned something about Wu-Tang Clan wanting to make Coonskin 2. Sounds cool, but I'll believe it when I see it.

I wanted to go back the next night for Wizards and Coonskin (Streetfight), but other plans took precedence. Ah well.

Oh! Oh! Oh! And they announced that the end of June, they will have a Japanese Monster Festival, with Godzilla and Ultraman movies, climaxing with the exclusive L.A. engagement of Godzilla: Final Wars on July 1, 2, and 3!!!!!!! Fuck yeah!

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