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A Bakshi Glance

By Michael Barrier

Of the dozens of articles, interviews, and reviews that I published in Funnyworld, none was more ambitious than "The Filming of Fritz the Cat," which stretched over two issues, Nos. 14 and 15, in 1972 and 1973, with each part broken down further into a total of five chapters. I'm posting the entire article here on five Web pages exactly as it appeared in 1972, apart from minor changes in punctuation, capitalization, paragraph breaks, and the like.

Fritz the Cat was notorious as the first X-rated cartoon, a radical break with the prevailing blandness of feature animation in the early seventies. For those of us who cared about animation then, Fritz seemed to hold the promise of much more ambitious films that would deal directly with adult subject matter, particularly adult emotions, in ways that had been foreclosed to animation for decades. Its director, Ralph Bakshi, appeared to have grasped animation's potential for artistic expression as no one had since the heyday of the Disney studio in the thirties.

Ralph Bakshi, c. 1977The renaissance that Bakshi and Fritz heralded didn't materialize, of course. Re-reading the article for the first time in many years, I was struck by the extent to which my analysis in the first section in particular could still be applied to today's animation industry. Some things have changed for the better, others for the worse, but, Pixar notwithstanding, much remains the same.

My concern for Robert Crumb's artistic purity seems a tad overstated now, after thirty years that have seen Crumb become the subject of a feature film and a contributor to The New Yorker. But what is most striking to me about the article is the enormous gap between the hopes I expressed for Ralph Bakshi in 1972 and the reality of Bakshi's subsequent career. Bakshi turned sixty-five in the fall of 2003, and his career as a filmmaker is thus drawing to a close. My overwhelming sense of that career is one of terrible waste.

Bakshi's best film, the semi-autobiographical Heavy Traffic, followed Fritz into theaters in 1973. After that, it was all downhill, each film seemingly more chaotic and crudely executed than the last. His excruciating rotoscoped version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings demands to be regarded as the nadir of his work, but there are many candidates for that title. None of Bakshi's post-Fritz films has been a big box-office winner, and some have been out-and-out disasters.

The mystery has been how Bakshi has continued to come up with money for films despite such a record, and I think an answer can be found in my description in "The Filming of Fritz the Cat" of his dealings with Robert Crumb. Bakshi is—and I experienced some of this, too—an overpoweringly urgent salesman of his ideas. What he discarded, after the success of his first two films, was the artistic discipline required to bring those ideas to the screen in coherent form. As Bakshi says at one point in "The Filming of Fritz the Cat," "sometimes my ego is unreal," and I think that ego drove him into the artistic wilderness. Even as Bakshi the artist disintegrated, though, Bakshi the mesmerizing salesman flourished, and studios and other financial backers repeatedly fell under his spell.

Ralph Bakshi as cartoonWhat makes Bakshi's descent into chaos painful to contemplate is not just the waste of his own talent, or that his bad films have sucked up money that could have been used to make better ones, but also that he has become a sort of guru for younger filmmakers. Bakshi and John Kricfalusi worked together years ago on a short-lived Mighty Mouse television series, and Bakshi's baleful influence is everywhere in Kricfalusi's appalling new Ren & Stimpy cartoons. Kricfalusi even made Bakshi a cartoon character, with the real Bakshi's voice, in an episode that opens with live action of Bakshi as a Jackie Gleason equivalent in a brief Honeymooners parody. (I've reproduced a "frame grab" of the cartoon Bakshi on this page, along with a photo of the real Bakshi from the seventies.)

The cartoon Bakshi, a fire chief, spends a lot of time on the toilet and uses Stimpy's shirt to wipe himself, with results all too apparent when Stimpy puts his shirt back on. The cartoon Bakshi is supposed to be a sexual powerhouse, too, but the evidence of that is all offscreen, and there's never a glimpse of the cartoon Bakshi's private parts or even, despite his time on the toilet, his bare bottom (not that I'm complaining). It's rare indeed that a self-consciously outrageous artist is not prudish about something; maybe Lenny Bruce was an exception, but John K. certainly is not. It figures that Kricfalusi and his merry crew of eight-year-olds would be on the cutting edge where excrement is concerned, but coy and blushing when it comes to sex.

Kricfalusi has confused the daring and revelatory with the merely disgusting, and in that he is certainly Bakshi's acolyte. As Kricfalusi's original Ren & Stimpy series showed, things could have turned out differently for him (and still might). I think it's clear from Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic—and from "The Filming of Fritz the Cat"—that things once could have turned out very differently for Ralph Bakshi, too.

To go to the first section of the article, click here.

[Posted April 4, 2004; revised May 29, 2004]