Keeping it Real with Ralph Bakshi (Part 1)

In the first of an insightful two-part series, University of Portsmouth senior lecturer and animation expert Van Norris assesses Fritz the Cat director Ralph Bakshi’s contribution to modern satire.

When asked to give a talk as part of the University of Portsmouth Satire week in April 2015, I considered a range of comedic writers and performers. I wanted to address voices that had been influential, who had a significant body of work, and that might be of interest not just to academics but also, more importantly, to the general public. The event organisers wanted to include within the programme not just familiar names but marginal voices too, in order to contemplate both well-known British or European artists and those who have been overlooked, excluded from or forgotten by modern popular culture.

I’ve long been fascinated by the satirical power of animation and comedy, and the American director-animator Ralph Bakshi came to mind as someone who could complement the range of pertinent British and European examples already on offer. I also feel Bakshi illustrates how elastic the term ‘satire’ can be.

Bakshi’s moral indignance and indistinct political position fits Murray Davis’ definition of pure satire as an indicator of anger and a call for change. Furthermore, satire should contain at its core “the moral distinction between the ideal and the real … the distance at which things are from nature, and the contrast between reality and the ideal … the real as imperfection is opposed to the ideal, considered as the highest reality”. A satirical statement should express this sense of injustice, cloaking that ethical imperative through form, address and tone. Satire (like most comic registers) works from the premise that there exists an experience gap between the world as we would like it to ‘be’ and how it actually ‘is’, and the form constantly reminds us of this disparity, expressing and measuring this distance.

“Satire,” writes Andrew Stott, “aims to expose folly and vice and urge ethical and political reform through the subjection of ideas to humorous analysis. In the best instances it, it takes it takes its subject matter from the heart of political life or cultural anxiety, re-framing issues at an ironic distance that enables us to visit fundamental questions that have been obscured by rhetoric, personal interests, or realpolitik”. In many ways satire cannot be received effectively unless built into its make-up is an innate understanding that we, the audience and reader, work from a shared, inherently ‘civilised’ position.

Jonathan Swift’s cornerstone work, A Modest Proposal (1729), extolled the virtues of using poor Irish children as a source of food, as an ironic commentary on the degradations of Irish rule. Swift assumes that we are capable of not just recognising that the deliberately challenging constructs deployed are cast as a provocative shell to disseminate meaning, but also that we are fully cognisant over the sub-textual ironies contained within those very ideas too.

I believe that Bakshi fits more into the American tradition of satire, openly confronting the flaws in ideological thinking that defined the turbulent post-Countercultural years of the 1970s. Although drawing links between Bakshi’s work and nineteenth century voices such as Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and Ambrose Bierce might be stretching the definition, those authors expressed a consistent agenda to unpick political, societal and hierarchal hypocrisy. They share this agenda with British and Irish writers such as Swift and Samuel Johnson (see his 1738 poem London as an example), reminding us again of the mode’s flexibility, linked as it is more through ‘intent than ‘form’.

Long-standing threads of continuity run from poetry to literature and into film, television and animation. As the literary scholar Dustin Griffin notes, UK and US understandings of satire are strongly influenced by the poetics of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, which contained a sense of self-knowledge and irony that continues to underpin satire’s register today. Furthermore, cultural understandings of the term are informed by a sense of erudition and of a learned perspective.

This alone might suggest why Bakshi is excluded from the canon of great American satirists – his animated work has often been written off by critics as being unsubtle, vulgar and lacking in precision and taste. Indeed Bakshi himself has remained, even within the critical academic and film history community, something of an outsider. His work has been too readily ignored, misunderstood and under-assessed. This can be ascribed not just to his tonal register but more to the cultural conditions that today inform common readings of the man and his oeuvre.

This perception of Bakshi seems to be all about the question of canons. For me the notion of a ‘canon’ i.e. works that are deemed through critical opinion as the indicator of the highest of standards, are always problematic, fragile and fallible. So often a canon is as much a pointer towards power, status and location as much as it is any truly definitive guiding principle or commonly understood wisdom. The critics Anderson and Zanetti highlight that the term is derived from literary conceptions and that, built into that very word, are implications of quality, of a collection of authors, works and ideas set into an ongoing, never-completed, “complex and enlightening” body of excellence. The canon is forged by a convergence of accepted critical opinion “seen of central importance in a culture”.

They also rightly state that this is an ambiguously open notion often used as a way of “reinventing the past”, of ordering an agreed historical narrative that says as much about expediency and conformity as it does about the true status of art or artists. Edward Said once offered that canons are about “parochialism” and middle-ground orthodoxies, built on exclusion as much as inclusion.

This is where Bakshi comes back in. A main aim of the Satire Week screenings was to reintroduce one of Bakshi’s most accomplished works, the 1973 animated feature Heavy Traffic. The agenda here was to offer a small contribution towards the re-location of the writer/director/animator back into a vibrant tradition of post-Countercultural American satirists, as well as reclaiming and repositioning him as one of the lost, neglected New Hollywood directors – certainly a canon all of its own.


The Graduate (1967)

We tend to look back on that period of American mainstream live action cinema as being kick-started by Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as a golden age of expression and challenge within the Hollywood studio system. A period of filmmaking directly emboldened by the social changes of the 1960s Counterculture, it was allowed to momentarily flourish within a decaying, moribund and disorganised production and distribution setting. As Robert Sklar outlines, Post-Classical Hollywood had all but completely fragmented due to anti-trust and monopoly actions along with the cultural impact of television. This process was further intensified by the crumbling of an old guard of executives and creative personnel unable to effectively read the times and connect with younger audiences who had developed more sophisticated tastes.

This “youthquake” (as termed by Eugene Picker of the National Association of Theatre Owners in 1969) became known in retrospect as New Hollywood. It became a creative window of opportunity in the studio system between 1967 and 1976 (or, depending on whom you ask, 1981/2 with the collapse of 1980’s Heaven’s Gate and the release of one of the final great Scorsese/De Niro collaborations, the 1982 King of Comedy). New Hollywood was characterised by a raft of personal statements, more challenging left-field productions and films that contained overtly perceptible notes of ambiguity, loss and darkness.

This tonal and thematic shift explicitly entered the mainstream US cinematic landscape through the radically diverse films that followed after The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and the emblematic Easy Rider (1969), to define such movies as The French Connection (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Harold and Maude (1971), Brewster McCloud (1971) among many, many others that were commissioned and released by major studios alongside the standard box office fare of this period.

These films were more open-ended, European-style declarations from first generation film-schooled directors, who benefitted from the freedoms that the breakdown of the old Hays Code censorship system offered. Furthermore, these directors were all immersed in the critical rules circulated by Andrew Sarris and others, whose centralisation of the auteur theory suited not just the more expressive times and their equally erudite young audiences, but also the studios, who happily framed this concept as a useful marketing tool in an increasingly fragmented and unpredictable box-office climate. American film aspired to the critical and cultural status of European cinema and, the more intense the ‘personal’ vision and statement of the director, the more credible it could appear.

New Hollywood directors included Brian DePalma, John Milius, William Freidkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, the afore-mentioned Nichols and Scorsese, along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (whose 1975 Jaws and 1977 Star Wars are held up as a return to middle-ground nostalgic cinema takes root once more and also where the science behind studio-led marketing of summer films took shape). They all embodied a sense of challenge and a desire to experiment with ‘form’ and ‘genre’ while continuing a love affair with ‘Old Hollywood’ through what Robert Ray called “corrected films”. In truth these directors were re-using and revising existing ideas as extensions of old generic templates to, as John Cawelti noted, “meet the imaginative needs of the time”.

These incredibly disparate films were united by the fact that they were explicitly and implicitly essaying a country in flux. The Counterculture was a response, an expression of repressed societal anger and dissatisfaction that had been bubbling under during the post-war, McCarthyite, Truman-Eisenhower years. The 1960s ushered in a more liberalised, educated and socially aware political climate, manifest through youth-driven dissent. The mood was further intensified by the civil rights movement that had emerged in the 1950s and that coalesced into a more unified anger by the Vietnam war, a conflict which became a common ground for the hitherto unfocused, anti-establishment voice of the newly politicised youth of America. It was a time when mainstream cinema openly critiqued American society – just think of films such as The Godfather, Serpico (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1973), Shampoo (1974), Chinatown (1974) and satire became an accepted register, as confirmed by films such as Nashville (1976), Altman’s commentary on the US’s music business and political system.

Despite exemplifying the qualities we would expect from New Hollywood auteurs, Ralph Bakshi has curiously never been included in this canon of filmmakers. I find this unusual and unacceptable. Certainly his body of work conforms to all of the critical conceptions of what New Hollywood embodied especially given Bakshi’s willingness to challenge on a thematic and formal level. He fits into the industrial and creative framework of New Hollywood because his films were produced independently through American International Pictures and distributed through the major studio distribution channels.

By the time Bakshi’s first three features were released, Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1974), the Brooklyn-raised, son of Jewish immigrants was in the same early thirties age bracket as many of his auteur contemporaries. He came from an industrial animation background, working his way up the ranks of the East Coast Terrytoons Studios (very much the epitome of one of the more workaday animation studios that serviced the major television studios of this period) in the late 1950s. By 1967 he had left that company to become the prime overseer, director and producer at Famous Studios, a satellite animation house attached to Paramount. It was there that Bakshi met Steve Krantz, adapting Marvel comic properties for television. This grew into a pivotal relationship as Krantz was to become the producer of his most critically well-regarded features.

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Fritz the Cat (1972)

Fritz the Cat (1972), Bakshi’s first film, brought him notoriety. A loose adaptation of Robert R. Crumb’s comics, it is historically important as being the first ‘X’ rated adult feature-length cartoon released worldwide. Subsequently it was disowned (and vilified) by Crumb himself, as it is readily apparent that the finished product is more a ‘Bakshi’ film in its delivery and tone than a ‘Crumb’ narrative. Resemblances to the original cartoon strip from Help! And Zap Comix from 1965 are (as was noted by Crumb subsequently) often minimal.

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Coonskin (1975)

Not only had the enormous cultural and box-office success of Fritz demonstrated a connection with young Countercultural audiences, but it also facilitated both the productions of Heavy Traffic and latterly, Coonskin. By 1975 the goodwill had evaporated, as Coonskin, undoubtedly an earnest, scabrous, angry film about urban black myth, status, repression and representation, hit trouble with the NAACP over issues of appropriate authorship. This drew to a close a more openly personal register of film as Bakshi then turned his attention to more box-office friendly subjects with sword and sorcery films such as Wizards (1976), 1982’s Fire and Ice and an ill-fated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1978). His forays into genre films appear, in retrospect, no less personal but maybe less coherent as a case for auteurist status. It is later works such as American Pop (1981), Hey Good Lookin’ (1982), and even the slightly watered-down Bakshi of Cool World (1992) where this seems more applicable.

The pre-production processes for those first three trademark films overlapped so much that today a thematic, formal and aesthetic inter-connection is discernible. These films show Bakshi in purity, at his most vibrant and experimental. Each one presents highly personal commentaries about the state of America, the ideological tensions at play within post-war, post-countercultural urban landscapes and the endemically corrupt nature of the popular culture that America produces, promotes, centralises and uses to define us. All of this extends from Bakshi’s scattershot, incendiary style of filmmaking.

It is no accident that the evocative montage of still photographs of empty street scenes and New York tenements that draws Fritz the Cat to a close (and that have little to do with Robert Crumb in any explicit sense), infers that this will be the jumping-off point towards the next Bakshi project, his second film, Heavy Traffic. Which was originally to be Bakshi’s first feature but it couldn’t secure adequate funding due to the highly personal nature of its story.

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End titles of Fritz the Cat (1972)