Ralph Bakshi Retrospective: Introduction

by tigermanifesto

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Ralph Bakshi: An introduction

Ralph Bakshi is one of the most important film directors of the last fifty years. This is obvious to animation fans, who greeted his latest short film Last Days of Coney Island with a flurry of coverage. Here was a titan of the counterculture and animation history delivering an independent project long after he quit wrangling with Hollywood in disgust. Of course he deserved the attention. Curiously, however, serious academic and analytical work on Bakshi’s films is rarely if ever published. Moreover, material that does exist is often difficult to find. Animation studies is a young field, to be sure, but I would have expected a much more concerted effort among scholars to dig up Bakshi’s work and cut their teeth on it. To me, after all, few animators in any country have produced work as invigorating and influential as he has. And yet he’s rarely mentioned in studies of New Hollywood, 1970s American films, or anywhere animation fans haven’t been able to get a foothold.

The purpose of this ongoing series, therefore, is to put out concise but enlightening posts about Bakshi’s work. My focus will be on his feature films, though I may discuss some of his television work later. Beginning with 1971’s Fritz the Cat and ending with Cool World, released some twenty years later, I will analyze the films themselves and put them into historical context, particularly since much of his work is so tightly connected to the social milieu of their time. My aim is to make them broadly accessible, so detours into theoretical talk or historical minutiae and trivia will be kept to a minimum. Those interested in the full treatment of each film should check out the book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, though that volume is currently out of print and my only access to it will be through a reference library.

As far as sources go, I will be drawing information from interviews that Bakshi has given––and he’s a talkative and opinionated filmmaker, which makes things easier––as well as the aforementioned Unfiltered book, the films themselves, and any scholarly material I can find about them. Luckily for me, however, the field of Bakshi Studies is almost nonexistent, which means my primary goal can be as modest as getting a conversation started right here on the blog. Hopefully I can interest more dedicated animation scholars in his work and bring his films some much-needed attention.

2016 is an opportune time to revive interest in his work for more than just the cold shoulder it’s gotten from cinephiles and scholars. Just as the work of Japanese directors like Oshii, Kon, and Miyazaki remains live and relevant to our everyday concerns decades after their release, many of Bakshi’s films speak directly to our situation, albeit through a lens bent by time. Heavy Traffic is a great film about urban crises and the life of a New York that has all but vanished. Wizards is a dark antifascist film with an oblique but clear resonance with today’s disintegrating, militaristic world. These are Bakshi’s films first and foremost, but they are for audiences to claim, and as a Marxist I want to intervene in the conversation Bakshi started, to speak back to these films and see what kind of legacy young leftists and historians alike might gain from engaging with them. Perhaps most importantly, I want to reclaim some space for these films to show, for the thousandth time, the sheer energetic power of animation to convey a point of view, to connect the subjective and the objective, fantasy and reality, in a world that needs a way to translate visions of a better world into the everyday.

Considering the ungracious and often confused nature of many of Bakshi’s films, and their troubled production histories, I don’t expect to be uncritically claiming any of his movies as masterpieces or works of genius. These are not such useful categories in any case; what’s needed is to understand the work of this particular individual and how it informs our perception of the past and our present, how we can mobilize the creation of new works of art that take Bakshi’s best virtues and carry them forward. It’s also, yes, about ruthless criticism, and I’m sure that Bakshi, of all people, would not be afraid of a little written roughhousing.

With that focus and that ethos in mind, I hereby declare the Ralph Bakshi Retrospective open.