Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 1: Fritz the Cat
I first saw Fritz the Cat in my sophomore year of university. My partner ended up writing a paper that centred around the film for her “capstone” course and it led us to discuss the film fairly extensively. While larger histories usually remember Fritz the Cat simply as “the first X-rated animated film” and emphasize its affinity with exploitation films, we found it far more serious and sincere––albeit more confused––than those movies. If anyone is guilty of exploitation, it’s those who handled the marketing and distribution of the film, and though they made it a hit they might have permanently clouded popular perception of the movie. Even in an interview conducted at Wondercon 2012, the interviewer found it important to tell Bakshi that he masturbated to the movie. I wonder not only at the impulse to confess to such a thing in an otherwise mundane interview but also the fact that one could get that kind of pleasure out of the sexual aspects of this film at all.
What I mean by this is that Fritz the Cat is far from pornographic. In fact, its sex scenes, which caused such a sensation at the time, are so outrageous and crudely rendered, not to mention suffused with social tension, that I’m personally more apt to wince than indulge myself. I suppose youthful desperation will win out in the end.
But if Fritz can’t be classed with pornography, what is it? Predominantly, it is a collage of episodes, scraps of insight, improvisation, rushed animation, Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, and chaotic editing all held together with a few common themes and sheer conviction. Released in 1972, it had a budget of under a million dollars, which even then was chump change for a feature-length production. Bakshi’s method of compensating was to create the film without pencil testing the timing of the animation and working a number of jobs not normally occupied by a director. It’s a collage of a film, smashing different tones, moods, animation styles, sound recording techniques, and stories together with varying effects, none of which could be called “graceful.” In terms of quality, the film is rough-hewn and obviously suffered from a dearth of time and budget.
At the same time, looking at this film in 2016 is going to be an entirely different experience. Our perception of sketchy hand-drawn animation is coloured by the fact that the contemporary animation scene is dominated by labour-saving computer tools and 3D CG graphics employed in both amateur films and gigantic blockbusters. The advent of the computer frees hand-drawn animation from the tyranny of naturalism much as photography did for painting in the 19th century. When discussing his latest film, The Last Days of Coney Island, he noted:
“…I don’t have to be slick now with hand-drawn animation; that’s ridiculous. The computers are slick enough, for everybody. So I was freed up to use different kinds of lines, and approaches to the backgrounds, color changes, and all of the things that used to bother us, and it worked. It wasn’t just done for the sake of doing it”
We have much more convincing means of replicating the observable world now, especially as computers are able to simulate cloth, water, facial expressions (to some extent) and texture in general with far more fidelity than traditional cel animation. Cel animation’s power is now seen in its relative abstraction, as a craft of the painter or the artist rather than the commercial cartoonist. Much as Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters now tickle our fancy rather than break our suspension of disbelief in a negative way, films like Fritz the Cat appreciate in value as technology overtakes them.
Rather than discuss the film in a linear fashion, I want to examine in through a few thematic lenses. All the better to do justice to its episodic and collage-like nature.
Theme One: A Bunch of Phoneys
Much of the film is caught up in fitfully grasping for an authentic way of being. Fritz and his friends, as seen from the beginning of the first scene, are only superficially interested in music, art, politics, poetry, philosophy, or anything else. Bakshi portrays them as consummate hucksters, hippies who are only interested in sexual gratification. Fritz has two lengthy soliloquies in the movie, which occupy opposite poles of the authentic—phoney spectrum. His first basically functions as a set of bookends for the movie, recited once in the park and once while he’s lying in the hospital bed after setting off an explosion at a power plant. The entire speech is worth reproducing:
“My soul is tormented
I’ve been up and down the four corners of this old world.
I’ve seen it all.
I’ve done it all.
I’ve fought many a good man.
I’ve laid many a good woman.
I’ve had riches and fame and adventure.
I’ve stood face to face with danger and death countless times.
I’ve tasted life to the fullest and still my soul cries out.
Yes, cries out in its hungry, tortured, wracked quest.
When first delivered, he’s only using it to pick up three naïve women he first sees talking excitedly about black power to an uninterested black bystander in the park. Seeing them as basically vapid and self-centred, he plays on their apparent need for significance and basically seduces them into group sex. Bakshi’s point is that much of the––specifically white––hippie movement is hypocritical, using progressive or revolutionary language to fulfill selfish desires. Fritz poses as an existentialist poet searching for real significance. But the true essence of Fritz’s cry is that, despite all he has already experienced and done, he has an insatiable drive to consume more––more women, more experience, more thrills. Seen in hindsight, it’s correlates well to the narrative of a generation of 1960s radicals who were bought off with cheap consumer goods and who chased the good life rather than the revolution.
After escaping from the cops as a fugitive, Fritz returns to his dorm at NYU to find his friends from the park poring over their notes and textbooks studying for exams. The background recedes and Fritz, gesticulating wildly across a black background, rants about the emptiness of intellectual life, emphasizing that all he wants is adventure. It’s notable that he’s completely isolated in this scene, reflecting this cat’s essential narcissism. He has a contempt for knowledge and a thirst for action, a kind of hedonistic nihilism that, as we see throughout the film, takes a number of different guises. Whether it be his attempts to seduce women in the park or his fiery declarations of revolution in Harlem, his character is exposed here as an empty shell, desiring a more authentic and fulfilling existence but unable to achieve it.
Fritz is therefore both mercilessly opposed to phoneys and more than a little false himself. He’s the spitting image of the “conscious” white liberal or leftist who prides himself on abstract knowledge and his tolerant, open-minded attitudes while being a complete jerk to everyone. This is especially evident in his interactions with black people, as he comes into Harlem seeking that real adventure and finding out just how little he knows. Yet this doesn’t cause him to evolve as a character or to have a real arc. In fact, since the film ends just as it begins, with Fritz using his injuries and heart-tugging speech to win sympathy and sex from women, it posits him as a kind of oblivious sort who is immune from learning anything from his mistakes.
One final note on this theme: it’s consistently the women of the film who are portrayed with and receive the least sympathy. From the gullible trio that Fritz seduces to the woman who clings to her Nazi rabbit boyfriend, women are exploited and even seem to desire their own subjugation in the typical heteronormative arrangements. The film certainly sympathizes with oppressed racial subjects in its own way, but the absence of any kind of feminist voice or active, positive female character is telling.
Theme Two: The Eroticization of Destruction
Though some critics, including R. Crumb, the writer of the comics from which the film is adapted, have seen this film as an attack on the radical left, there is actually a dearth of real political discussion or political subjects in Fritz the Cat. Sure, characters will talk in generalities about “revolution” and being against “the man” or “the establishment” but the level of discourse never rises to any specificity. That’s curious in a movie that’s committed to showing a gritty and more realistic portrait of the 1960s countercultures. Other than one spare mention of the Black Panthers, not a single organization or ideology is named. In one scene, where Fritz is trying to incite a riot among the residents of Harlem by pontificating from the top of a car, he drops the word “proletariat” but that’s about the extent of his non-rhetorical political vocabulary. What the film shows is not really politics but a kind of eroticized love of destruction encrusted with political language. Fritz the Cat might be a political film, as Bakshi would have it, but whatever politics it contains are deeply fetishized.
To illustrate this, it only takes a quick look at the cabal of terrorists introduced in the latter part of the movie. Fritz, ditching his girlfriend in the desert, comes upon a group of cloaked lizards and a Nazi rabbit who plan to destroy a power plant with dynamite. Their meeting space is in a church surrounded by an impossibly huge cemetery. Their surroundings are suffused with death, and they appear to have no interest in any kind of positive programme or politics. They brutally beat and (in an implied scene) rape the Nazi rabbit’s lover when she tries to interrupt their meeting. Fritz can offer nothing except empty protests, as he’s unwilling to put his body at risk. As he’s planting the explosives, he shifts positions and realizes that these people “have no idea what a real revolution is.” Bakshi’s script halfheartedly implies that love is at the centre of such a real revolution, but this is given mere lip service before the hedonism of the final hospital scene asserts itself.
I wouldn’t claim that the film is making any coherent political point at this stage of the film. What it does do, however, is hint further at the ways in which revolutionary trappings and language are used by the more nihilistic and violent types of the right. I interpret this cabal of terrorists as a right-wing organization not only because of their lack of any obvious left-wing insignia or symbols but also because they’re welcoming of a Nazi biker rabbit who obviously enjoys inflicting violence for its own sake. What I largely see in Fritz the Cat, therefore, is not so much a rejection of the radical left––even if Bakshi himself might have done so in his own life––as a rejection of terroristic violence, adventurism, and the fetishization of violence as a goal in its own right rather than one means among many for achieving positive change. The film itself has its own mystified and fetishized view of what communist and anti-racist politics are like (though, notably, will not even tolerate the presence of a feminist voice, no matter how distorted) and it rejects that relatively shoddy construct rather than any focused notion of revolutionary politics.
Theme Three: Animation Against Disney
Whatever its depiction or understanding of radical politics, the film’s actual political aims are much more narrow. Namely, it wants to open up the field for animation and win the medium the respect it deserves. Like all good revolutionaries, it has a clear sense of who its enemies are. Since American feature animation in particular and all animation in general are basically constituted either with or against Disney, that omnipresent animation house receives some of Fritz’s copious bile.
During a riot partly incited by Fritz and partly provoked by scared pigs, the full weight of American armed repression falls on Harlem, including several fighter jets that strafe the area. While one article about the film correctly notes that the too-rapid buildup to this moment makes this feel absurd in the movie, the United States has actually bombed black neighbourhoods from the air in its past.
Bakshi gleefully connects the Disney corporation and its mascot characters with the company’s history as both purveyors of actual propaganda and the bedrock of the repressive animation industry Bakshi wanted to break open. Fritz the Cat has its serious moments and some connection to urban social life, but it’s also a celebration of animation freed from Disney’s naturalism and family-friendliness. The more specific historical context matters here as well: Disney’s animated output had consistently declined in both quality of writing and its animated grandeur throughout the 60s and 70s, leading them to put out flaccid tripe like Robin Hood and The Aristocats.
Most of the reason why Bakshi’s animation and script are so exuberantly excessive is because American animation has been consistently held back by fidelity to Disney. Disney is also connected directly to the establishment the counterculture hated so much, a bastion of middle-class respectability and “family values.” Though I’ve made the point many times that Fritz has no clear sense of itself as a piece about politics or city life or “the revolution,” it is absolutely clear in its stand against Disney and for animation as an art form that can carry “live action”-calibre stories and themes. It’s one of the few times I can also unconditionally accept the film as a vital piece of art, one that struck a crude first blow against the homogenization of an entire medium. It injects some of the freewheeling spirit of the 1930s and 40s into a feature and grounds itself in real social issues, however confusedly. That’s quite an achievement in and of itself and makes Fritz the Cat worth a watch if only as a historical artifact.