Fritz the Cat
I’ve spent a ton of time reviewing Japanese animation on this blog, but there are tons of Western animators I dig too, and others whose works I’ve wanted an excuse watch in full for some time now. As such, I’m starting a new review series of Western animated features, the first of which will cover the career of Ralph Bakshi from first feature to last, week to week. Others like Yuri Norstein, Don Bluth, Frederic Back, Raoul Servais, Alexandre Alexeiff, and Jean-Francois Laguionie will follow in the coming months and years.
But for now, it’s 1972. A young animator with big aspirations has just released what will become the most successful independent animated film ever released. The X-rated animated film is the first of its kind to be certified as such in the states and it holds a certain fascination with the counterculture for a number of major reasons. The figure of the cat and the world in which he moves are drawn from the graphic novel work of Underground Comix artist Robert Crumb. Everyone smokes pot in the film and free love is pictured in an animated context (though it is critiqued pretty heavily therein). The film courts the dying hippie movement enough to keep squares out of the projection booth, but simultaneously pokes and prods at that cultural movement as a thoughtless and therefore ill-equipped form to attack the social forces it aims to combat: racism, sexism, capitalism, imperialism, etc. The film couldn’t acquire a major traditional distributor and has been barred from many cinemas due to its X-rating, as well as many advertisement sections of newspapers for the same reason.
But the thing is a force, a beast all its own that has more than animation and the cartoon has been traditionally had in the American context. It’s animation style isn’t the prettiest. In fact, it reflects the hard-scrabbled, kitsch absurdism of Underground Comix and is at constant odds with the Disney paradigm (even going so far as to place Disney’s characters in silhouette cheering on U.S. Air Force planes as they bomb a black ghetto during a riot). Created by a man with a social conscious, Bakshi said of the film and of the time that ‘grown men sitting in a cubicle drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets is ludicrous.’ The cops in the film are pigs, Disney’s Jim Crows have become pot-smoking crows sitting around in Jazz joints teaching the young well-meaning, but ultimately facile and stupid counter-revolutionary whites (the cats, the dogs, the aardvarks) where it’s at.
Bakshi seems to be a politically-conscious guy at heart in this film, but he realizes that the so-called politically-conscious class of his day are too far out to figure everything out. Like today’s left, they’ve followed Marx’s formulation too close and worked too hard to change the world without having a clue how to do it and what to put in the place of the systems they plan to depose. Bakshi shows us the folly of hedonistic life, of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, of drinking at the bar every night, of wasting money on street drugs with all the attendant worry of potentially being caught and suffering a real economic setback, and the end-result ain’t pretty: avoidance of reality, the Puer Aeternis, and worst of all, poverty. He shows us through his film a satire of college life where learning can too easily be replaced by faddish thought, time working to develop as a healthy and disciplined individual is wasted chasing tail and instant gratification, and kids rarely receive marketable skills, and all on their unwitting parent’s dimes who will have to support those kids for years to come. He criticizes U.S. militarism and imperialism and calls into question their efficacy on actually making the world a better place, and even more important to the people whose taxes fund these forces, whether they make life better for people here or just waste resources. And all of this in in an animated context: something very rare before this period or since.
Bakshi funded the program through multiple sources and managed to make the film for a measly $850,000 USD. But the film garnered a huge underground following and cult recognition, which, through distribution by a company that specialized in pornographic films, managed to net more than $90 million USD at the box office. From here on out, no independent animation would ever reach this level of box office acclaim, which is no doubt due in part to the film’s timeliness and its engagement with a burgeoning countercultural force the likes of which has not been seen again in the American context since, and is unlikely ever to again as our culture becomes more and more splintered, less hegemonic, and the society becomes more or less tied together by mechanical solidarity alone.
Because of all of these factors, approaching Fritz the Cat critically is one of those encounters any writer dreads as there is plenty to talk about, and one could approach the subject voluminously, but there is really almost nothing new to add to the discourse beyond the hope that summing up the film’s import will attract a few new eyes toward it. As a social document it should hold some appeal for those who wish to better see the time through the eyes of a sympathetic figure in the square, collegiate cat Fritz. For those dominated by an aesthetic impulse first and foremost in their viewings of animation, the film represents a strong departure from all traditions hitherto in the canon of american animation, and is therefore, well worth watching. For those who just want an interesting story, Fritz has that too, and we can watch as the cat moves through a world at once recognizable and alien to us today, through the dark inner city experience of a New York wannabe intellectual, to the deserts of the southwest as he becomes one amongst a cabal of Nazi rabbits, sexual deviant Serpents, and cult figures planning, in their own countercultural anarchist way, to destroy the means of production and bring society to a halt.
A shot across the bow of, a challenge to, and an extreme departure from traditional animation, the film is arguably the single most important inspirational document in the history of the medium since those earliest features in the 20s and 30s as Fritz the Cat‘s signature is apparent in almost every major cartoon airing on American television today. Without Bakshi no adult cartoons, no zany cartoons, no cartoons that push the boundary towards social and political consciousness, and without these elements and Adult Swim that began to air them to the largest audiences to that point, very little anime of quality would have come down the pipeline to mainstream audiences in the West either. And for all that, all I can say is I salute you Ralph Bakshi.
[Next up: Heavy Traffic]