Coming out of the Warner Brothers cartoon factory, Ralph Bakshi emerged as one of America’s unheralded surrealists. He is as authentic in his way as Ken Rusell was. Both share a related aesthetic, which is closely linked to avant-garde cinema tradition, but grounded in the stylistic tenets of Surrealism. Russell, unquestionably flamboyant, probably has the more secured reputation with aficionados, while Bakshi too often is summarily dismissed as a cult animation specialist. Yet, as Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Luis Bunuel have proven aesthetically more consistent (and infinitely more interesting) than that hero of male teenage angst, Savlador Dali, so too Bakshi likewise may come to be seen as the part of the pulse of Western Surrealism.
Bakshi’s debut, Fritz the Cat (1972), is delightfully of its period and could probably only have been made in the 1970s (although work on it actually began in 1969). It was a first on numerous fronts: The first X-Rated cartoon, Bakshi’s first feature (his previous work include a number of shorts and the television cult classic animated “Spiderman” 1967-1970), and the first cinematic adaptation of the work of Robert Crumb. Crumb himself thought Bakshi’s adaptation too subdued and hated it (it does lack the original’s bite), as did the cartoonist’s loyal fan base. Critics were divided over it then, and they’re still split on it, which sets the pattern for the whole of Bakshi’s work.
The critics of Fritz The Cat accuse it of blatant racism and sexism. Its defenders proclaim it as brutally honest and immune to political correctness. However, few dispute that Bakshi’s animation style is a highly original, handsomely mounted one.
It is set in the late 60s, as we follow the pot smoking, Candide-like protagonist Fritz out of college, into a Harlem ghetto filled with barroom brawls, riots, unbridled sexual escapades, drug abuse (which includes a heroin addled rabbit), cynicism, graphic anti-establishment violence (the police are literally portrayed as inept pigs), and revolutionary spirit.
Despite budgetary limitations and Crumb’s refusal to endorse the film, Fritz The Cat proved a success, even inspiring a sequel—The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat ( 1974)—which Bakshi was not associated with. Predictably, the sequel flopped, making the original look like a masterpiece.
Heavy Traffic (1973) is Bakshi’s most personal film. Essentially, it is an animated autobiography about the shy, sexually frustrated, pinball-playing aspiring underground cartoonist Michael Corelone (yes, it’s one of many references to Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather). Michael attempts to make his way out of his warring parents’ Bronx home. As his much put upon Jewish mother and philandering Italian Mafioso father play out an urban “Taming of the Shrew,” Michael ambitiously sticks to plying his trade. Heavy Traffic is a paradoxical, heartbreaking, harrowing love letter to counter-culture urban freaks; replete with transvestites, amputees, interracial relationships, construction worker thugs, and God as a rapist. Bakshi is deep into Herbert Selby, Jr. territory here,leaving no demographic unoffended. Within this literal black comedy, the city streets are squalid and awash in Edward Hopper despair.
A beautiful scene depicts Michael in a dilapidated theater watching 1932’s Red Dust (probably the best film of both Clark Gable and Jean Harlow). Bakshi elevates stereotypes to sublime tragedy, reminding us that often, we choose to live up to those stereotypes. Artistically and emotionally, Heavy Traffic is arguably Bakshi’s greatest, most surreal accomplishment, which validates the argument that art is at its most significant, potent, and powerful when the artist depicts what he (or she) knows.
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