The legendary animator and filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, innovator of documents of generational angst like Fritz the Cat and Coonskin, has turned to visual art.
Ralph Bakshi retired from working in the film industry in the late ’90s and now concentrates on painting and mixed-media work in his New Mexico home. The titles of these new constructions reference New York street names in south Brooklyn (where Bakshi grew up) and lower Manhattan, and the pieces resemble pieces of doorways, decaying furniture, the shards of a bygone New York City. The work is currently being exhibited in a series called The Streets at Animazing Gallery in New York.
You could argue that Bakshi, now 71, has always been a collage artist. Even when he was directing his notorious feature films in the ’70s—works like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin—he incorporated live action footage with animation and blended still photographic backgrounds with watercolors. Even in his cartooning background, he was always in search of a realistic edge, leading him to experiment with the technique of rotoscoping footage of live actors or interweaving nonfiction, almost documentary audio tracks made by recording actors, non-actors, and ambient street noise, all set against soundtracks spanning nearly every American musical genre.
I had Ralph as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts. Being someone who was always interested in documentary filmmaking as much as I was cartooning, I was curious about Ralph’s approach to making personal works in a medium largely dominated by escapist fantasy. For a man who spent a bulk of his career doing large-scale commercial work, directing an ambitious theatrical adaptation of Lord of the Rings in 1978 and producing two seasons of The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse for CBS in the late ’80s, Bakshi is at his core a visual artist. He even once described himself as a “closet painter” during his period of mass-market animation. For it was in this same span of years in the ’80s and early ’90s that he began to create remarkably large and detailed constructions and paintings. Bakshi is a curious person who likes to ask questions, to listen, to observe. At SVA, he always carried a sketchbook in which he would jot words and phrases, things overheard in elevators, lobbies, or delis. Then he would sketch the scene. He is always looking at art; he often sends me emails saying things like, “Have you seen Alfred Kubin’s drawings? I think he shares some of your angst. Have you ever looked at Ronald Searle’s illustrations? I think you would be into his ink work.”
I remember a conversation with Bakshi a few years ago where he remarked how frustrating it can be to have a finished product, that once a film is done, you miss the fun or the collaboration that comes with its process. Recently, talking about the progression of themes in his work, specifically from a slow pan across an urban trash heap set against Billie Holiday’s “Yesterdays” in Fritz the Cat to now painting on decaying wooden surfaces, he said, “It’s done in different styles, but it’s all one long movie.”
Morgan Miller What I immediately notice in looking at your work is a thematic progression dealing with mortality and lineage—a narrative of generational change—the conflicts, fears, and angst involved when one generation surrenders or gives way to another. It’s there in that very first sequence of Fritz the Cat when you use what sounds to me like a nonfiction audio recording: you animated a bunch of blue-collar working-class guys sitting on a construction beam during their lunch break, talking about their “bourgeois” daughters. I think one of the guys says, “You’re living with some guy—what do you mean you’re living with some guy?” It’s a very late-’60s frustration with the younger counterculture, and this segues into a sequence of college-age girls in Washington Square Park being seduced by Fritz, a swaggering young pseudo-intellectual who personifies what the older guys were wary of. Those were actual guys you recorded yourself I assume?
Ralph Bakshi Yeah. What I actually did was go out into the street and ask a couple construction workers if they’d come up to my office. I paid them $50 each, I had a bottle of Scotch, and I had this Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder. I asked them what was bothering them, what they were unhappy about, and all this stuff came out. And we had a great time. There was hours of that stuff. I wanted Fritz the Cat to feel real, and it felt like I had to do this in order to believe the material. So I recorded all kinds of things on the Nagra, like street noises, to make it feel realistic. You see, I was influenced by still photography at the time more than anything, more than any animation. Robert Frank’s The Americans, things like that. Powerful stuff. I made tons and tons of tapes. Lots of material I didn’t use. Tapes that would fill rooms. I was young and had no idea what I was doing. If I still had them, I’d give them to you—I’m serious. When I went to have the film mixed, the sound engineers gave me all kinds of crap about the tracks not being professionally recorded; they didn’t even want to mix the noise of bottles breaking in the background, street noise, tape hiss, all kinds of shit. They said it was unprofessional, but I didn’t care. They said, “You have to re-record this in a studio,” and I said, “Over my dead body; it’s going in the mix.”
MM I always think of the scene in Washington Square Park when I walk through there. It’s so true to life; to this day, you still see the young guys playing guitars to impress girls.
RB The actor who played Fritz was always after girls. He was the only one that was an actor in that scene. Fritz was full of shit, and I needed an actor who could be consistently full of shit. His friends were voiced by actual kids I found in the park. In my day—in the ’50s—it was a car that you used to pick up girls. In the ’60s, it was the guitar. And they played folk music. Really bad folk music. For every generation it’s something else.
MM Which other photographers influenced you in addition to Frank?
RB Diane Arbus, William Klein, Walker Evans. The New York School Photographs book, which was a large and sensational book.
MM The scene with the three rabbis in Fritz the Cat; the oldest rabbi needs a pair of glasses to read the Torah, but then he’s bullied by the two younger ones not to wear glasses. “I’m not so young anymore!” he says, and the argument goes back and forth. That also sounds like a natural recording. Where did that come from?
RB In retrospect, I think I was trying to make the film more personal. Being Jewish and making a feature film, though it was based on something else, I felt like I had an opportunity to do that. I eventually got to go further with Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, American Pop, and Hey Good Lookin’. But I didn’t know if I would be able to make another picture after Fritz the Cat, so I felt at the time that the rabbis were a way to get something of myself in the picture. I listened a lot to my family; I recorded my father, my uncle, and my cousin, and all of their voices are in the picture. I animated them for that scene. I found that to be tremendously satisfying. They were the kinds of guys who would take their spectacles off before reading a prayer.
MM It feels like a parallel to larger scenes in the narrative. There’s a lot of bickering between the younger rookie cop and the older cop. The younger one is very exuberant about beating up hippies, while the older one is more bitter, cynical, and cranky.
RB I think a lot about film structure, and you’re right: that is in there. Having the older generation verses the new at the beginning of the film allowed me to show how young kids were running amok.
MM In Fritz the Cat, though you have all this social realism in there, nearly all the character designs seem pretty closely from Robert Crumb’s drawings in the Fritz comics, which are animals. Did you at all feel boxed in by having to use personified animals as characters? You later moved on to using people as caricatures in Heavy Traffic.
RB Yeah, well, Fritz the Cat was a lot of fun because it was the first of its kind, and I really loved some of the animals, like the pig cops. And I upped the subject matter; it became my own original story. I really felt that I needed to draw real people. But then again, I fell back to using animals in Coonskin, where the three main characters were animals, and it worked quite well.
MM One of the Bakshi trademark styles, and I assume it was your design, is people with big lips. The transvestite in Heavy Traffic in particular, how he’s drawn with a cylindrical tube of a head and big lips on the end.
RB Oh yeah, that was an early design of mine. The big-lipped people. I even used that caricature to some extent with characters in Wizards.
MM You worked at TerryToons from a young age on shows like Deputy Dawg just after graduating the School of Industrial Art in New York, and I’ve often heard you say that you got sick of “cats chasing mice,” in speaking about all the repetitive Saturday morning fare you were doing before Fritz the Cat. Was there any animation at that time you felt inspired by and influenced by? I don’t mean animation technique; I’m talking story-wise or conceptually. Was there anything that influenced your decision to go toward a socially relevant and adult direction?
RB Max Fleischer’s work more than anyone else. His cartoons from the ’30’s and ’40s. The films with Cab Calloway, with Louis Armstrong. They’re mind boggling. Those films are great art; they really hold up and are astonishing even today. You should sit and watch them if you haven’t. You’d love them. Even some of those early black and white Popeyes he did with his brother Dave are incredible. He had the best studio in the business, Fleischer. Another Jew from Brooklyn. Same neighborhood as me. I almost fell on the floor when I read he came from Brownsville. Much better than Disney. I hated Disney.
MM You have quite a few father-son conflicts in your films. The shady, crime-affiliated Angie and his virginal son Michael who he always seems disappointed with in Heavy Traffic. The street hooligan Crazy Shapiro verses his father the cop in Hey Good Lookin’.
RB Growing up in Brownsville, it was very hard to hide what I was doing. My specific sensibilities of being an artist at that point—a cartoonist—had to be hidden. You had to carry yourself around guys on the block who didn’t understand it. My father and mother came to me once very worried. My father was a very quiet guy, but he would say he was very concerned about my drawing and how I would make a living. So I was always hiding what I was doing, and then it became the bigger issue of hiding it from my father. The neighborhood was very rough and there were various characters in the neighborhood, so my father became a combination of a lot of different things that I saw. I put a lot of different things into the character Angie in Heavy Traffic. I had a long personal issue with sex and so Michael trying to be a man in Heavy Traffic was very personal also.
MM When you talk about “guys on the block,” I’m assuming these were the basis of the characters in Hey, Good Lookin’. Crazy and Vinnie—the street hooligans. The sort of guys you depict mercilessly beating each other with chains in Heavy Traffic. I was talking to someone the other day about all this imagery and he said, “Man, this guy must have witnessed a lot of bad scenes in life.”
RB Oh, no question about it. I wouldn’t call these people necessarily racist, or intentionally cruel, but they were very stupid. Uneducated. When I was going to art school, I had to hide drawings in my shirt because of the kind of neighborhood it was. The era I grew up in was the era of the street gang, you see. Gangs, leather jackets, chains. They thought you could be famous by joining a gang. You could get your picture in the paper and be written up as one of the most violent men in the world. So yeah, I witnessed bad scenes. A guy would hit another guy with a chain. Usually one guy would run away, they wouldn’t necessarily keep hitting each other like in Heavy Traffic. But nowadays they have guns, automatic weapons. Just the other day, 21 people were murdered in Chicago. In one day. All these automatic weapons—it’s just escalated and become something else entirely.
MM You introduce black characters in Fritz the Cat. In the scenes where Fritz goes to “bug out” in Harlem, he develops a friendship with Duke, the old black guy. Then it progresses in Heavy Traffic and in Coonskin, all the leading characters are black. Dealing with black issues and using black characters—could you talk about why you wanted to do that?
RB This was the civil rights era. Yeah, it was something I always wanted to do. The neighborhood I grew up in was very black and Jewish, and also Italian, but mainly Jewish and black. I went to school with mostly black boys. I lived in Washington at one point in my childhood, and that was even more black. You know, there were black soldiers in World War II who guarded Italian prisoners, and the Italians were allowed to eat in restaurants while the blacks weren’t. During my youth, white people like Bob Dylan got involved with black issues through songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had come along, and if you were a thinking man, you couldn’t escape the issue that blacks were excluded from so many parts of society. It was very much a cause in my day for black people to get the right to vote. In those days, you had governors trying to prevent black people from going to school. It was a real eye opener for us that those things were happening; in Brooklyn, we had no idea the extent of how blacks were excluded from going to school and voting and everything else. It was horrific. So recognizing the black experience was a very important thing. And now we have a black president, which is even more fucking amazing.
MM At the same time, you even satirize the civil rights movement to some degree with the white college girls fawning over this dapper-looking black guy, also part of that Washington Square scene in Fritz The Cat. One of them tells the guy very proudly that she’s read all of James Baldwin’s books, that she’s been to Black Panther meetings, and says, “I had a black girlfriend once that said Jewish people are closest to black people. I’m Jewish you know.”
RB Well, she was a cartoon of one of those, you know, those white Jewish types who thought they had suffered. As if she’d suffered persecution and racism directly. This woman grew up in the Bronx in an apartment with five rooms and no understanding at all of how black people lived, but she thought she did. She was trying to be hip, but basically she was full of shit! (laughter)
MM There are so many different asides to the main plot in Coonskin. You have the old man rummaging through the trash, picking through the things white people throw away. You have the Malcolm the Cockroach sequence, which I think is probably the most memorable, haunting part of the film. The entire thing is a monologue by an unidentified woman. Seated against an empty dark background, she describes the relationship she formed with Cockroach and the heartbreak of his leaving her. It really captures this very lonely, desperate, poverty-stricken mood and feel of being a single mother in Harlem.
RB One of the problems then with being a black father and trying to hold a family together was economic. I think it’s still true today. It’s very hard to get a decent-paying job. So I wrote this poem about being a black man and not being able to support your family and having to leave, and how the woman felt about that. She just basically doesn’t want to be hurt anymore. The actress who came in to read it started crying. It was a very important moment. She nailed it, and certainly understood what the words meant. It was a poem that I wrote about the black experience. And I animated it. If you take away the animation, it’s a poem. I’ve got 30 or 40 Malcolm the Roach poems in my house. The style of animation I used for it was very primitive, like an early comic strip. There were a lot of poems I wrote for the picture. Juxtaposing personal social commentary into the films and running abstract personal moments underneath the narrative on top—this type of montage or collage—is really close to painting. In the case of Coonskin, the narrative running on the top of the film is three guys going to Harlem. Underneath it is another layer describing then-contemporary social problems. Juxtaposing these allowed me to do montage and cutaway, all the things I love to do with film. In Hollywood, they would never allow you to run a second or third film under the first. The montage was meant to reinforce what the characters were trying to do, to reinforce what their history and past is. It helps you get the feeling you get of how Simple Savior is able to manipulate the crowd. That idea came starting way back when on working on Fritz the Cat.
MM Technically, there are a lot of different mediums you mix into Coonskin and Heavy Traffic: live action, still photography, even different styles of animation. The Malcolm sequence has it’s own color scheme: the red and blue silhouettes. Michael even has his own little universes within Heavy Traffic, which become cutaways.
RB Yeah, that’s all about trying to find the believability of what the film is about. Movies basically bore me. I don’t see very many movies. But I loved being able to try things, like making photographic backgrounds. I roamed New York and Brooklyn at night, taking thousands of photographs. A lot of the montage comes from Sergei Eisenstein; he really caught my eye when I was very young with Alexander Nevsky and Battleship Potemkin. Also his use of music to express mood. Eisenstein is the only mentor I ever really had. He’s a little stiff by today’s standards, but his compositions, the way he cut films, and the way he emotionally sets them up was incredible.
MM Your new paintings are collages also, using all sorts of different textures and surfaces.
RB The paintings are probably my final step. I’ll probably die after this. Everyone calls them abstract. But I think they represent the most realistic vision that I’ve ever had of the city. Basically they’re made with cement, nails, and wood. They’re called The Streets. I had worked from photographs, painted landscapes of streets?all the traditional stuff?but this goes all the way home. This goes into exactly what I think the city might be about, this city that I love. When painting materials and what they are about are made of are the same thing, I think there is a certain truth there. I think I’ve finally gotten to the point Pollock spoke of when he said, “The materials are everything.” I had never understood what he meant, but I get it now. I love Pollock and de Kooning and Chaim Soutine and how they used materials. So I’m painting the city using the materials the city is made of. Using these materials to me is home, and it makes me feel very relaxed. As far as I’m concerned, I feel it’s a final step for me, that everything has lead to this moment. And I feel very good about it to be honest. I’ve done a lot of animation, a lot of cartoons, and I felt a lot of uneasiness about it, I never felt sure it was ever right. But I feel very right about this.
MM What in particular did you feel wasn’t right about the animation?
RB Everything. There was always something missing, something I was still pushing toward. I hate to look at films of mine; they always scare me. I see things now I wished I had seen at the time. The paintings are the first things I’ve done where I don’t get nervous. I have confidence. If someone told me they didn’t like them, I’d… well, I’d probably beat the shit out of them. (laughter)
MM If any one film or work best exemplifies your theme of generational change and lineage, it’s probably American Pop. It has a lot of sequences that seem very distinctly yours or indicating your heritage: the Russian Pogrom with the Cossacks at the beginning, the mix of jazz and blues and rock. But you’re not credited as having written it, which I find odd.
RB I wrote the story. But I didn’t have time to change it into a screenplay, so a woman named Ronnie Kern wrote the script. I was at a point then where I had the opportunity to do something big and generational, and I could do it with music. I had lived through the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s on up, had seen that American history. In the opening sequence of the film, a Russian Jewish immigrant comes to this country, and that’s always something I’d romanticized and read about. I wanted to show America at war, to show its 20th-century time periods and how those affected who we all are. It gave me a great opportunity to do something in a bigger scope, and I enjoyed it very much.
MM You seem very attracted to garbage! The Billie Holiday music montage sequence in Fritz the Cat when the camera pans slowly across a trash heap in an abandoned lot in Harlem… at first you see broken bottles, syringes, and then it becomes more personal—old photos, then entire old photo albums, people’s memories just sitting in the trash. Later, garbage becomes the introduction of Hey, Good Lookin’ where personified pieces of garbage talk to each other about life after death. Even when you moved into the fantasy realm in Wizards, you maintain bleak futuristic worlds built on garbage, where things are rediscovered, like the Nazi remnants that are in that film. It occurs to me that it’s a metaphor for mortality, but not just that; maybe also a metaphor for what a generation throws away and what might be discovered by the next. Or what might just be forgotten.
RB I like that, Miller! I’m dead serious about this: who we are, who we used to be, what we’ve been through, what we’ve become—it’s very important. We’re all part of a long trail. The scene in Heavy Traffic where the mother is walking through the photographs looking at her uncles—my family’s up there. My ancestors. Faded walls, old wood, old paint—every fleck of paint is another story, not to be discarded. Stuff like Kindle is so cold. It’s great for reading I guess, but texture and being able to touch stuff is so important. The past is to be learned from and to respect. Too much of it is thrown away out of shallowness or for things that are new and cheap. That’s the thing about this country: money became God. It doesn’t matter how you get it. It’s the reason for lying, cheating, and stealing. In Hey, Good Lookin’, this poor garbage thinks it’s going to go speak to God, but it’s just going into an incinerator. You know what I’m saying?
Morgan Miller lives and animates in Brooklyn. His short films include Farber’s Nerve, Outside Agitator (or One Day in the life of Professional Anarchist) and Vacuum Attraction.