Released in 1972, Ralph Bakshi still considers Fritz the Cat to be the major turning point in his career, the breakthrough film that helped the animator make the blind leap from the Heckle and Jeckle cartoons of his early career at TerryToons to gritty urban underground work like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, which, to this day, are largely considered Bakshi’s masterpieces.
Adapted from a series of Robert Crumb strips, Fritz the Cat became the first animated film to be tagged with an X Rating, courtesy of the MPAA. Despite, or more likely because of this, the film also did gangbusters, becoming the first animated film to rack up more than $100 million at the box office.
In the wake of the film’s release, Crumb made public his aggressive disdain for the adaptation well-known, going so far as to file a suit to have his name removed from its credits and later killing off his reluctant Hollywood star in a subsequent strip.
Bakshi, for the record, would like it known that the feeling is mutual. As our conversation transitions from questions about his own jump from kids cartoons to the topic of Fritz’s subversive nature (or, to a degree, he might argue, lack thereof), Bakshi’s own feelings about Crumb quickly take the reigns of the conversation, along with a commentary how the press has long opted to report Crumb’s feelings on the matter while neglecting his own. And while, despite a bit of finger pointing at me on Bakshi’s part (referring to said press as a collective “you”), I can’t honestly take an credit for this perceived lopsided account (though, for the record, at the top of the interview I did mention Crumb’s name amongst a list of cartoonists whose work I admire).
That said, it’s hard to argue with Bakshi’s assessment that the press have been far more eager to print Crumb’s opinions on the subject than his own. The matter is certainly not due to a lack of passion on Bakshi’s part. A few months shy of 70, the animator is still more than happy to let his feelings be known, with a force that, to be totally honest, is a little frightening when sitting a few feet away.
I agree to print his opinions on the matter during the conversation, and to break some of the tension, I make some off-handed joke about having momentarily lost control of my bladder in the face of the fury that’s still alive and well in the heart of the Brooklyn animator,
Bakshi pauses for a moment and then smiles, “I like him.”
How large a role did the works of 60s underground comic artists like Crumb play in your transition to more adult cartoons?
Not as much as you might think—a lot, but not as much as you might think. Right before then, there were bigger transitions than Crumb. That was Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Naked Lunch, On the Road by Kerouac, John Coltrane—there were literary sources that had broken through that probably caused the underground to come alive. What were the underground’s influences? Those were more important. The underground didn’t come out of nothing.
I remember read those and saying, “oh my god.” The Naked and the Dead by Mailer was very important. There were certain literary things that blew me away. Of course the underground helped, but it was those things that influenced me much more clearly. There was a lot of agitation in the streets those days, before the underground blossomed. Dylan started to sing—it was very exciting. I would more attribute it to that.
It seems like less of a leap to make the transition in what is already considered an adult medium, rather than in something like comics or cartoons.
Well, funny you should say that, because you weren’t there, and that’s the impression.
You weren’t there before comics were on television and in video games. If you were around then, comics had a massive influence—you wouldn’t even recognize it now. You can’t imagine what Captain America looked like in a drawing, if you took away all of the shit that you have now. It was massively exciting. Or Superman flying. Why did Superman go through the roof the way he did? Because there wasn’t anything else like it. In novels, to your amazement, there were codes, there were lawsuits. You couldn’t write these things, you couldn’t print these things.
Oh! Henry Miller! So this thing about being more of an adult medium—it was more adult by really small degrees. When Selby did Last Exit to Brooklyn, with pimps and prosistutes and homosexuals, it blew everyone away! It was huge! It had never happened before! When John Rechy wrote City of Night, about the homosexual scene in LA, they finally got past Miller’s lawsuits. You read Naked and the Dead and big Mailer writing an adult book couldn’t say “fuck!” There isn’t a “fuck” in the entire book. These soldiers are saying “Fug you,” F-u-g you. You die laughing at how antiquated. Go read it! He was afraid to use the word! He didn’t use the word “bitch” in The Naked and the Dead. What was so adult about that? Novels were also slow in getting to the point. When they could do what they wanted, without being afraid, finally it broke. Everything was very proper in those days. Yeah there was some sex and some unbuttoned shirts, but there wasn’t screaming.
Was your own transition slow into more adult works or did you get to do what you wanted to do, right out of the gate when you did your own stuff?
Fritz freed me. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, which is brilliant—though I dislike Crumb—because it was fun, it was satirical, it was delightfully drawn. It made so much money that I jumped into Traffic with both feet, which no one had ever done in animation—I did Heavy Traffic and Coonskin. I had the muscle from Fritz the Cat. In that respect, if I didn’t have a hit, would I be able to do Traffic? No way. If Fritz bombed, there’d be no Heavy Traffic.
Were you more reserved in the making of Fritz than Heavy Traffic?
Yeah, Crumb—yes. That’s a very good question. When I did the Dr. Suess’s Butter Battle, I respected Suess—Ted Geisel. There wasn’t that material in Fritz—in other words, Fritz didn’t have that depth. It was cute, it was sweet, but there was nowhere to put it. That’s why Crumb hates the picture, because I slipped a couple of things in there that he despises, like the rabbis—the pure Jewish stuff. Fritz can’t hold that kind of commentary. Winston is “just a typical Jewish broad from Brooklyn.” There was nothing—it was cute and well-done, but there was nothing that had that much depth. With Traffic, Michael who had never gotten laid and was going out with a black girl, and his father’s an Italian racist, and his mother’s Jewish—we set up a situation that’s vibrating with undertones. Fritz didn’t have that. And they’re animals. They’re cut little animals. There wasn’t the depth to Fritz. I couldn’t get there if I wanted to.
Did that fact that they were cute little animals make it somehow more subversive on some level? That juxtaposition of image and content?
No. Not at all. I think it made it more palatable. I think, had it been adults, I think I would have been blown out of the water.
[Pauses] You’re a Crumb fan, which is fine with me. Let me tell you what he did. Crumb railed against me for Fritz the Cat. He killed off Fritz to get back at me, and we all read how I’m a hustler and I have a big mouth and I can’t draw, and all that shit that Crumb said. Meanwhile, he brought a camera into his house when he wanted to become famous again. He allowed a movie to be made where he shot his mother crazy and his brother eating rope—and his brother committed suicide, after the movie was finished. What kind of guy is that? Is that the kind of guy who has a right to scream at me? Is that a guy who really cares about people? Is that a guy who you should love?
You believe everything Crumb says, after he does that, and he yells at me for doing Fritz? He made millions of dollars from Fritz. He did his book. He made millions of dollars from the cat, but he still calls me a schmuck! He took the money. See, he let me make the picture for a year and a half. He took $60,000. That’s a lot of money in the 60s. That’s upfront money. He took that for the rights. And when he realized that I was going to become as famous as him, he got mad at me. He thought I was going to make him famous. He thought I was going to spend a year of work on Fritz the Cat and make him the greatest cartoonist in the world! Well, he got very angry at me, when the director got some credit. Directors always get credit. That’s my point of view on it. You guys who love Crumb don’t understand how slick he can be.
You were a fan of his work before.
Of course! That’s why I bought the book!
And you’re still a fan of his work?
Of course! I don’t like him as a person.
I’m a fan his work as well. I don’t know him as a person.
I don’t like to see guys let him off the hook. Just because I’m a fan of his work, doesn’t mean I’m going to let him off the hook. If he’s going to point a finger at me, I’m going to point a finger at him. I’d never bring a camera into my house and allow anyone to shoot my family, the way he did. You let that kind of stuff slide. That’s not fair. I don’t see anyone write that in the paper! They always write about how he dislikes my Fritz and what a hustler I am and how unartistic I am. Did anyone ever write what I just told you? No! He’s in a chateau in France, drinking wine! “Mr. Underground.” You buy that! Do I think he’s a good artist? Absolutely. Do I think he has a right to yell at me? Not a chance. Do I think he’s a son of a bitch? Oh Yeah… But you guys sit panting at everything he does. But that’s the difference with my films. I’m not afraid to speak the truth the way I see it.
[Continued in Part Three].