Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

I seemingly receive a ton of flack for approving of this film, and from certain angles I can perfectly see why. It is indeed a grotesque film that can be inappropriate and overtly-vulgar on all levels. Its characters are simply dated products of the 1960s-1970s that come across as rebellious Beatniks, careless stoners, racial extremists, tasteless assailants, vulgar-mouthed loonies, and sex-craved scumbags, and its dialogue is heavily infested with sexual innuendos, double entendres, profane lexicons and racial slurs. Lastly, its story is deeply fixated upon the ideals of hedonism and sociopolitical consciousness, as well as explores the firepower of left and right-wing tactics. All the negative feedback this film receives is very understandable as it is relatively perceptible, but does it truly deserve the backhand from audiences and critics alike?

As strange as it may sound, Ralph Bakshi’s film debut, “Fritz the Cat” is a gritty marvel in its own right and I am unafraid to admit that I soundly stand by and defend this film whenever it is brought up in a conversation. My reason being is because “Fritz the Cat” does a brilliant job capturing the time period and environment it was based and set upon. With that being said, I firmly believe that Bakshi’s film adaptation of cartoonist, Robert Crumb’s comic strip of the same name illustrates a rugged portrait of modern society that today’s caricaturist wouldn’t dare undertake. I ran into short clips of this film a few years back when I was watching MTV Jams. The dialogue was completely stripped from the video, and the intense violence and sexuality were removed as well. Footage of this film was used in Gang Starr front man, Guru’s music video for his 2007 single, “State of Clarity.” The MC rapped over the visual accompaniment of the film and masterfully. Guru’s complex wordplay equally matched “Fritz the Cat’s” surrealistic imagery and ripened content. “Be yourself and be so clear. Ayo! Just be yourself and be so clear,” answers Common as Guru trades words back and forth. When I first eyeballed this colorful music video, I was curious to discover who was responsible for the splendid animation and silent character arcs that I encountered. I quickly brought my findings to YouTube only to stumble upon the film’s title and director in the comments section of “State of Clarity.” I thought it was best to watch the film in its entirety in order to achieve better apprehension for the graphic plot lines in which I previously saw.

When the film commenced, Bakshi did not hesitate to push its viewership towards the fire. “Fritz the Cat” is a famous movie for a number of reasons, mostly stemming from being the first feature-length adult cartoon and having the rare certification of an “X” rating. There are multiple controversies surrounding film’s creation with director Ralph Bakshi and character creator Robert Crumb. The background of Crumb and Bakshi instills a better outlook on the film adaption of “Fritz the Cat.” To provide a small summary about these two men, Robert Crumb was a political cartoonist hailing from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During his heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Crumb’s work primarily displayed a nostalgia for American folk culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and satire of contemporary American culture. A bulk of his work drew a wide-range of social controversy, especially his stereotypical depictions of women and foreign ethnicities.

Crumb first rose to prominence after the 1968 debut of Zap Comix, which was the first successful publication of the Underground Comix era. Crumb’s magnum opus, however included counter-cultural illustrations of Mr. Natural and the aforementioned “Fritz the Cat.” “Fritz the Cat” as a comic strip was set in large metropolis of anthropomorphic animals, which focused on the eponymous character, a feline con artist who frequently goes on wild adventures that mostly involve sexual escapades. Crumb began drawing this character in homemade comic books when he was a small child and later became a staple in his colorful catalog. It was those idiosyncratic values that attracted Brownsville director and animator, Ralph Bakshi, to Crumb’s satire on American culture.

After launching a successful career as a cel polisher at Terrytoons Studio from 1956 to 1968, in which he was responsible for the supervision of shorts such as “Mighty Mouse” and “Heckle & Jeckle,” Bakshi embarked independent film-making in which he was disinterested in conforming to the animation movement of his rivals. When he encountered an issue of Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat” in 1969, Bakshi was immediately impressed by the comic strip’s ability to poke fun at the insensitive and sensitive, express sexual repression freely, and push the envelope to the point where proletarianism was revisited. Fascinated by its crass content and subject matter, Bakshi did not hesitate to contact Crumb and ask the animator for the rights to the character in which Crumb’s mistress, Dana, signed a contract with the studios through the power of the animator’s attorney. Together, Bakshi and producer Steve Krantz gallantly pitched “Fritz the Cat” to a number of Hollywood studios. Most major distributors turned it down due to the sexual nature that made “Fritz the Cat” a prosperous series. In spring of 1970, Warner Bros. Pictures agreed to fund and distribute the film, but upon screening the storyboards, the studio executives demanded that the sexual content be toned down and the casting of A-list actors to voice the characters to be met. Bakshi refused, leading to Warner Bros. pulling all of their funding and allowing the film’s distribution to be handled by Cinemation Studios, who happened to specialize in exploitation films.

“Fritz the Cat” was released on April 12, 1972, opening in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. and although it saw only a limited release, it went on to become a worldwide hit becoming the second-highest grossing R-rated film released alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” It grossed $25 million domestically and $190 million worldwide becoming the most successful independently animated feature of all time. In Michael Barrier’s 1972 article on the film’s production, Bakshi gives his accounts of two separate screenings of the film. Of the reactions to the film by audiences at a preview screening in Los Angeles, Bakshi stated, “They forget it’s animation. They treat it like a film. This is the real thing, to get people to take animation seriously.” Bakshi was also present at a showing of the film at the Museum of Modern Art and remembers, “Some guy asked me why I was against the revolution. The point is, animation was making people get up off their a**es and get mad.”

The film also sparked negative reactions because of its heavy political content. “A lot of people got freaked out”, says Bakshi. “The people in charge of the power structure, the people in charge of magazines and the people going to work in the morning who loved Disney and Norman Rockwell, thought I was a pornographer, and they made things very difficult for me. The younger people, the people who could take new ideas, were the people I was addressing. I wasn’t addressing the whole world. To those people who loved it, it was a huge hit, and everyone else wanted to kill me.”

In all of the scrutiny that surrounded the film, “Fritz the Cat” managed to be a critical and commercial blockbuster and universally-heralded as Bakshi’s magnum opus. The film did have its contractors since the time of pre-production. Out of all of its naysayers however, the Robert Crumb’s response to the final product was notably dissatisfying. In an unpeculiar manner, Crumb disowned the film, harshly criticizing the casting of Skip Hinnant as the titular character, making the dubious suggestion that Bakshi should have voiced Fritz himself, the film’s commendation of the radical left, the repressed sexual resonance found predominately throughout the picture, and lastly, the explicit dialogue of its main characters. Crumb even stated that the film adaptation of “Fritz the Cat” was a reflection of Krantz and Bakshi’s confusion in which the film depicted the character dishonestly and unfaithfully as he argued it was untrue to its source material.

Reportedly, Crumb filed a lawsuit to have his name removed from the film’s credits. San Francisco copyright attorney Albert L. Morse said that no suit was filed, but an agreement was reached to remove Crumb’s name from the credits. However, as Crumb’s name has remained in the final film since its original theatrical release, both of these statements are highly unlikely. Crumb later drew a comic in which the Fritz character was killed off, and said that he “wrote them a letter telling them not to use any more of my characters in their films.” Crumb later cited the film as “one of those experiences I sort of block out. The last time I saw it was when I was making an appearance at a German art school in the mid-1980s, and I was forced to watch it with the students. It was an excruciating ordeal, a humiliating embarrassment. I recall Victor Moscoso was the only one who warned me, ‘If you don’t stop this film from being made, you are going to regret it for the rest of your life’—and he was right.”

Bakshi, on the other hand, defended the film and referred to Crumb as a “hustler” numerous times in a 2008 interview claiming, “He goes in so many directions that he’s hard to pin down. I spoke to him on the phone. We both had the same deal, five percent. They finally sent Crumb the money and not me. Crumb always gets what he wants, including that château of his in France. I have no respect for Crumb. Is he a good artist? Yes, if you want to do the same thing over and over. He should have been my best friend for what I did with ‘Fritz the Cat.’ I drew a good picture, and we both made out fine.”

The film is like nothing I have ever seen before. It has a unique animation process that makes everything reek seediness, despair, and cry for social change. Bakshi wrote the script, which really is nothing more than the knife that cuts through all the 1960s mumbo jumbo – from existentialism to the drug culture to the love generation to African-American perspectives to militancy. Nothing is spared as the counterculture is laid bared and examined through the eyes, ears, fears, and desires of “Fritz the Cat.” Along the way, Fritz experiments with just about anything. Fritz is seen dabbling in facets of sex, drugs, organized crime, theft, and lastly thievery. While the film definitely is quite vulgar in many ways with some of the most odious characterizations of otherwise cute and cuddly animals, and depicting lots of strong sexual situations though in no way deserving the “X” by today’s standards, “Fritz the Cat” is also an intelligent look at one character’s drive to find himself and meaning in his life and perhaps a symbol for the whole decade the film is examining. The end result is nothing conclusive which is also perhaps a symbol itself. Bakshi’s script is in some ways profound and thought-provoking and in some ways infantile and vile, with his obvious dislike of police acting as just one example. What had my attention more than anything else, was the animation  and particularly in exterior shots not containing characters. There is one scene where the slums of Harlem are integral to the story. Bakshi uses his camera to zoom in on quite an impressive animated background shot of a field lost amongst the slums of Harlem. It is the very essence of seedy existence in an uncaring world. There are many other shots too that have that same power, but let’s not forget that even with the intelligent at times script and the animation, much of “Fritz the Cat” is used solely to arouse, whether arouse primal feelings or arouse offense. “Fritz the Cat” is a landmark film at any rate whether for good or for bad.

In my eyes, what makes “Fritz the Cat” such a great American satire is the crass imagery, the racial and social caricatures that Ralph Bakshi cleverly renders, and lastly, the left-wing political agenda the film follows. For an example, the African American community is depicted as black crows who realistically emulate stereotypical mannerisms and lifestyles of black youth in the late 1960s, the police force are respectively portrayed as pigs and various forms of swine, and the povert are represented as Disney cutouts such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. These sketches alone shed light on not only that epoch, but also our history as a nation in general. The racist typology found chiefly throughout the film epitomizes the overall experience a foreign ethnicity or faction could endure in the 1960s-1970s. This makes the film ever more enticing given its message and purpose.

The symbolism of “Fritz the Cat” simply derives from our perspective of the ordinary man: the average Joe who struggles to prevail and find his or her sense of identity. Fritz himself is seen as this outsider who urges to break free from social norms and generational conformity to not only find himself, but a better world. Fritz believes there is something beyond the 1960s travesty he witnesses on a daily basis that his actions and words gravitate towards the seldom-spoken American philosophy of freedom and prosperity as ancient as Stone Henge. From the beginning of the film, Fritz feels confined by society as he expresses being tied down by his education, his fair-weathered friendships, and his afflicting relationships that seemingly leave him unmotivated and scattered. His emptiness and newfound ambition causes himself to act out and wreak havoc, whether it be intentional or unintentional. Some of these actions are positively provoked while others are developed from sheer hatred or revelations.

Voiced by Skip Hinnant of the PBS children’s program, “The Electric Company,” Fritz is a charming yet seductive unemployed musician who attends a local college in New York City seeking what everyone desires – happiness. Unsure about what he wants to do in life, Fritz embarks on a journey which involves him experimenting with drugs, having sex with random women, understanding the racial struggle between minorities within the slums of New York, dodging a lethal cult that threatens the state itself, and traveling across the country in an attempt to further discover himself. The plot can be unbalanced and unfocused on occasions and may even leave viewers bewildered as to why you took the time to watch it, but I strongly believe that is indeed the film’s primary objective. The final act of the film may be the most inconsistent, but let it be known that not everything in our lives is linear and contains a lasting resolution. “Fritz the Cat’s” premise closely resembles the psychedelic, yet unstable, era of the 1960s and for what it is, the film does an excellent job of capturing the idea of uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen to Fritz next. We don’t know if the police will pursue him for sparking a riot in the slums which results in a police officer being killed. We don’t know if Fritz feels sorrow for the death of his friend Duke the Crow who was fatally shot in a crossfire by the police brigade. There is so much emphasis on Fritz and his situation that he has little to no time to think back at what just happened.

“Fritz the Cat” is very much like the roller coaster we find ourselves on every day. We as human beings work hard and efficiently when faced by adversity, we might encounter trouble or loss, we stumble upon avenues that lead us to success or failure, we perform acts of nobility or immorality and we are sometimes rewarded or punished for our deeds. When it comes down to Fritz’s character, there is a hatred and a likability. Fritz is a witty sarcastic feline who ultimately means well but can let his selfishness and greed consume his well being. That being said, Fritz tends to create controversy when something strikes him as a either mockery or distortion. His story specifically gravitates towards discord and Fritz does so in a rather rebellious manner. His actions speak louder than his words and that alone helps the story move along accordingly.

Bakshi was highly criticized for this aspect of the film, but to a certain degree, the whole idea of a social overhaul works excellently in this satire. What “Fritz the Cat” becomes in spite of all of its controversy, is merely social commentary that can either be taken earnestly or trivially. It raises awareness to a world where we literally and figuratively become animals like pigs and crows, victims of servitude and sadly puns to our own jokes. “Fritz the Cat” can be sick and demented from Joe Smoe’s context but exemplary and pragmatic from a scholar or wise man’s mindset. Say what you will with “Fritz the Cat.” It can be a disgusting film but in all of its revulsion it is single-handedly the greatest spoof on American culture no matter how you slice it.

As an end result, “Fritz the Cat’s” greatest crime is its aptness to reveal the truth about the present atrocities in our world. If anything, “Fritz the Cat”  teaches us not to follow the dark path Fritz undergoes. The time period and the setting may be slightly outdated especially since the film stresses hippy culture and linguistics from the 1960s but nevertheless, the message and moral of the film manages to stand the test of time with the utmost integrity. “Fritz the Cat” is not your typical cautionary tale and from its very embodiment it is meant to offend rather than appease, but for what it is, the film prevails in a sense where it is honest and gutsy about where we are and what we could become if we follow in the footsteps of fools, murderers, racists, prostitutes, and drug addicts. I enjoy “Fritz the Cat” very much and even if it isn’t the most pleasant film to watch, it is quite eye-opening when looking into the micrscope of 1970s filmmaking, but then again what R-rated films do? In my opinion, it is no more horrid than “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” or “Pulp Fiction” which do more with less than a cartoon satire that meagerly pokes fun of bigotry and hypocrisy in American society. What simply made “The Simpsons” and “South Park” mainstream examples of raunchiness and social satires can all be thanks to the edgyness and sheer boldness of “Fritz the Cat.” It is certainly not a film you watch with a family member or even a friend so proceed with caution. Otherwise, take it with a grain of salt.    

Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RM814408@wcupa.edu.

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