Sunday, February 26, 2012

Comica Obscura: Fritz the Cat

Fritz The Cat (1972, Ralph Bakshi)

The following statement is based solely on an educated guess, but it seems as though it is in the domain of animated feature films that the divide between the mainstream and the independent is most pronounced. Newspaper reviews from the Arts section and even the Oscars can help increase the life span of an independent live-action film in some instances, even though that too is never a guarantee. Yet when it comes to animation, those movies which stand proudly outside of the mainstream do seem relegated to perpetual obscurity, that is until one either stumbles on the film by happenstance or it is mentioned by somebody already familiar with the title. Heavy Metal is one example. Fritz the Cat, based on a very counter-cultural comic strip born out of the curious mind of Robert Crumb, is another. It comes as no surprise that its director, Ralph Bakshi, also made a name for himself by directing several non-mainstream, independent animated films.

Bakshi's film is set in 1960s America, a time remembered for, among other things, the attempted cultural revolution performed by the hippies as they were known. There was also social awakening with regards to the Vietnam, race relations, economic, politics and all the rich topics that make the world so well worth discussing. It was a decade characterized by an effervescence of ideas and behaviours, some which took direct shots at the the nefarious entity known as 'the establishment. Rather than observe these realities with humans and subtlety, Fritz uses anthropomorphic individuals and a heavy degree of cynicism to explore this morphing time in the United States. The titular cat, who describes himself as a writer (whatever that might entail), is fed up with the intellectual snobbery of his student friends and embarks on crazy journey through a series of different ethnic and cultural groups, from fellow pot heads, to blacks, a group of rabbis, and a small band of home grown neo-Nazi terrorists, an adventure which helps expand his ties to the world, and reveals just how nasty it can be when one peels away the surface level idealism.

The first thing the review needs to make clear is that Fritz the Cat does not follow any plot in the traditional sense of the term. Rather confine itself within the construct and rigidity of story, the film chooses to loosely take aim at, or present, it is rather unclear, various sections of American society as they were at the time, although its technique in doing so may easily irk those viewers who are a bit more sensitive and prude. For one, in order to represent the various groups, it finds inspiration in stereotypes and vulgar animal translations of multiple sects of society. If anybody felt uneasy near the end of Dumbo when some crows show up and start behaving like good'ol southern, singing black folk, then those same people had best remain as far away as possible from Fritz. For one, the crows are back, figuratively speaking, only this time around they are a little more outrageous in their representation of African Americans. The police are course stupid pigs, Nazi terrorists are either white rabbits or reptiles, etc.

Such gross depictions are all that populate this strange world , yet one should not give in to an immediate gut reaction that the filmmakers and original creators saw the world as truly so vile. The stereotypes, both the physical avatars and the attitudinal issues, serve a purpose. True enough, the film thrusts along with a heavy cynicism and anger. That being said, these visual strikes against society do in fact assist the creators in conveying the sense of grim reality the movie itself is obsessed with. No colour of creed spared harsh treatment. Crumb and Bakshi uses the tool of animation to stress the point that underneath the gloss and gleam of America is a bitterness. Whether in the cases of some people the bitterness espoused is warranted or not, and whether or not said individuals or groups take advantage of the most appropriate venues to express themselves, they all make up, in their own idiosyncratic way, the fabric of their country. Just as the hippies tried to make citizens and government understand that there was another way to live life, Fritz itself postulates that there are many more ways in which life is lived which are very much counter to what some powerful people would like to have everyone believe. Basing itself on shameless stereotypes is not the classiest way to make the point, but it nevertheless makes the point. The film's brand of cynicism is somewhat lightened by the stabs at humour, but even though instances are profoundly vulgar and crass. The world, as it is presented in the film, is fascinating to see roll around in a pool of its own figurative crap. Viewers might not find the picture are engaging as a typical animated film however.

Other than making a direct statement about then contemporary America, Fritz the Cat does not attempt to do very much. It seems content to remain in the gear from start to finish. Need it do any more than it already sets out to accomplish? The answer will depend on who one talks to. Perhaps if something more had come about Frit's wild adventure through his country's opposing cultures there would be a greater sense of finality. Instead, the film ends in a similar spot where it began, its protagonist having learned very little, behaving just as he did a few days ago. Is the ending essentially one final cynical jab at the viewer, hammering home the idea that things are the way they are because people are people...and nothing more? Such an outlook may of course be honestly felt by someone, but it somehow prevents the film from being a bit more than it could have otherwise. It is nasty and appears to be content with being nasty. Fair enough, although it will not garner additional fans just for that. Then again, Fritz most likely is not looking for additional fans in the first place. The more people find it to be strange and off putting, the more it laughs to itself. 


There are flourishes which add some oddball artistry to the film. Every time a new cultural group is introduced, Fritz stops its protagonist on the sidelines to momentarily show the next sort of people he is about to encounter, perhaps through a musical interlude or a comical short. These just might be among the best moments in the film if only because they seem more free and wild.

Fritz the Cat is a curiosity rather than a great piece of cinema, that much is certain. Recommending it incurs the risk of making a great many people angry or annoyed. It has some things to say, unpleasant things at that. It says them, sometimes comically, other times less so. Other than that, Fritz is not a film that exudes any deep intellectualism or builds fantastic emotional resonance. It is satisfied in being what it is, and if one does not like that, the movie honestly could not care less. This being a review, the ultimate question is: Is it any good? The answer: Maybe. In some ways, yes. Not quite. Who bloody knows...

Done here? Find out what Bill learned from the dark alley cat at his Movie Emporium.


Franco Macabro said...

I've yet to catch this one, but I have seen Bakshi's Wizards and I describe it the same way you describe this one, it's not good, but it's not bad. It's not a masterpiece...but there is something there worth noting.

edgarchaput said...

I just watched the trailer for 'Wizards' on YouTube. I must say, it looks a bit better than 'Fritz', maybe because the fantasy world suites his style more.

Alex Jowski said...

I was first introduced to Fritz the Cat from that documentary "Crumb." Fun series from a strange author.

edgarchaput said...

@Alex: That doc is available on Blu-ray through Criterion. Worth checking out?

Alex Jowski said...

Yes, definitely worth checking out. It's not a standard documentary so it has a trend towards being more entertaining rather than educational

Courtney Small said...

I first saw this film at a fairly young age and it definitely left a lasting impression on me. Mainly, at the time, I found it to be rather disturbing, especially when the female characters get abused. Over the years I have grown to appreciate the whole acid trip vibe of the film. It now falls in that category of "films I enjoyed but would not recommend to others".

I will say that I did like Fritz the Cat far more than Wizards. I tried watching Wizards again a few months ago and still did not enjoy it.