They don't make them like Ralph Bakshi anymore: "Now, animators don’t have ideas. They just like to move things around"

Salon talks to the veteran artist about his controversial career, his political awakening and new film


Marc Spitz
November 6, 2015 1:33AM (UTC)

If you grew up in the ‘70s or ‘80s, the name Ralph Bakshi got your blood pumping. His films were bold and profane, hysterical, politically incorrect, gothic and gorgeous to look at. They were shot through with a real sense of rock and roll and street smarts — see the dirty satire “Fritz the Cat” (a take on R. Crumb’s famously horny feline, which was the first animated film to be rated X).

Bakshi began his career as an animator at Terrytoons, home of Mighty Mouse and Heckyl and Jeckyll, but joined the counterculture in the late ‘60s, a shift reflected in some of his autobiographical and often photo-journalistic films like “Heavy Traffic” (which was compared to “Mean Streets”) and “Hey Good Looking.” His 1975 film, a satire of Blaxploitation films, "Song of the South" and other genres and tropes, “Coonskin,” came under fire from the Congress on Racial Equality, which protested the film’s racial satire, but has since gained a cult following that includes the Wu-Tang Clan and Quentin Tarantino, among others.

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By the late ‘70s, Bakshi courted the fantasty/fiction audience with “Wizards” and a devastating version of Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.” American Pop was an ode to ‘60s rock and “Cool World” was — well, maybe not so hot, but it did showcase a young Brad Pitt, and to his credit, Bakshi was mixing live actors like Scatman Crothers (in “Coonskin”) with animated creations long before anyone framed Roger Rabbit. He revamped the Mighty Mouse franchise in the edgier, indie besotted late ‘80s, but after a long hiatus spent painting, he is finally back to making films.

The new “Last Days of Coney Island” is a crowd-funded cops and gangsters short, full of Bakshi’s now beloved eccentrics and street freaks. It’s available now on Vimeo On Demand.

Here, at 76 with nothing to lose or prove, Bakshi speaks his mind about his awakening as an artist, his enemies, his heroes, and of course, Fritz.

I’m not a comics person. I’m more of a film person. And I was wondering if you consciously tried to take the underground comics of the ‘60s and make them more of a reflection of real urban life by creating a universe that seemed three-dimensional. R. Crumb created this character named Fritz the Cat —

Yes, he did.

And you gave Fritz a place to exist.  

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That’s right, you’re very close.

What is that like as a process? Do you see a flat comic book panel and you get inspired, for better or worse, to kind of expand it to more or less a reflection of society and the real world of the ‘60s, or the ‘70s or the ‘80s?

You’re close to what happened.   First of all, it’s a very long story, I’ll try to keep it short.

I’m just starting at Fritz, because I think he’s still your most famous character and it’s the beginning of your legend, so I figured we’d start at the beginning.

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Basically, when I hit Terrytoons, I was young and coming out of Brownsville. I was very, very naïve and stupid. I didn’t go to college. I was very greedy. I was very optimistic as to what the world was all about and during that time. Because I got married at 19 or 20 and I had a kid at 21 — that was the time all my friends got married, it was something we did because Eisenhower wanted it. I was trapped in this brick house and living but thinking of what’s changing out there. And one day I found the jazz album by Art Blakey. I went into a record store and found it in a bin, I played it and I felt that it was stunning. I said, “What is this thing called ‘jazz?’ Where have I been?”

Were you inclined to be a hipster after that? Were you too hip for Terrytoons after Art Blakey hit you? Fritz is a very hip cat.

No, I was still as corny as they come. I got married, I had a wife and a kid and I was working at a job and paying the rent. I don’t think I was a hipster, no. But what I was doing was coming out of this shell.

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Ah. So it was a slow process.

I grew up in a very depressed household where danger was always around us. I worked and was a good boy, I helped out with the rent. We were very poor. But we didn’t feel poor. Much was going on in America at the time, but we didn’t have the money to be a part of the narrative.

Did you have art supplies?

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No, we couldn’t afford art supplies. But I was voraciously in love with comic books. Superman and Batman, it was the Golden Age. I could not wait to get sick. The only time I got a new comic book was when I got sick. What I did was, I cut out the characters and put them on my windowsill and designed stories, I’d move them around. I used to sit there for hours, just hours. I used to tell stories with the characters; I didn’t have to draw ‘em. When I found out you could earn a living drawing this stuff, I fell down. This is how stupid I was. I went to art school at that point.

But you could draw a realistic or a semi-realistic, interesting abstract that could show talent, is what you’re saying?

I don’t know. I drew these monkeys all over the place. I love monkeys. They were funny.

Were you writing too?

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No, I wasn’t writing. You know, ideas. I love ideas. It was the ‘60s. I was a cartoonist working at Terrytoons, doing boring animation. But I didn’t know it was boring. At the same time, Bobby Dylan hit. And as I said, I ran into jazz. The Vietnam War started and the protests. And slowly, in my time, I was beginning to understand that there was something more going on.

The Sexual Revolution, and Black Power and all these things that eventually showed up in your art as well.

All of that. I started realizing there was more going on, I started getting into arguments.

I started to have opinions I never had before.

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I gotta to ask this—when we meet Fritz in his self-titled film in 1972, he’s in the park and he’s checking out the pedestrians, the people and the scene, and he’s just calling bullshit on everyone, basically. How strong was your personal bullshit detector at the time? Like, could you tell [at that point] when someone was jiving you?

That’s a good question; let me think. Yeah, at that point I had finally gotten very angry and very wise. At that point I suddenly woke up. Everything that I grew up thinking was cool — fighting for your country and all of that — was starting to fall apart. I couldn’t believe that black people [were being restricted from the] vote. My life was changing. I was bored to years with Terrytoons animation. So I was using my life to try to expand my art form. I started to comment and I started to read. I read Ginsberg, I read Howl. I read Kerouac — I didn’t think he was good, but I still read him. I read Henry Miller. I started to read other people that were also happening [and] big at that time. It was just breaking all that stuff.

Did you find that creatively liberating as an artist?

Totally. Incredibly liberating.

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Okay, so you go from Terrytoons to making your own films, beginning with the X-rated hit “Fritz the Cat.” And by the end you can do anything you want with animation from a technical standpoint and you have this new attitude.

I learned my craft at Terrytoons. I spent 15 years there, writing, directing, designing — every part of an animated cartoon—

And that happened by working on “Mighty Mouse” and “Heckle and Jeckle” and tons of these very popular mainstream characters, right?

Yeah. I created the Mighty Heroes. That was the first thing I created before Fritz. And the fact that I sold it and they bought it gave me confidence that I could do all the stuff in my head. So I learned my craft, and when it came to doing “Fritz the Cat,” I was ready and I had also just learned about the writers I told you, and jazz. And there was a big underground film movement on 2nd Avenue in those days. Those guys were showing 16 mm shorts — “Scorpio Rising,” and I saw “La Strada,” which blew me away — in the Village. I saw “La Strada,” that changed my life. When I saw “La Strada,” the day I saw it, it totally destroyed me. It was one of the greatest fucking films I’ve ever seen in my life.

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So you went from making these hero mice to making characters based on Fellini and Kenneth Anger. Cartoons and animated films didn’t at the time have the respect they have today.

Oh, not at all. Not at all.

So, you’re still trafficking in what is considered by many like a low art form.

Yep. I’m trafficking in dirt. (laughs)

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But you’re inspired by all this high art and you’re kind of changing the art form into a fine art. How does that work?

Well, I love animation!  But I love Francis Bacon. He did a book with David Sylvester. It’s a great book. It will teach you everything you have to know about art, about chance, and how you find what’s real. And they taught me all these things about how you should approach being an artist. But I also love the streets, I love wandering around the Village at night.

Is that “Brutality of Fact?” Is that the title?

Exactly.

I just looked it up.

Read it! Read it! Read it, it will teach you everything you have to know about art.

So you were alone wandering out like Travis in “Taxi Driver,” wandering around the Village, collecting scenarios for Fritz?

I photographed it all. I’m also a photographer.

Would you take photos and later sort of paint them into cels or sketches? Because a lot of the films that you’ve made over the years, written and directed, the characters do seem to be alive to have been captured in real life. Even the anthropomorphized animals have… a sense of flesh and blood especially when they mix with live action characters in later films (like “Coonskin” and “Cool World”). There’s a seediness to them, but also a great life force.

These were there were periods where I was drinking a lot. I hung out underground. My marriage was breaking up, I was living in apartments with girls and women and guys. I was once talking to this guy in an apartment who came up and showed me a chain of bullets he had around his neck and I said, “What’s that for?” He said, “These are the ones I took out of my body.” Those are all people that I ran into and those were all stuff that was composited. I tried to use what life was about.

So you went out there to bring back the material to make these gritty, hysterical, humanist films.

I’d lived a life that was a lie, I realized it at a certain point. My hair was combed, I was the ‘50s clean-shaven kid, and then everything fell apart on me. I realized what the world was really like. Blacks not [being allowed to vote], the Vietnam War, all this crap! Kennedy getting shot, Malcolm X getting shot. So, I just totally changed as a person. I think I was just becoming an artist who was living a life which was different from the life he thought he should live. It’s hard to explain. I’m not going to be clear about what happened.

What about the actual making of the film and the reaction to the film, because it got an X-rating? I compare it to Tom Wolf’s “Radical Chic” essay. I don’t know if you know that essay but—

Yeah, sure I do. Sure, sure.

Because Fritz very much takes these downtown hipsters, and he knows they wanna be street level, they wanna be down with the African Americans. And Fritz is just like, “That ain’t gonna work.” And he figures it’s better to just get laid. He’s cynical, but sort of oddly righteous.  

Listen, I was watching it. I was right there in the East Village. Bullshit artists preached a revolution downtown because they spotted a chick. They had no intention of getting involved. Whenever things got rough, they left.

Did you intentionally make the police kind of like these idiotic pigs in the film, prone to spontaneous violence? Was that a reaction to ’68 and later to Kent State?

Oh yeah, that was a reaction to Chicago, Kent State. It was a woman, a literal lady who was trying to get across the street during a rally or something, a cop came saying, “You can’t cross the street, ma’am,” She’s 90 years old or something and he’s like screaming at her. I was watching this. She didn’t know what was happening. She was terrified. But yeah, I think these guys lose their heads over nothing. And, the stuff shown today, they’re killing people like flies out there. They’re shooting guys running away from them! In my day, where I grew up, Brownsville, which was a very tough neighborhood, the cops used to --- if you were tough, you had a sort of honor about yourself that you could take a man down without killing him. Because you weren’t afraid of fighting him. Today, these cops just shoot you on plain sight, because they’re just terrified. With all these cameras on the street we’re finally getting into it. That’s always been the case. You speak to Billie Holiday about that, you speak to Louis Armstrong about that.

They were shaken down. Even white guys were shaken down.

They destroyed that comic, what’s his name?

Lenny Bruce, yeah.

Yeah! I’m not here to point fingers, I’m just letting you know the way the world is.

What was it like for you executing the actual films? They’re all so intricate and colorful and explosive and dark. This was pre-computer? It was a shit-ton of work. Did you have a team?

Oh yeah. I was an animation director. I had a team. I had the best team in the world.

Was the team down with the message or were some of them offended by the content of a film like “Fritz” or “Coonskin” or “Heavy Traffic?” Were they just working because it was a good gig?

[Laughs.] There were some that were really behind me. I would say for the most part, it was the gig and as sense of disbelief [that kept them there]. And they loved animating, so basically they got a chance to get something to move. I was satisfied and they were satisfied. Now, animators don’t have ideas. They just like to move things around. And if they move it around and they move it around well, they feel good about themselves.

Do you consider these rock n’ roll movie movies? You have a lot of fans who also love records like you do. It’s a sensibility that’s compatible with rock rebellion. There’s a sequence in “Fritz” where there’s kind of a Bo Diddley beat on the soundtrack and a character, for the longest time, just snapping his fingers to it. It’s definitely rock-informed, and there’s tons of sex going on. There’s drugs. There’s hiding from the cops. And then there’s “American Pop” a few years later in the early ‘80s, which has a soundtrack full of actual rock hits.  

Bo Diddley was one of my favorites of all time. All that music I grew up with. Though I see it more as a documentary. I see all my films as documentaries, in a sense, where I’m trying to get to the truth. Yeah, I take photographs of the streets and I trace backgrounds. “Fritz” was two things. The first time rock n’ roll was ever put into a cartoon, right? And secondly, I was on location. All those shrieking East Villagers were real. I was recording characters on the street. All those hippie girls on Washington Square —

I’m not surprised to hear that at all. It’s so shocking how little has changed in terms of that sort of New York jive.

[Laughs.] I love it.

I heard that you were friends with other quintessential New York directors like Scorsese.

Well, I’ll tell you some stories. Well, when I did “Heavy Traffic” it came out a few weeks after Marty’s “Mean Streets.” And then TIME magazine said me and “Mean Streets” were one of the ten best pictures of the whole year. We became friends because we broke together. Marty could not believe how close “Traffic” was to “Mean Streets.” We had the same sensibilities. We became friends. And then we went to L.A.

Even though it’s an animated film, and “Mean Streets” is live action. They’re of a piece of each other. “Because it’s animated, but it’s not a cartoon” was the tag for promotions and something you can say about many of your films.

They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to sell my film.

But “Fritz” made you famous. I mean, “Fritz” made you a star, right?

I don’t know. Well, yeah, the responsibility of the debt is huge. Yeah, he made me a star. I have no complaint. “Fritz” gave me the muscle to do “Heavy Traffic.” “Fritz” allowed me to get into “Traffic.”

I think by the mid-‘70s, your very last name was synonymous with a certain type of film, in the way that Scorsese or Freidkin or Coppola were synonymous with a certain type of film. I mean, without forcing you to be immodest, would you agree that that a Bakshki film promised a certain boldness and a certain exciting cinematic experience? A fearlessness.  

One of the things that I try to do is to keep moving on. You say I was fearless, Maybe I’m stupid. I have this great belief that the truth will out. You know, I’m part of that brown-blue 1940s kind of guy who grows up and thinks that there’s still a great American novel somewhere.

Those kind of people don’t exist in this country anymore.

I know, I know.

They were born after the War and probably died off after the ‘80s, you know?

No question about it. I’m old-school in that sense. I never looked at my success. I never played my success. I could have gotten laid more. [Laughs.] I had no idea what was going on.

Did it get you into trouble though? Did people pick at your film? Almost because they misunderstood what you intended as a realistic if somewhat irreverent take on certain things: women and minorities. Did they just not get it? Did you get into trouble?

They were stunned. The fact is that so many people grew up on Disney and were offended with what I was doing with animation. I was the guy who came in and told everyone that Walt Disney was full of shit. And they hated me for it. They thought I was vulgar.

Did they try and blackball you, Disney?

Oh, yeah, forget about it! I showed up at Hollywood with “Fritz the Cat” and there was a full page in “Variety” taken out by every Disney artist and every key artist on the West Coast, telling me that I should go home, that “we don’t need the crap” that I’m bringing after all the trouble that Walt made to make it a great medium.

Did Disney try to keep you out of mainstream cinemas? I mean, did you have to screen at art film houses and stuff?

Battles galore. Battles galore. When I opened up “Wizards,” Disney opened up “Fantasia.” And there were multiplexes. Disney opened up “Fantasia” in every fucking theatre “Wizards” was in, just to try to confuse the issue.

“Fantasia,” which was a 40-year-old film at that point, right?

Well, yeah! It was very difficult.

[Note: Salon reached out to Disney for comment on Bakshi's account of his arrival in Hollywood, and the company did not respond.]

But the people who did see your films like myself and like Quentin Tarantino and like, I would imagine, Peter Jackson, people who had come out to eventually make their mark on cinema were probably changed forever by them, you know? So you could say “fuck Disney,” ultimately?

Fuck Disney — those guys are my friends. Look, I never went through a huge audience. I never went to merchandise any “Heavy Traffic” stars. I’m serious. What I’m saying is that I’m not looking for the biggest numbers possible. I am looking for people whom I can share something with, who I enjoy. I am looking to be in the Village in a bar with a bunch of guys I really want to be with. And everybody else can go fuck themselves. You have to understand that I love art, I love being the underground photographer. I’m serious now.

I don’t need a Ferrari to get around in. So what I’m saying is that a guy like you is part of my crowd and those are the people that I love and respect. I can’t respect everyone who wants to run around and buy “Star Wars” dolls. Who needs that junk? And it’s shit. That’s never been any doubt, in other words even when I worked in Hollywood, I tried to get something down that I believe in.

But you did an epic version of “The Lord of the Rings” — does that qualify as you working for Hollywood?

Oh, yeah. But I had a very difficult time. “Coonskin” was destroyed and “Hey Good Lookin’” was ripped apart. And I needed money. I had a studio and so I figured if I did “Lord of the Rings”— and by the way, I love Tolkien very much. I love to read those books. “Lord of the Rings” was sensational, and still is. So I figured I could make some money doing that, you know, and save the studio — which it did.

Holding my studio together got everyone pissed off in L.A.. All the animation video people thought I was through!

And it’s a very, very, very dark, spooky version of “Lord of the Rings.”

Tolkien’s very dark. It scared the shit out of you.

And it was hard to be a kid as I was and stomach such a gothic, spooky version of what initially seemed like a fantasy from Led Zeppelin lyrics, you know?

I wanted to use Led Zeppelin music for the Tolkien —

Well, that brings us to — let’s talk a little bit about “American Pop” for a moment, because that was another film that made it into the mainstream theatres in the ‘80s, and it has an amazing soundtrack. Did you feel like that was a sell-out movie as well?

No, I love “Pop.” First of all, the extraordinary thing was, I was always as I said, using rock n’ roll in my films. I was buying the songs because most producers — listen to this — want to record their own music brand-new, so they can own the rights. It was a very big deal, but I didn’t care about owning the rights. I just cared about what music I loved and wanted in my films. I bought anything I wanted for “American Pop” for under a thousand dollars.

I mean, it’s ridiculous! I was getting the best of everything because I was buying the stuff. I’d go to record companies and they were very happy to have me pick out the music. Music is very important to me. I love music. That wasn’t the sell-out film, no.

But it was successful. It was a hit.

Yeah. Yeah.

And you have Hendrix in it, you have —

Grace Slick. There was Bob Dylan.

Bob Seger’s in it.  

Yeah, you name it, they were there. That was the soundtrack of my life.

Did you start seeing imitators at this point of a Bakshi style, of say 1981’s “Heavy Metal” and movies like that? Movies with rock and breasts, basically.

No. They get it all wrong. They don’t understand what I’m into in America. I’m into what’s happening on the streets. I’m into documentaries. I’m into Greenwich Village. I’m into the cobblestones, how they shine at night. They think I’m into curse words and dirty words and “tits and ass.” So whenever they start doing me they start doing “tits and ass” and cursing. And it’s disgusting stuff as far as I’m concerned. I’m into America and what it’s like living on the street, and loving the street. I’m not so sure I love New York anymore.

So you live in L.A. now?

No, I live on top of a mountain in New Mexico.

Oh, what part of New Mexico?

In the middle of nowhere. Beautiful. Everything’s beautiful.

I see. Okay, so let’s talk about the later period of your career and our new film. You did “Cool World” in the early ‘90s and worked with some major people like Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger on that. And some might have forgotten but you also did a video for The Rolling Stones, which was huge. One of their last classics, “The Harlem Shuffle.”

Yeah, yeah. They came and got me. I forgot about that. That was the best part of my life. I was talking to all these Rolling Stones. And I got everyone dressed up in zoot suits.

Oh my god, they looked great.

And the guitarist, I forget. I’m getting old. What’s his name?

Keith.

Who?

Keith Richards.

Keith Richards robbed a suit! He took the fucking suit home.

So would this new film “Last Days of Coney Island” qualify as a comeback for you? What have you been up to? I know you did a revival of “Mighty Mouse,” right?

I’ve been painting and drawing and writing. I want to animate again because I miss it. When I left animation I was pretty burnt out, fucked over, and I don’t want to get into it, but I wasn’t healthy. It took me a long time to pull my head back together again. I want to get back into animation, and the opportunity — this is important — to make your own films and distribute your own films on Vimeo, and make a profit, and do whatever you want without asking anyone, is right up my alley. And I can’t miss the opportunity of doing this kind of animation that frees me from all the fights and aggravations and bottles of vodka I put away because of the studios and bad deals. So it’s an amazing time for us. It’s an amazing time for the online reporters and the online blogs and everything that you guys are about. I am so lucky to be around today to be able to do this.

The art I’ve seen from the stills does seem more painterly and detailed. Has your style changed over the years?

Yeah. I’ve been painting a lot. That’s one of the things that I have been doing to pull my head together. So it’s computers that’s the way that everyone is going. You know, computer animation with Pixar and Disney are very slick.

Do you not dig that? I find some of it really affecting. I thought “Up” was a great movie.

I think they’ve done amazing, spectacular stuff. But when you get back to who I am as an artist, and my time period, which is Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and Francis Bacon and de Kooning and Pollock, and the street photographers. That’s how I grew up. I want something more personal to what a human being does, that’s not machine-like. I’m not putting the other thing down. But it’s like saying, if everyone’s painting oils, you can’t paint in acrylic. That’s ridiculous.

Lost Disney Film Found!


Marc Spitz

Marc Spitz is the author of "Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s" (Da Capo Press). His new book on rock and roll cinema, "Loud Pictures," will be released by Dey Street Books/Harper Collins in 2017 Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitz

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