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THE NEW YORK TIMES - 1981

RALPH BAKSHI-ICONOCLAST OF ANIMATION


  • By John Culhane



  • March 22, 1981


Credit...The New York Times Archive

Ralph Bakshi, the kid from Brownsville who has successfully revolted in subject matter and style against the art of animation as practiced by Walt Disney and his disciples, visited Washington, D.C., recently and hustled off to the National Gallery with Carl Bell, one of the animators of Mr. Bakshi's sixth and latest feature, ''American Pop.'' The tour was conducted at Mr. Bakshi's characteristic nonstop pace until they hit an exhibit that contained George Bellows's ''Stag at Sharkey's,'' a realistic painting, depicting prizefighters pulverizing each other, that is a 1909 landmark in the

revolt of the so-called Ashcan School of painters against the 19th-century love affair with genteel style and mythological subjects. ''He kept circling to take one more look until we'd been in that one room for an hour,'' said Mr. Bell. ''I needed to,'' said Mr. Bakshi, on the day he learned that ''American Pop,'' a $4 million moving picture as filled with slums, sex and violence as any Ashcan School painting, had grossed a very promising $416,828 after playing for only two weeks in two cities. ''When I lean on animation history -which hasn't changed since about 1950, it's depressing,'' said Mr. Bakshi. ''When I lean on art history, it gives me confidence, it gives me courage, and it gives me heart.'' It will come as a surprise to many that Mr. Bakshi, the brash, street-smart Bad Boy of Animation, needs more confidence, courage or heart. The 41-year-old animator-turned-director began his feature career in 1972 with the first X-rated animated cartoon, ''Fritz the Cat,'' which cost only $750,000 at a time when the Disney studio was spending $6 million remaking ''Robin Hood'' with talking animals, but made about the same amount of money (between $25 million and $30 million worldwide). After his third feature, ''Coonskin,'' which he says he intended as ''an attack on hypocrisy in all races,'' was itself attacked by the Congress On Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) as racist and was hastily withdrawn from distribution by Paramount Pictures, Mr. Bakshi made a strategic retreat to Disney territory - and won a stunning victory. His version of J.R.R. Tolkein's sword-and-sorcery classic, ''Lord of the Rings,'' cost $8 million and has earned worldwide rentals to date of between $45 million and $50 million, while satisfying most film critics and Tolkein cultists. But Mr. Bakshi's unrepentant response to the success of ''Rings'' was to return to his one-man Ashcan School of Animation. 'American Pop'' deals in moving drawings with much of the same un-idealized subject matter - the city and the toll it takes of human lives - as did the still paintings of his Ashcan idols, Bellows and Hopper - while making a melting pot epic of the love affair with American popular music of four generations of a family of Russian immigrant youths. '' 'American Pop' has three meanings to me,'' said Mr. Bakshi. ''American Pop culture, pop music, and American fathers.''

Mr. Bakshi's own parents were Russian Jews who first went to Palestine, where his father ''fought the British'' and where Ralph was born on Oct. 29, 1938. When he was a year old, his parents brought him and his older sister to New York, where his father found work in a sheet metal shop and a home for his family on push-cart-crowded Chester Street, which Mr. Bakshi remembers as a Jewish-Italian-black armed camp in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood. Mr. Bakshi says he was accidentially splattered by blood from a Mafioso ''hit'' when he was 8 years old - and the image turns up in ''Fritz,'' the semi-autobiographical ''Heavy Traffic'' (1973), ''Coonskin'' and now again in ''American Pop.'' He spent his adolescence surviving on streets that boasted gangs called The Stompers and the Hell-Bent Rapists. During his adolescence, Mr. Bakshi discovered that he could ''harmonize the disharmony I saw all around me by turning it into drawings.'' From being a poor student at Thomas Jefferson High School, he was inspired to compete for one of 10 openings at the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design), a vocational school for commercial artists. When he graduated in June of 1956, he won the school's cartooning medal - and he has been transmuting the gritty reality of the streets in drawings ever since. Himself the father of four, whose 21-year-old son, Mark, gets screen credit for helping him pick the right music for the youngest generation in ''Pop,'' Mr. Bakshi says he has thought a lot about fatherhood as he has survived for nearly a decade in the business that Walt Disney has dominated for nearly 50 years. In his view, Disney was animation's ultimate father-figure, and doing anything with animation that Disney didn't want to do or was too busy to do is perceived by his spiritual son as killing Pop. It's so bleepin' difficult coming up against the Disney monolith,'' Mr. Bakshi says vehemently. ''Everyone's trying to keep animation as cartooning in style and talking animals and fairy tale folk in subject matter. Why must it be that way? ''I'm not big on Father Figures, and I despise rules in art. No one wants to change. They want to do it the way Walt did - and not as good - till the day they die, and that's the curse.'' Mr. Bakshi believes that animated fantasies were fine for Depression Era America, but that Disney stopped innovating in animation in the 50's when he began directing his creative energies into the building of his parks. Mr. Bakshi sees no merit in the fact that those who took over the direction of Disney's features have kept to Disney's original course. So the state of the art he loves depresses him. Disney's 21st animated feature, ''The Fox and the Hound,'' due out next summer, is a talking animal tale reminiscent of ''Bambi.'' Don Bluth Productions, founded by a group of young animators who were trained at Disney's to carry on the Disney tradition but broke away to found their own studio, is making family fare, featuring talking animals and based on the award-winning juvenile fantasy, ''Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of the N.I.M.H.'' (National Institute of Mental Health). Hanna-Barbera Studios, founded by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Disney's most formidable competitors in the short-subject field (their ''Tom and Jerry'' cartoons for M-G-M won Oscars away from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck seven times) will come out this summer with ''Heidi's Song,'' an animated musical version of Johanna Spyri's family classic, ''Heidi,'' which has been turned into a fantasy by the addition of talking animals. In short, says Mr. Bakshi, all deal with subject matter that might have been on Walt Disney's own production schedule prior to 1950 - whereas only Disney had the nerve to make ''Snow White'' or ''Fantasia'' when he did. On the other hand, the art of Ralph Bakshi depresses many animators of the Disney tradition just as profoundly, and not only because of Mr. Bakshi's subject matter. ''He has no taste, the design of his films is ugly, and his animation isn't drawing, it's tracing,'' said one. The ''tracing'' criticism is a reference to Mr. Bakshi's enthusiastic use of the Rotoscope - which many who don't understand animation refer to as a ''new technique'' - after Mr. Bakshi spent $2 million to make a live action version of ''Lord of the Rings'' - and then Rotoscoped it in preparing his animated version. In fact, Max Fleischer, who made the original Popeye cartoons, took out a patent on the Rotoscope process in 1915. It was simply a camera projecting a piece of live-action film, one frame at a time, onto a light-table, so that an artist can trace the rear-projected image onto a piece of paper. Many good animators use Rotoscoped images as a guide to the movement in their drawings. More than 40 years ago, Disney artists traced footage of Marge Belcher (later the wife and dancing partner of Gower Champion) acting out Snow White's movements - but good animators have always adapted the real poses to arrive at the caricature of life that is good animation. Invented or extremely exaggerated movement, such as the Seven Dwarfs stretching and squashing like dough, is usually done without any reference to Rotoscope drawings, but Mr. Bakshi feels that the Rotoscope is a necessary aid for the realistic animation he is trying to achieve -''not to trace line action but as a guide for me as a director and for my studio.'' ''Thomas Eakins used photographs as a guide,'' says Mr. Bakshi angrily, leaning on the great American realist who experimented with sequential photography of moving athletes and animals before his interest in the human figure in motion led him to make his series of still paintings of boxing scenes. Mr. Bakshi says his own evolution from an animated cartoonist at Terrytoons to an animated realist began when he was making ''Fritz the Cat.'' He and background painter, Johnny Vita, drove all around New York in a Volkswagen convertible photographing not only the facades of the buildings, but the rooftops, the alleys and the very toilets in the bars. Key shots were blown up to a very large size, then traced on water color paper with a Rapidograph pen and painted by Mr. Vita. 'That was my first breakthrough in style,'' said Mr. Bakshi. ''Suddenly the streets were real.'' True enough, these were not idealized fantasy streets, but their simplified shapes and expressionistic colors - mostly decadent yellows and greens - were not what a live-action camera would have recorded, either. Down these mean streets, however, went talking animals in ''Fritz.'' In ''Heavy Traffic,'' Mr. Bakshi told the semi-autobiographical story of a sexually repressed Brownsville boy who uses drawing to deal with his violent environment - but the characters, though all human, were heavily cartooned. Now, in ''American Pop,'' he is using blown-up photographs of key poses from live action as a guide to the animation as well as the backgrounds. The result is animated realism. When a character is shot in ''American Pop,'' the splattering of his blood probably makes more of a design than it would in real life - on the other hand, its stark shape and garish color probably brings it closer to Mr. Bakshi's recollection of the Mafia hit he saw when he was 8. Having survived for nearly a decade, Mr. Bakshi is giving his young animators (their average age is 24) a lot to cut their teeth on in the next 10 years. Last fall, he signed a four-picture production deal with finance commitments from Columbia Pictures and Aspen Productions (the production arm of Film Finance Group Ltd., U. S. agent for the British-based Guinness Film Group). He immediately moved into larger facilities (25,000 square feet) in a former 5-and-10-cent store in Burbank, Calif. (hometown since 1940 of Walt Disney Productions). And, like Disney and Hanna-Barbera, he announced that he would start training his own young animators. ''We're no longer a one-picture operation,'' he said. In fact, Mr. Bakshi is currently planning three pictures simultaneously. The most ambitious is an animated history of American crime, based on ''Crime in America,'' a book by Richard Hammer published by Playboy Press. Mr. Bakshi is working on the screenplay with Ronni Kern, the young woman who has sole screenplay credit on ''American Pop.'' ''I always write the outlines of my pictures,'' said Mr. Bakshi. ''But Ronni wrote the screenplay. She believes in what I'm trying to say.'' At the same time, Mr. Bakshi is working with two other writers on two other projects. One is ''a science fiction fantasy'' based on the art of the painter-illustrator Frank Friazetta, best-known for the character and art of ''Conan the Barbarian'' in a paperback series in the 60's. Mr. Bakshi intends to add the dimension of movement to the ''primeval setting, barbarians and luscious women'' that Mr. Friazetta has created in still drawings. The third project that Mr. Bakshi says he is determined to make is ''a film on Hollywood - and I'm going to make it outrageously funny.'' With the continuity of having his own studio, rather than hiring freelance animators as in the past, and the security of being able to look ahead to eight to 10 years of work, Mr. Bakshi is again dreaming of breakthroughs in style as well as subject. ''I'm going to have a department with about 100 people in it, doing airbrushing and so forth, to turn our drawings into fully rendered figures with shadows.'' Instead of the magic realism of Disney's ''Pinocchio,'' where each drawing of Figaro the Cat was inked, painted and airbrushed to give the kitten's fur a real, three-dimensional quality, even as she sat in the belly of a whale, Mr. Bakshi is striving for more realistic depiction of the gangsters, pimps and prostitutes that he cartooned in ''Heavy Traffic,'' and animated with more realistic line drawings in ''American Pop.'' To that end, Mr. Bakshi left his cluttered hotel suite for the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he wanted to spend more time with a favorite painting by Jack Levine called ''Gangster Funeral.'' ''You learn to make films from painters,'' said the man who first learned that life could be rough but that art could make it better in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

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