Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fritz the Cat (1972) and The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974)

Fritz the Cat, the comic strip character about a hip cat who comments on society and life, first came to life in the mind of famed underground comic book artist Robert R. Crumb when he was just a kid way back in 1959 in the pages of a little home made comic strip called “Cat Life”. Later, when Crumbs career grew in the underground comic scene of the 60’s and 70’s Fritz the Cat became known to the world as the anthropomorphic cat who represented the counter culture and had all sorts of crazy adventures, including many sexual ones. Crumb by the way is a genius of the comic book art form in my book, his style is one that I personally love and admire and actually kind of emulate in my own stuff, so this review comes from a genuine Robert Crumb admirer. Ultimately Crumb completely disassociated himself from this film project, going as far as getting his name legally removed from anything related to the film. The fact that Crumb cut himself out of the project doesn’t mean that Fritz the Cat is a bad film, because it isn’t. I actually think the film effectively captured what Crumb’s strip was all about but at the same time it has a lot of Bakshi’s own mentality in it as well. It’s the joining of these two genius minds that makes Fritz the Cat such a unique film.  I have to admit that I am disappointed at the fact that Crumb didn’t participate in the development of the film, still, I have to give props to Ralph Bakshi and his achievements with it; it is a special film in many ways.  

Way back in the early 70’s when famed animator Ralph Bakshi was looking for the right project with which to launch his career, he stumbled upon a Fritz the Cat strip and got the idea in his mind that he could make a film about these horny pot smoking animals. He’d been looking for the right film with which to start off his animation studio; a studio that Bakshi wanted to use to produce animated films for adults. But Crumb wasn’t budging; he didn’t want to give the rights to Bakshi, he didn’t want to do the project. Bakshi himself has gone down as saying that Crumb wanted all the credit for himself and making  film, by definition isn’t all about one person. It’s a collaborative medium, many people help a film happen. But the story doesn’t stop there. Crumb’s wife wanted the money that the project was offering and since she had a power of attorney over Crumbs work, she signed over the rights to Bakshi anyways. According to Crumb, they only got 7,000 for the rights! Fritz the Cat cost 850,000 to produce but went on to make almost 2 million dollars world wide, making it a bonafide success.

What was the big deal with Fritz the Cat? Why did an independent animated film suddenly make so much dough? Well, various factors helped this groundbreaking animated film get noticed, first of them is the fact that it was the first animated film to get the dreaded X-rating. Normally, getting an X-rating means economic death for any film; it means your film won’t get played in as many theaters and that the grand majority of conservatives in the world won’t go see your film. And while that might have been so at the time that Fritz the Cat was released, it still went on to make a hefty amount of money at the box office and it is still the single most successful independent animated film in history. Bakshi and crew intelligently used the X-rating to their advantage pasting the phrase “He's X-rated and animated” and “We’re not rated X for nothin', baby!” on their posters. The most controversial aspect of the film is seeing these cute little cartoon animals smoking weed, shooting up heroin, participating in orgies and murdering people. Never before Fritz the Cat had an animated film been aimed at an adult audience, so this film was ground breaking in that way. Fritz’s sexual exploits are pretty nuts as well, they include him picking up three chicks by impressing them with his philosophical ideas, and then getting them to participate in a massive orgy at a house where these beatniks are all having a major smoke out. Then Fritz goes and has sex with this huge black chick called ‘Bertha’. It’s hilarious seeing Fritz squeezing his face into a huge pair of breasts with such reckless abandon.

Fritz the Cat is most certainly a stoner flick; it glorifies pot smoking like very few movies do. Fritz tokes it up and shares the ganja with his girlfriends to get them in the mood. He smokes and goes on these hallucinatory head trips which offer up some of the craziest visuals in the film. I guess every single pot smoking, tripped out hippy went to see this one. Once word of mouth gets out that a film is ‘trippy’ well, acid heads and tripsters go in droves. Same thing happened with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a film which acid heads went to see not only because it was a great cinematic experience, but because it also offered trippy visuals to augment their drug trips, and this most certainly is the case with Fritz the Cat, though the animation can be crude by today’s standards (as are most of Bakshi’s films) when you get used to it, the visuals can be quite the trip.

The film goes by pretty quickly from sketch to sketch, it can be a bit hard to follow because Fritz the Cat is a film that does not unfold in you’re a-typical linear fashion; it actually plays out a lot like a series of sketches commenting on socio-political problems. But when you finish watching it, you’ll feel that the film is just as chaotic, frenetic and sour sweet as life itself; which is something I enjoyed. I loved how both films serve as a time capsule of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it shows us the way people thought, what they were going through. Race issues pop up constantly, for example, Fritz hates the way white people have abused blacks through out history, so he goes hangs out with black people and plays pool with them, strikes up philosophical conversations about racism. These conversations sparked up quite the controversy; but Bakshi has always been a guy who doesn’t shy away from controversy. Controversy is something that Bakshi films were always about, for example Coonskin (1975) Bakshi’s racially charged feature film, flared up a whole lot of controversy, it was accused for being racist, when in fact it was the complete opposite. It is now considered by Bakshi and his fans, as his masterpiece. Bakshi did always make an effort on his films to comment on racism, for example, there’s something about the way Bakshi made these scenes that take place at an all black bar in Fritz the Cat. The scene has a bunch of black people hanging out, drinking booze, and talking bull. The conversations in these scenes come off as very realistic because Bakshi actually picked up a bunch of black people and brought them to the studio and just let them talk, he later animated the scenes in accordance to the dialog he recorded, as a result the dialog comes off as vibrant and full of life.  

Another controversial moment in the film has Fritz joining this group of revolutionaries who want to blow up some kind of factory, these guys are unsavory types only looking to do some damage, they are just violent for the sake of being violent and so Fritz ends up joining them and participating, not realizing his getting into a heap of trouble. This segment is obviously meant to send a warning. You might be counter culture and you might hate the system, but you have to choose your partners carefully. Ultimately, Fritz the Cat is a strange film to take in, it’s amusing and has tons of shock value, but it’s not easy to digest. At times the film goes on these tangents with Fritz philosophizing about life; you'll feel like you're in a beatnik bar philosophizing and criticizing everything that moves, which is basically the kind of film Fritz the Cat is. Fritz embodies the state of mind and frustrations of the 60’s generation, it’s awesome to look at it just for that.

The sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat was not directed by Ralph Bakshi because Bakshi had said all he wanted to say with Fritz the Cat, he was ready to move on to something else, which would end up being his next animated feature film, Heavy Traffic (1973) a film about a cartoonist/animator who wants to make an animated film, but is finding it difficult to produce, like most of his films Bakshi was venting some personal demons with that one. The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat went on to be directed by a guy called Robert Taylor and had nothing to do with either Bakshi or Crumb. It is seen by many as simply a cash-in, a film made to capitalize on the success of the first. And though I kind of agree with that sentiment, this sequel is not without its merits.

This time around Fritz has gotten married; he lives with his fat wife and child in a cramped apartment in the slums. All Fritz does these days is sit around smoking weed and waiting for his next welfare check; unfortunately the people at the welfare office are calling him up, questioning him as to why he hasn’t found a job yet. At the same time,  his wife is screaming at him at the top of her lungs about being a good father and getting a job, two things that Fritz does not seem to be too good at. So as he takes a puff of smoke, all of his nine lives take an astral trip, each life a different version of Fritz. Each life a different sketch; a different comment on society.

In one life Fritz goes off and screws a young Puerto Rican girl, making her smoke weed so that she gets all horny. After they smoke, they go on this hallucinatory surreal trip, which if you ask me, looks and feels more like an acid trip than anything. In another life Fritz is off to Mars on a spaceship with a news reporter he manages to seduce minutes before take off. In another life, he meets a bum on the streets who says he is God. On another he ends up being Hitler’s right hand man; this  segment of the film aims it’s guns at the fascist movement, making fun of Hitler and the Nazi’s every chance it gets. For example, they go on and on about how Hitler is actually a very frustrated cat because he has only one testicle, and is secretly gay. Hitler actually tries to screw Fritz! Then, we get the most controversial of all the segments, the one in which Fritz has to enter New Jersey, which has now been dubbed “New Africa” because according to the movie, the white men in power gave New Jersey to the blacks! So anyhows, Fritz ends up getting blamed for the assassination of the president of New Africa! Fritz even meets Satan on this one. At the end of the day though, the second Fritz movie isn’t as shocking as the first, but it’s still extremely satirical of the times it was made, the 70’s.

Bakshi himself is not very fond of The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat; he considers it a lesser film and so does Crumb, to whom the film does not exist. If you ask me, I’d say that both films are more or less the same, they both comment on society, shock with their vulgarity and violence (for animated films anyways) and both have that sketchy vibe to them; but Fritz the Cat does have more of an edge to it. It is more graphic in nature, which is the reason why Fritz the Cat garnered an X-Rating while The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat got a ‘R’, this immediately let’s us know that Nine Lives is softer and sort of playing by the rules. The sequel wasn’t as successful with critics and audiences as the first film, but in my opinion, it’s not totally unwatchable. They are both very representative of the times they were made and comment on a lot of relevant issues. They don’t necessarily give any answers, but they sure do plant the questions. Both films have that rough Ralph Bakshi style of animation which can take a while to get adjusted to, but even though both films are rough around the edges, and suffer from imperfect sketchy animation, both films more than make up for it with their content and attitude.

Rating for Fritz the Cat (1972): 4 out of 5
Rating for The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974): 3


Betosky82 said...

I love the first Fritz the Cat, and most of Ralph Bakshi's work in the 70's and 80's, especially American Pop

Anonymous said...

I liked the Fritz the Cat movie, although I haven't actually sat down and watched Nine Lives yet. I'm a big Crumb fan--you're right, the man was a genius--and I have a large collection of his books that I inherited from my father, including some Fritz collections. I'm a little torn on Bakshi, though. I'm not fully convinced of his genius. I think he is less famous for his actual skill than he is for having the balls to take on and complete projects that others refused to touch. So I respect him, I just can't go so far as to consider myself a fan.

Nice write up.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jorge: I'll be watching and reviewing some more Bakshi soon so be on the look out for that, I'm intrigued, I want to watch 'Hey Good Looking' and 'Coonskin', I hear the last one is supposed to be his masterpiece. I curious for 'American Pop' as well, I love how Bakshi mixes music with animation, he did in Fritz the Cat as well, one segment of the film feels like a music video.

@Jonny:Your a lucky dude, thats an awesome inheritance! I hear ya about Bakshi, his animation always had that sketchy feel to it, but that was largely how all animation looked back then. Check out Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule, two films that had nothing to do with Bakshi but also had that rough around the edges look. I guess thats as far as animation had gone back in those days. He was also a fan of mixing live action with animation which he continued to do all the way till Cool World.

Thanks for commenting!

LLJ said...

In a way, I kind of like the rough sketchy look in "prime" era Bakshi; they give his films a gritty feel that's very appealing, texture wise. In fact, there are times I sort of wish animation wasn't always so "clean" today, that's one of the few problems I have had with CGI animation: they have trouble doing "grit". Sure, you have "dirty" scenes like trash heaps and such like in Wall-E, but it all looks so pretty instead.

Franco Macabro said...

I hear ya LLJ, Bakshi's films feel like they were made by human hands, they are not commands processed through a computer, the imperfections are what one of the things that makes these films special.


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