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Buy one of the following Ralph Bakshi DVDs from amazon.com:

'Fritz the Cat' (1972)

'Heavy Traffic' (1973)

'The Lord of the Rings' (1978)

'American Pop' (1981)

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Here He Comes to Save the Day

An interview with Cinequest Maverick Spirit honoree Ralph Bakshi

By Richard von Busack

Cinequest Maverick Spirit award winner Ralph Bakshi, now an artist living in the Southwest, was an animator for more than 40 years. He spent his youth in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the 1950s. Instead of heading to the coast to work for Disney, Bakshi started working in made-in-New York animation. Animator Shamus Culhane's memoir Talking Animals and Other People gives a harrowing description of the New York animation studios in the early 1960s. The market for "theatricals" are all but dried up, the sense of adventure is long gone in the hearts of the bitter old hacks who remained.

Bakshi came in at the end for the Paramount-owned Famous Studios--the last remains of the Fleischer Brothers once pace-setting animation factory. The moribund studio closed after Bakshi arrived.

An ugly scene, all told. Let's fast-forward to 1972. Bakshi's former producer Steve Krantz purchases a minor feline character from R. Crumb (in Terry Zwigoff's documentary on the cartoonist, Crumb claims his ex-wife signed the contract against his wishes). The result is Fritz the Cat, the first full-length X-rated cartoon made in America.

Fritz the Cat leads to a sequel, which Bakshi didn't have anything to do with. Bakshi turned to working on his own projects, including the semiautobiographical animated cartoons Heavy Traffic (1973) and Hey, Good Lookin' (1975); and a heavily rotoscoped film version of Lord of the Rings (1978). Bakshi's take on Tolkien was much smaller in scope than the current trilogy--though the Ringwraiths' attack on the hobbits at the Prancing Pony is a highlight (and it's worth considering Bakshi's claim that it was perhaps an influence on the new version of The Fellowship of the Ring).

Bakshi's done other work including Cool World (1991) and, my favorite of his later work, The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, where John Krickfalusi of Ren and Stimpy started out. Bakshi is bringing to Cinequest his controversial film Coonskin (1975).

He appears March 8 at 5pm at Camera One Cinema in San Jose; the event includes a screening of Coonskin.

Metro: Coonskin is a very angry film. Can you describe what your state of mind was like writing it?

Bakshi: Um, I'd say it was a series of different states of mind. The issue is, if you want real freedom, freedom comes with being able to look at what's right and what's wrong about your people. It isn't about shoving things under the rug. When I made the film, there were con artists in the black liberation movement. That explains the part about Savior manipulating the masses, and the Mafia helping to spread drugs under the protection of racist cops.

There isn't a person growing up in America, who doesn't have run-ins with some racist, Jew or Italian joke, and the question is how did you react in those moments? I tried to analyze these situations, so these movies worked on that level. I was also very young and naïve when I made Coonskin, naïve enough to think that everything would be OK as long as I was honest. Another thing that I was doing was making fun of the black exploitation movies, the ones where if you're white, you're dead.

Metro: How did you sell investors on the idea of the film?

Bakshi: I told him it was a remake of Song of the South set in Harlem. I told them I want to make the Uncle Remus stories. And then I started to make my film. No one's got time to hang out with an animator ... so it can be very subversive work.

They all thought they were going to make fortunes. That's how I got these films made. It was rope a dope. What these guys thought I was making and what I was making were two different things.

If you're making movies, the decision you have to make is: whether you're going let them take you, or whether you're going to con them into letting you think they take you. Contracts mean nothing, really. Every one of the films I pitched was different than the films I made. You can't beat 'em financially, so you trick them. While they think they're taking me, I'm taking them. I never thought I'd make a whole film. It still stuns me that I got so many done. Because I never fought them.

Metro: While the film has a reputation for racism, it is really at its most angry when it goes after The Godfather, who pits Brother Fox, Brother Bear and Brother Rabbit against each other. The Godfather looks like a red-eyed warthog, and he's voiced by an uncredited Al "Grandpa" Lewis.

Bakshi: I was incensed at all the hero worship of those guys in The Godfather; Pacino and Caan did such a great job of making you like them. As for what [producer] Al Ruddy thought, Al could care less! Al thought Coonskin was wonderful ... every one thought the picture was going to be anti-black, but I intended it to be anti-idiot.

It's so very important to remember one thing about Hollywood: what you say doesn't matter to these guys. All the preaching and politically correct things that are said during the making of movies don't really have any impact. Ninety percent of the business is the producers asking themselves the question: What will they, the audience, like. What will they, the audience, want to see. Film is an art. Movies are one of the most powerful mediums in the world. And they use film to lie to people, to tell them what'll make 'em happy and contented. What'll make them feel cool

Metro: There is one baffling image: The Godfather's wife tries to kill her husband as punishment for sending his sons out to get killed. And after she herself is shot, she turns into a butterfly.

Bakshi: She's meant to be a character of great purity. Giving birth is an act of great purity. One thing that stunned me about The Godfather movie: here's a mother who gives birth to children, and her husband essentially gets all her sons killed. In Coonskin, she gets her revenge, but also gets shot. She turns into a butterfly and gets crushed. ... These [Mafia] guys don't give you any room.

Metro: Another sequence that I wondered about was the pastiche of George Herriman and Don Marquis's "Archy and Mehitabel," in a monologue about a cockroach that leaves the woman who loves him. [NOTE: Marquis (1878-1937), a columnist for the New York Sun, was one of the few who managed to produce poetry on a deadline. His most famous character was a poetry-writing reincarnated cockroach named Archy, and his best pal, the alley cat Mehitabel. It sounds cute, though it isn't; often Marquis rivaled e.e. cummings. Marquis' illustrator was George Herriman, creator of the noblest comic strip of them all, Krazy Kat.]

Bakshi: Herriman is my favorite cartoonist. He was mulatto.

Metro: That's right, he kept it a secret, though. So that's why he's referred to in the film.

Bakshi: The deal with the story of Malcolm the cockroach who leaves the woman who's been taking care of him is based on personal experiences of black men I knew who couldn't afford to feed their families, so they left because they couldn't stand to see them suffer.

Metro: I'm presuming that you did the recordings of the actors first and then did the art.

Bakshi: The way I worked was that everyone recorded the script. But then I would change my opinion over the course of the year I made the film. I read every black culture book I could get a hand on. Then my opinion on these matters would change. I ran my own studio--I had no boss. I was the director and the writer. I would write and rewrite and record all year. I was always in a state of flux in my films; the process was as important as a finished project.

I never liked how at Terrytoons there was such a mechanical approach, soundtrack and a story board. That's how the producers control the project.

I'll give you an example of how the process changed. We're out at Times Square at 4 in the morning, shooting the backdrops; that group of prostitutes comes out and starts waving. But then the cops arrive and they scream and run. That happened by accident, but we put it in the film. I never could have written anything that real in the script. All my low-budget street films, I was writing all the way to the end--like the ballroom scene where the mother is looking over her old photos in Heavy Traffic, that was one of the last things I wrote. None of my pictures were anything I could ever take my mother to see. You know it's working, if you're making movies you don't want to your mother to see

Metro: When did Paramount drop plans to distribute Coonskin?

Bakshi: They never did. Frank Yablans was then the head of Paramount. He thought it was sensational. Then Yablans got fired, and Barry Diller took over. [Note to animation fans: Diller is widely considered to be the model for evil tycoon J. Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons]. We were showing Coonskin at the Museum of Modern Art, and the Committee on Racial Equality [CORE] surrounds the building-no one had seen the film yet. The protest's leader was the young Al Sharpton. I asked Sharpton why he didn't come in and see the movie, and he announced, "I don't got to see shit; I can smell shit!" He brought in some bruisers, and I could hear them asking, "Should we beat him up or cool it?" "Ah, let's watch the film" After the screening, Sharpton charged up to the screen, but there wasn't anyone behind him. He could hear voices behind him, "It wasn't that bad!"

Next the picketers surround Paramount Building in New York City. Diller was in town for the day, and he's going, "Bakshi? Who is Bakshi? I got no time for this."

Anyway, with Diller's permission, we got contractually released and found another distributor. Albert Ruddy found them--I think they were the same people who released Deep Throat. Coonskin played New York, anyway. Martin Scorsese was driving around filming second-unit stuff for Taxi Driver near Times Square, just random New York mania he was trying to catch. He happened to have the camera going right at the same time someone threw a smoke bomb into the theater showing Coonskin. He sent me this roll of film showing people running out of the theater. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but it's OK now.

Metro: The film has gotten a second life; it seems like it would play great on a double bill with Bamboozled.

Bakshi: Spike Lee is a big fan of Coonskin. I get emails from new fans all the time on it; some can't believe I'm white. So many emails, from young kids who have seen this movie--rap artists like it too. I didn't think I was sticking it out so far at the time, I don't believe I'd have the courage to do some of the things today, like the scene of Brother Bear getting pulled across the room by his penis.

When it comes to art, if you question yourself, it could go either way. So don't question yourself, I'm a great believer in that. All the second-guessing'll kill you. When you start wondering about what it is that they want to hear, that'll kill you. As for the vulgarity in Coonskin--the art of cartooning is vulgarity. The only reason for cartooning to exist is to be on the edge. If you only take apart of what they allow to take apart, you're Disney, you're doing illustrations, or children's books.

Metro: Still, I wonder how the actors' handled it--you wrote a song for Scatman Crothers called "Ah'm a Nigger Man."

Bakshi: They were all a little nervous, except for Charles Grodone, who plays Preacher/Brother Fox. He was an actor and poet and teacher, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play No Place to Be Somebody. He was ecstatic about the chance to do this. Whenever I had doubts, he'd reassure me, "Rait on, motherfucker!" White audiences were OK with this; so were black ones. Barry and Charles were behind it 1,000 percent.

Metro: Where were the country locations in the bracketing sequences?

Bakshi: Oklahoma. I used film as a sort of adventure, to get out of Brooklyn. I went to El Reno to the state prison and filmed there; a week later, they burned it in a riot.

Metro: Any last thoughts?

Bakshi: I'm 65 now. I have less of the fury you feel in Coonskin. But now I realize there's a lot more wrong with the world than I ever guessed at the time.


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Web extra to the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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