Sunday, April 20, 2008
Basking in Bakshi
I had the privilege of attending the SVA event with Ralph Bakshi to celebrate the release of Unfiltered, a book written by Jon M. Gibson & Chris McDonnell, chronicling fifty years (and counting) of one of the most important animation filmmakers of all time. At the start of the same week everyone was busy kneeling at the altar of Ollie Johnston, the last surviving of Disney’s fabled 9 Old Men that passed away on Monday. The industry celebrated Johnston’s life with one glowing eulogy after another. The closest thing I read to a critical examination on Johnston came from Michael Barrier and Mark Mayerson who posted essays questioning the meaning and influence of The 9 Old Men. In summary, they suggest that 9 Old Men were designated as such not just for their animation excellence, but also because of their loyalty to Walt, especially during the strike of 1941. Early in their career, the 9 Old Men stood on the shoulders of giants such as Fred Moore, Bill Tytla, Art Babbit, and Norm Ferguson (to name but a few) and these are the names that defined a medium. Nobody can deny that the passing of Ollie Johnston is the end of an era. I totally understand and appreciate what that means to this community.
On the other hand, any on-line post about Ralph Bakshi is going to attract more criticism and outright hatred than it will praise. Over his nine feature films, Ralph did the unthinkable, and to a large segment of the animation community; the unforgivable. By sheer force of will, he dragged animation out of the realm of G-rated family fare, and brought animation into the modern era. The fact that Ralph still irks the conservatives in our business over forty years after Fritz the Cat says a lot about this unique man and his work. With SO much criticism, the importance of Ralph’s work makes itself clear. Why so much praise for Ollie Johnston, a man among nine and a righteous keeper of the status quo, and why so much criticism of Ralph Bakshi for being a maverick, an individual, and having the audacity to do something new? Criticism tells us something important; Ralph Bakshi, is the more important artist.
Are Ralph’s films perfect? Hell no. They are sometimes sloppy, incoherent, or even downright unsatisfying. In other words, they are crackling with life, energy, and spontaneity. Any animation artist today that yearns to be a filmmaker doing important work should realize Ralph Bakshi for what he is; the roadmap to individual expression and achievement in a medium that, by its very nature, so often dilutes individuality to render all its artists anonymous. You don’t have to like Bakshi’s films to get the message. Unfortunately, all too many in this animation community, not only want to throw out the message but, also the messenger. I truly don’t get it. Why should artists worship the status quo? How can we be artists if we do that? I don’t suggest not appreciating the 9 Old Men or their illustrious peers and predecessors, but it might help to recognize that their achievement was a technical one, albeit something that breathed life, emotion and reality into this medium. A filmmaker such as Ralph Bakshi dared to focus on subject, and drag animation to new places such as urban decay, sex (instead of fairy tale romance), and volatile race relations. Come to think of it, I have a criticism for Ralph too: I wish he’d been able to make even more than 9 feature films.
Do yourself a favor and watch Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, which are both readily available on DVD. Then, pick up the baton and carry the spirit of Ralph’s work to the next level. Maybe even sprinkle a little Ollie Johnston in there for good measure. A spoonful of sugar might help the medicine go down.