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.


The Flea said...

I DEEPLY regret not having been able to make it to the panel. It's the imperfections in Ralph Bakshi's films that make them so special to me. Many argue with me on that, but I don't care. :) Not to mention the vague design of some of the characters -- like in "Malcolm and Melvin." They just work for me!

It's a shame. I would have loved to perhaps talk to him more about "Heavy Traffic" (my favorite Bakshi film)if I had the chance. I know it sounds kind of silly, but I felt like I could relate to Michael (the main character) in many levels. The grim, crude qualities of the film were harrowingly beautiful.

As for Ollie Johnson, it's really saddening to know that he has passed on. Of course, his work will always be remembered! However, I can't help but wonder what it would have been like for these (9 old men) outstanding animators to have worked on "Heavy Traffic" or "Fritz the Cat." Would it have worked or would it have ruined the films?

David B. Levy said...

Howdy Flea,

Huge animation talents like Irv Spence and Jim Tyer and Mark Kausler did work on Fritz and Heavy Traffic... but, the project's required a simpler approach and a "good enough" mentality to make budget and deadline.

I don't think we can ever seperate the 9 Old Men from the artistic esthetic of Disney's vision. They were beholden to it and pledged their lives and devotion to making films that Walt would be proud of.

Tim Rauch said...

Hi Dave, there's a lot in there I'd like to respond to.

First of all, thanks for a great post in support of Bakshi. While his films may at times wobble toward the incoherent side of things, there are always so many scenes that stay with me; usually the dramatic scenes like the deaths of Michael in "Heavy Traffic" and the crow in "Fritz the Cat" (intercutting the last beats of his heart with bouncing billiard balls... incredible). I frequently cringe at the crudeness of some of the work and yet there are so many amazing shots I watch repeatedly and replay in my head long after I've turned off the TV. There are few other filmmakers (period) who find such incredible ways to tell their stories; he was always reaching into a big bag of tricks for just the right shot. I agree there have been few to match him as an original voice in feature animation, and it is indeed a shame he hasn't continued to make films. When asked about "making a comeback" at an event this weekend he said "I'm not the same person anymore, it's time for someone else to do that".

As for Ollie Johnson, I have a soft spot in my heart for him and think it's understandable for the industry to canonize the man when it was built in large part from movies to which he made major contributions. I, like many others, grew up with those Disney films and they are among the first that really turned me on to animation. Reading his book at a young age led to a huge leap forward in my understanding of the art form and for that alone he holds an unusually nostalgic place in my memory.

Ultimately, I find many things from both of these men inspiring. As artists: Bakshi's unrelenting experimentation with subject matter and execution; Ollie's affinity for pathos and expert control of performance. As individuals: Bakshi's tenacity and willingness to gamble; Ollie's humility and open heart. They've helped set a high bar for anyone who wants to be "next" and will always be remembered for that.

Thanks for keeping this blog going, its my favorite read every week!

Mike Rauch said...

More of Bakshi's films need to be available. There ought to be some sort of DVD compilation. Movies like "Hey Good Lookin'" seem interesting, but as far as I can tell there's no way to see them.

I got turned on to Bakshi in high school when I bought a VHS of "American Pop" at a video store going out of business. In many ways, it's not a great film, but in many others it is. As has already been noted above, the subject matter, techniques, and experimentation were all things I hadn't really seen in animation. It was the kind of story I had thought I'd like to tell in animation, and here was someone telling me I could.

Fast forward to last fall. Out of curiosity, I got "Fritz the Cat" on Netflix. I had never really been aware of Bakshi beyond "American Pop". I had heard of "Fritz the Cat" but never checked it out. I thought it was supposed to be some outrageous cat running around having lots of sex. It turned out to be a really interesting social commentary with more exciting experimentation. Sometimes hard to watch because of a lagging story, but worth it for those choice scenes in between. Intrigued, I rented "Heavy Traffic", which was "interesting", but not much more as far as I'm concerned.

Thanks to Asifa-East's calendar, I heard Coonskin would be playing this past weekend. Wow! I found it completely amazing. From what I've seen so far, it's his best film. Amazing success in his experimentation. More coherent story (but still leaves something to desire). And even more "challenging" subject matter for film, let alone animation. Probably better character design and animation than certain of his other movies.

Any way,I'm not a great critic, so I'll just say this: After watching all these films, I have definitely started to think of Bakshi as an inspiration for my own work. I would like my work to be as bold with its subject matter and as daring in its approach to film making. But maybe what would really take things to a new level would be coherent stories that don't tempt you to hit fast forward to find the next moment of greatness.

Mike Rauch said...

I forgot, for those who haven't seen Coonskin, you're in luck. Through the wonders of Youtube, nearly the whole film is available here.

George Tsouris said...

While I will agree that Ralph Bakshi is a great and important artist in animation, I can’t agree that he is “the more important artist” than Ollie Johnston and the Nine Old Men.

One word that you didn’t use, but could have, for describing Bakshi is ‘iconoclast.’ The word goes back to the Byzantine era when there was a school of thought that worshiping with religious icons (images) was to be equated with worshiping idols, thus a sin. These people went ahead and destroyed the religious icons in the churches. Therefore, an iconoclast is one who destroys, or goes against the icons. I think that this word describes Bakshi very appropriately.

However, to be an iconoclast, it is presupposed that there is an icon to destroy! That is exactly what the Nine Old Men are: the old masters of the art. In painting, they could be equated with Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, and the like; in music they would be on the level with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

As with other fields of art, animation has to evolve. Bakshi played a big part in this evolution in the art of animation. However, it is important to realize that art progresses by an evolutionary manner (and not by revolutions), and as such, it must look to its predecessors. As radical as Picasso’s cubist art seemed, it evolved from an unbroken line to the Old Masters (from Cezanne, to the impressionists, to Delacroix and the Romantics, and ultimately, the Renaissance masters, and then back to the Ancient Greeks, skipping about 1000 years; more on that below). The same could be said for the seemingly radical music of Schoenberg, who went to great lengths to justify his own work by pointing out his evolution from Bach to Wagner to his own music. In the same way, Bakshi (and for that matter, Matt Groening, Bill Plympton, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Pixar, and the rest of us) can only produce our art as having evolved from Johnston and the Nine Old Men.

To be sure, this is not to say that Bach or Michelangelo were entities who came from nothing. Both followed a tremendous history of Renaissance music and Medieval art, respectively. Certainly, Mr. Levy was right to point out the great history before the Nine Old Men, including Moore, Tytla, Babbit, and Ferguson. However, I would argue that animation had a significant watershed with the Nine Old Men.

In music we usually talk about music before Bach (which includes at least 1000 years of history, yet is collectively lumped into ‘Medieval Music’), and music after Bach (which in a comparatively scant 300 years has so many different schools, styles, and eras). In Western art, there is about 1000 years of history before the Renaissance that we lump into Medieval art (of course, before that there are even greater distinctions), and 500 years since that has spawned so many different styles and schools. Now, I do not discount music before Bach, or Western art before the Renaissance, but it is clear that these artists were a major watershed in the history of their respective arts in such a way that the art could thereafter evolve much more and much faster. These watersheds were important because they yielded so much fruit. My claim is that Johnston and the Nine Old Men served as a significant watershed such that the art of animation could thereafter evolve and be fruitful so that we have the expanse in the field that we have today.

It is also seems to trivialize what the Nine Old Men did when Mr. Levy seems to describes their achievement to “a technical one.” I don’t think that one can divorce content and style in a work of art. That they mastered the art technically was the style, and was the emotion, life, and reality of their work. It was also their achievement that they put the art on par with the rest of cinema, film, and motion pictures. It also seems to be a glaring oversight to describe Johnston and the Nine Old Men as “righteous keeper[s] of the status quo,” in light of Fantasia, a film that shows that they (as complete artists typically do), had evolved themselves, and, in fact, tried to go against the status quo. At the same time, one cannot disparage The Nine Old Men for making fairy tale romances. All artists are products of their times; certainly Bakshi represented this, but so did the Disney films. And even still, certainly they are not the first artists who, having the impact that they had, had their own vision of where the art should evolve, and thus talk down the art of others in the next generation; I don’t think they should be disparaged for that.

Now, to be sure, in this essay I have compared Bakshi to Picasso and Schoenberg. I agree with Mr. Levy when he says that artists should not worship the status quo. Without doubt, that keeps the art from growing and evolving. Whether he really lives up to that might be up to debate (Mr. Levy admits that Bakshi didn’t exhibit technique, whereas Picasso and Schoenberg did), but that said, I do respect the role that he has played in the evolution of the art of animation. However, just as Picasso was only one line of evolution from the Renaisssance (another contemporary line being the Dadaists), and just as Schoenberg was only one evolutionary line from Bach (another contemporary line being Stravinsky), Bakshi was only one of several important descendants from the Nine Old Men. One does not need to draw out the importance of Picasso or Schoenberg by disparaging the importance of Michelangelo or Bach.

David B. Levy said...

Hi All,

Great thoughts!

And, George, I was waiting for someone to call me to task on the Ollie Johnston to Bakshi comparison. I take your points and you make your case well.

My favorite period of Disney were the formative years of innovation btwn 1928 to 1942, where each short and feature seemed to move the medium and the art forward. WW 2 cut off the European market, an important source in Disney profits, and (for the most part) each feature post-Bambi, although each special in their own right, were far less innovative and unique when compared to the first five. 1950 to 1981, the period where the 9 Old men held the most influence resulted in diminishing creative returns in the product. Although, strictly on character animation, the 9 Old men can't be beat.. but, their work lives in films and films deserve to be experienced and critiqued as a whole, where animation quality alone, is not the only measure of greatness.

The 9 were 9 and if they were 8, we would not have a different animation world today. Where-as, if you remove Bakshi, we would be all the poorer for it.

My comparison of Ollie Johnston to Ralph Bakshi is based mostly on how their respective legacies are percieved by the animation community. But, I realize the comparison has its flaws... still its fun to discuss.. and I appreciate the conversation.

George Tsouris said...

I always love good heated discussion with good arguments. You certainly make good points.

I think that it is exciting to be part of such a young art form where there are many differing opinions and ideas can still be tried and tested. Certainly Bakshi is a prominent example of this (but Disney had their experiments too).

I do appreciate, though, your arguments in light of the fact that Bakshi does not get as much respect as he might deserve.

George Tsouris said...

Also remember, Picasso's late period stunk too. That doesn't diminish the overall importance of the earlier works.

Mike and Justine said...

Where can I get a copy of "Waitin' for a Promise"? That song is amazing! Keep up the good work with Assy!