Friday, July 1, 2016
THOUGHTS ON RALPH BAKSHI AND THE HISTORY OF ANIMATION
I don't claim to be an expert on either the famous animator or animation's varied history. That said, my recent re-screening of Bakshi's notorious semi-animated flop THE COOL WORLD moves me to ponder some aspects of Bakshi's history in the world of American cartoons.
First, it should be said that although there had been various "adult" live-action films dating back to the pre-Code Hollywood era, American producers and audiences did not seem to desire adult material in animated cartoons. One might occasionally catch some slightly risque content in the Fleischer Brothers' BETTY BOOP or in the post-war shorts of Tex Avery, but the emphasis was on keeping all animated cartoons "mainstream," so that they could be enjoyed by kids as well as adults.
The very nature of the short cartoon, for that matter, mitigated against adult content, particularly when the format was worked out in Hollywood's silent era. Before dialogue was possible, at least beyond the level of the occasional intertitle card, the main charm of short cartoons was what one author termed the "metamorphosis gag," where something in the cartoon magically transformed into something else, usually for no reason except that some character wanted it to do so. There are exceptions to this assertion, like Windsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur," but it seems to me that the basic paradigm was that of the Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" series of 1918-29, in which the animators called attention to the cartoons' ability to take any number of peculiar shapes and sizes.
Sound changed the paradigm. Though there were a few cartoons during this period that eschewed verbal elements of any kind-- Chuck Jones' "Inki" series, for one-- sound meant that characters had to express themselves; had to become more consistent, even at the Fleischer studios. Metamorphosis gags still abounded-- just before Popeye hit Bluto, the sailor-man's arm-muscles would change into the Rock of Gibraltar or somesuch-- but now the gags had to work in concert with the established characters of Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl. Before sound, an animator like McCay might *choose* to keep a character consistent, but the greater tendency was toward gags for their own sake, and characters like Koko (seen above) and Felix the Cat, who largely existed to set up the gags.
Norman Klein's book SEVEN MINUTES goes into much more detail than I can here as to the way American animation developed, taking on more "sentimental" dimensions due in large part to the influence of Walt Disney-- but whether the cartoons pursued sentiment or slapstick, they were all still largely mainstream in tone.
Possibly only after 1966, when the MPAA replaced Hollywood's production code with a system whose ratings identified adult content in films, was it possible for Ralph Bakshi to pioneer the first full-length animated cartoons with an adult sensibility-- two of which, FRITZ THE CAT and HEAVY TRAFFIC, were monetarily successful. But many factors mitigated against even live-action adult films, and so Bakshi's later attempts at producing adult animation features lost steam, even as figures like Michael Eisner and Don Bluth resurrected the popularity of all-ages cartoon-flicks. Thus when Baskhi completed COOL WORLD-- which to date remains his swan song in the world of animated feature films-- he was in essence selling HEAVY TRAFFIC to an audience that had come to expect LITTLE MERMAID-- or, more appropriately, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, since COOL WORLD took at least some of its conceptual fire from ROGER's success at blending live-action and animation.
It's impossible to know what Bakshi's COOL WORLD might have turned out like, had he been able to execute his original idea. A Wikipedia essay asserts that once a new screenplay was forced upon Bakshi, he didn't even show the new screenplay to many of his animators, instructing them to simply come up with whatever cartoon-gags they wanted to do. This undoubtedly accounts for the fact that almost all of the gags in COOL WORLD are, unlike those of ROGER RABBIT, extremely disjointed and irrelevant to the plot, such as it is.
Probably more by dumb luck than by design, COOL WORLD ended up being a de facto salute to the hoary days of silent animation, when little beyond metamorphic sight gags, cut free from considerations of plot or character, abounded in American animation. I don't think for a moment that Bakshi intended to make such an homage, he grew up in the 1950s, at a time when there were no venues where anyone could generally see silent cartoons. But during his apprenticeship at Terrytoons he was working within a very minimalist system of cartoon-making. somewhat akin to animation in its silent years. Possibly Bakshi's creative disinterest in COOL WORLD may have contributed to the divorce between the gag-humor and the plot and characters that had been forced upon the director.
COOL WORLD status as an "accidental homage" does not, of course, make it a good film, and there's no guarantee that Bakshi's original idea would have been any good either. But even if it was done through dumb luck, the film does offer some insights on the more chaotic permutations of the cartoon image, with which viewers sometimes forget in a world where mainstream values have largely effaced any hardcore adult sensibility.