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The Rise and Fall and Close Miss of Ralph Bakshi

Down_and_Dirty_Duck

I’m here to talk to you about an underrated, undiscovered gem of an underground animated adult feature. However, if I told you what it is straight away, you’d assume it was made by Ralph Bakshi. Then I’d have to explain to you that he had nothing to do with it… but likely wishes with all his heart that he had.

We’re going to talk about Ralph Bakshi first, and then we’ll mention this entire other film that should have been his, but was not. The one that got away.

Sure, Ralph Bakshi has his own cult following

Rightly so! His greatest claim to fame in the eyes of modern geekdom is the attempt at an animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings (1978).

Bakshi took a Boromir-class wound from producing the first half of this ill-fated animated adaptation. He struggled to get part two produced and even managed to squeak out some B-roll footage. He feuded mightily with Rankin-Bass’ adaptation of The Hobbit TV special (1977). Fans pilloried Bakshi and to this day his reputation suffers, mostly through no fault of his own. Meanwhile, between the Rankin-Bass Hobbit TV movie (why wasn’t it stop-motion puppetry?) and the unfinished half of LotR from completely different animators, we Generation X Tolkien kids were confused all to beans.

The Nostalgia Critic, for one, defends the Bakshi LotR, and that’s all well and good for him. But this is just one stop for us, we have miles to cover yet.

Bakshi’s career can be divided into two parts: there’s the high fantasy stuff like Wizards (1977) and Fire and Ice (1983), which count as his “Tolkien phase.” Those features are beloved by fans and worshiped enough that they will need to be covered in more detail later. But I’m here to talk about the other part of Bakshi’s career, the roots of the underground comix culture that plant Bakshi firmly in his urban Brooklyn origins.

Ralph Bakshi really belonged to underground comix culture

Refer back to my post about the dark Comics Code Authority age of comics. Now here’s a rough timeline of the public’s attitude towards comic books and animation:

  • Comics and animation are just for kids! (Golden Age and Disney)
  • We have to censor comics for the kids’ sake (Comics Code Authority)
  • Censor us? We’ll just make grown-up comics! (underground comix movement begins here)
  • Adults buy comics? What if adults watched animated films too? (Enter Ralph Bakshi)
  • Sheesh, can’t believe that worked! Let’s adapt comics into live action! (Superman (1978) and Batman (1989))
  • Haha! The MCU is so popular that Disney bought it! (you are here and now)

The thing with any new media movement, as in comics and animated featured produced for adults, is that it’s an experiment to start with. They didn’t know what would work, so they just tried things. The underground comix movement, then, was a medium where you could try things and not take high, expensive risks. Crank a title out, if it sells, keep doing that, and if not, switch to something else. Thus, these early cultural shifts were fraught with false starts.

Many a titanic name in comics came from the underground movement. The strip Life in Hell started life in free-press local city tabloids before Matt Groening rose to fame and gave us The Simpsons. Before Steve Ditko was a Marvel superstar, he self-published Objectivist comic tracts called “Mr. A.” Gilbert Shelton gave the world The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, for a taste of hippie drug culture. Even Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead started out in the tabloid rags before being picked up for mainstream newspaper syndication.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? Why, it’s the head honcho of underground comix himself: Robert R. Crumb!

R_Crumb_nervous

When Bakshi met Crumb…

Robert Crumb is… a real piece of work. Even his detractors have to admit that he’s brilliant, light-years ahead of his time in the mid-20th-century with political satire and subversive social humor. He is a prolific workhorse, cranking out a ferocious volume of work over the decades and still isn’t retired to this day.

R_Crumb_Weirdo

And then there’s the sexuality thing. A picture here is worth a thousand words, so we’ll let Mr. Crumb show you his sexual identification in one page, probably one of the least controversial strips with a female character he has ever produced (yet still dirty):

Crumb_female_warrior

Here’s a sweet, even-handed little documentary about Robert Crumb and his head full of demons (so NSFW). In a nutshell: Mommy issues? Domination fantasies? Foot fetish? Graphic sexual violence targeting women? R. Crumb, a genuinely nice guy in real life, totally owns that he’s a pervert freak and that he uses his art partly for therapy for his flippin’ bizarre sexual fixations. But anyway, that led to his producing the comic series Fritz the Cat, which an animator chose for his first film adaptation, 1972’s feature film of the same name. That animator was Ralph Bakshi.

Trailer, NSFW:

The world’s first X-rated animated feature length presentation, Fritz the Cat was the fruit of the pairing of two creative visionaries whom we have already established as part-time nuts. You would expect anything but an ordinary movie out of that union, which is why Fritz the Cat is a crying shame! It is, indeed, deadly ordinary, a roaring bore to sit through, completely drained of Robert Crumb’s next-level wit. It had to be the first at what it was doing. It had to be the first cartoon to use the N-word, the first to show naked anthropomorphized cats in the hottub, the first cartoon characters actually getting high, and the first cops portrayed as actual pigs.

In 1972, this was daring, revolutionary, risky, controversial. So it didn’t have to be anything else, and so it was not anything else. Despite this, on novelty alone, it was a worldwide box office smash at over $100 million against its $700K budget. History has not been so kind to it.

Keep your hat on, we’re almost to the surprise!

Bakshi would revisit underground comics themes with Heavy Traffic (1973), this time having broken the ground that needed breaking. Traffic, also X-rated, was far better received and holds up better now (though still grating in places). It, too, was a box office smash, making Bakshi the only animator besides Walt Disney to have back-to-back animated feature blockbusters. Choke it down, Mickey!

You can tell Heavy Traffic got a bigger budget, better marketing, and had more confidence behind it. Since it wasn’t a prototype, it was allowed to be about something. But… it still is not what deserves to be called the definitive counterculture animated movie. I know they have their cult followings to this day and I’ll still concede that they have some merit, but Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic were false starts.

Back in your cage, Bakshi, we’re done with you. The REAL movie you need to know about is:

Down and Dirty Duck (1974)

Once again, another NSFW trailer:

OK, give it some time to sink in. Down and Dirty Duck (AKA “Dirty Duck,” original title “Cheap”) has some things you’ll note straight away:

  • It was obviously influenced by Bakshi’s two hits
  • It’s several times less offensive (though still jarring in places by today’s standards)
  • It was never officially X-rated; the creators just stamped it “X” anyway
  • Down and Dirty Duck is actually funny
  • It is a thousand times more tuned into the counterculture
  • It had big names in music attached to it
  • Its soundtrack RAWWWKS!
  • It was produced by, wait for it, Roger Corman – almost accidentally

Down and Dirty Duck was barely ever released, and unfairly stamped down as a Fritz the Cat wanna-be. If you see the movie (a feat which will require tenacity to track down), you will see that it didn’t have the time of day for Fritz the Cat or the whole category of R. Crumb-inspired work, but spun off doing its own way-out thing.

In my 366 Weird Movies review, I summarized: “If this movie sent just one hippie on a bad acid trip screaming naked from the theater, then it did its job and wanted for no more.” That’s pretty much true; it’s about a milquetoast clerk named Willard who is frustrated in his nobody life until he encounters a mad duck who drags him along on an adventure of life discovery and cosmic expansion. It’s sort of like a road trip movie, touring everything in mid-70s America they could satire.

You can also consult the Cinema Snob for a second opinion. “You know what? Smoke a F—in’ bowl and watch the movie, it will be about anything you want!” Also a good call!

The musicians who produced this are Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, whom you will recognize (if you know your rock history) as the duo Flo & Eddie, part-time members of The Mothers of Invention courtesy of Frank Zappa (peace be upon the name of the prophet) as well as two former members of The Turtles.

A word on animation: The style is a mix of Terry-Gilliam-style cut-and-paste, unintelligible scribbles, and proper animation done by Charles Swenson, who would go on to animate for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rugrats, and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, among many other series. Incidentally, he also worked on the even more incomprehensible 200 Motels (1971), just to once more drop the name of Frank Zappa (peace be upon the name of the prophet). Certified weird #266.

Down and Dirty Duck really is the “far out man!” counterculture hippie movie that should have defined underground animation for the 1970s. It is also the movie that Fritz the Cat really wanted to be. Poor Ralph Bakshi! Such a close miss with greatness, and all he has to show for it is a mountain of money.

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