Monday, March 23, 2020
Reeling Backward: "Fritz the Cat" (1972)
Some movies became iconic in such a way that nearly everyone is familiar with a film without actually having seen it. That had been my experience with "Fritz the Cat."
From the standpoint of content that pushed the envelope, 1968 to 1975 or so were very interesting years for American cinema. In less then a decade we went from movies being seen as more or less suitable for all ages to having films that were very intentionally made for adult audiences only.
"Fritz the Cat" is most remembered today for being the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA. It features a lot of animals with anthropomorphic genitals, breasts and asses. There's a fair bit of sex -- more groping and tugging than humping, notably -- drug use and some fairly grisly violence.
Interestingly, "Fritz" hit U.S. theaters about six months before "Deep Throat" and "Behind the Green Door," the two films that largely ushered in the era of mainstream pornographic movies. One wonders if having a movie come first doing basically the same stuff with cartoon critters helped ease the transition to acceptability.
I'm not sure if it's a great movie, but it sure is a bizarre and energetically original one. I was struck by the contrast of "just effing around" fun scenes with a lot of pretty biting sociopolitical commentary. Overall it's quite critical of the hippie/free love/revolutionary movements of the 1960s, reveling in the debauchery of their antics while attacking the nihilism that often hid behind a shroud of passion.
In a lot of ways, it would not be surprising to see "Fritz the Cat" labeled as reactionary by the standards of today's culture of hyper-tribalism.
"Fritz" is the sort of movie that makes fun of both counterculture youngsters and their sworn enemy, the police -- portrayed as, literally and not terribly imaginatively, lunkheaded pigs.
There are really only four classes of animals in the movie: the porcine, violent LEOs; the jivin' black crows, who are stand-ins for African-Americans (or Afro Americans, as they would've been called then); the violent anarchists, who are reptilian or have squid-like tentacles hidden under trenchcoats; and all the other commonplace mammals, who represent "normal" white society, or at least the weed-smoking faction of it.
Tellingly, there is a complete absence of the standard American family life. We never see any suburbs, and hardly any kids or elderly people. Rather than standing outside regular society, the denizens of this crooked crackpot world are all that there is.
Fritz (voice of Skip Hinnant) is an NYU student who is totally focused on getting high and getting laid. He has been all around the world, he says -- though not much beyond Washington Square Park, it would seem -- 'fought many a good man and laid many a good woman.'
Fritz of course was the creation of underground comics legend R. Crumb, who had to be convinced by writer/director Ralph Bakshi to sign over the rights. In fact, he never actually did, but his wife had power of attorney and sold Fritz to Bakshi for $50,000 plus a cut of the profits.
Crumb did not care for the finished film, disliking Hinnant's voice and seeing it as more Bakshi's creation than a reflection of his comics. "There's something really repressed about it," Crumb said of the film, and he promptly responded to its release by publishing a comic in which Fritz is messily killed, and never used the character again.
At a brisk 78 minutes, "Fritz the Cat" really has a just few story elements to it. In the opening sequence he convinces a trio of hippie girls to come back to a friend's apartment for a consciousness-raising session, which of course is just a cover for getting it on.
Fritz was hoping for a one-on-one with the thickest girl, but it becomes a four-way and then, to his disdain as the drugged-up denizens invade the bathroom, an outright orgy. This is broken up by the pig cops, making Fritz a wanted feline.
On the lam he makes his way to Harlem, befriending a cool old pool shark named Duke (Charles Spidar) who saves his bacon in a crows-only bar. They steal and crash a car, take haven with a drug dealer, Big Bertha (Rosetta LeNoire), who gets Fritz high and has sex with him. Zoinked out on Bertha's high-potency marijuana, Fritz decides mid-coitus that he must devote himself to revolution, starting a race riot in which Duke is shot to death by the police.
In the last bit Fritz decides to run away from his life in New York City and resolves to drive out to San Francisco -- mirroring Crumb's own real life -- along with his hectoring former/future girlfriend, Winston Schwartz (Judy Engles). Fritz ditches her and falls in with Blue (John McCurry), a strung-out bunny biker and his busty horse girlfriend, Harriet (Mary Dean). They introduce him to some revolutionaries who enlist Fritz to blow up a power plant, which ends with a bang.
I liked how all the animals, from birds to lizards to mammals of every description, are completely compatible sexually. Bakshi and his team of animators don't show any penetration or hard dicks, but pretty much everything else. All the female creatures have bounteous, bouncing boobs that are flounced about soon after meeting them.
I think Winston, as the designated buzzkill, is the only girl who never gets naked.
The gender dynamics, reflective of nearly 50 years ago, are what they call "problematic" today. There's no denying a strong vein of misogyny underneath all the adoration of the female form. Winston, as seemingly the only woman with a brain, is derided and abandoned. Bertha has agency and is firmly in control of her fling with Fritz, though her physical and vocal depiction dallies somewhere between mocking racist tropes and diving into the deep end with them.
The poor figure of Harriet is deeply troubling. When she objects to the revolutionaries' plans, Blue beats the hell out of her with a length of chain, though she seems to possess superhuman (or super-equine) toughness. She displays maximum defiance and (it's heavily implied) gets gang-raped as punishment.
Even with an X-rating, Bakshi thankfully does not depict that.
The female bodies seem to reflect Crumb's fetish for a particular type: chubby, thick-waisted with outsized breasts and a voluminous bottom. In a lot of ways his kink predated today's favored Kim Kardashian look by several decades.
The film has a number of musical sections, with existing tunes by various artists along with original songs "Winston" and "You're the Only Girl (I Ever Loved)." I was also struck by a couple of transitional sections that switch to animated stills of real New York City photographs, including a poignant one depicting all the trash and squalor around Harlem.
"Fritz the Cat" became part of the midnight movie scene of the 1970s and '80s, meaning a lot of people watched it with pharmacological companionship. I can see how it's viewed as a trippy flick that's wild and goofy.
But there's a lot more to the movie than just X-rated hijinks. It stands as a notable time capsule for its era, as the anger and passion of the anti-war movement cooled into irony and cynicism.
It's one of the earliest movies to look back on the '60s with something like regret, or at least sober-eyed reassessment. It depicts the contemporary urban setting (accurately) as a morass of filth, violence, hard drugs and racial division.
It made a boatload of money on a tiny production budget -- there's some disagreement about exactly how much, but $90 million is the figure most commonly batted around. There was a 1974 sequel, "The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat," that also featured the voice of Hinnant but neither Bakshi or Crumb were involved.
Ironically, it received the tamer R rating, becoming the first animated film to receive that designation in an odd historical one-two punch.
Bakshi was somewhat bothered by garnering the label of the "dirty cartoon" guy, which was underscored by his next film, "Heavy Traffic," also getting an X-rating and the R-rated "Coonskin" attacked as racially exploitative.
He went on to become the king of indie animation, working in collaboration with or apart from studios on seminal movies like "Wizards," "Cool World" and the well-intentioned-but-ill-fated "The Lord of the Rings." Many of the artists who helped launch the second golden age of animation were inspired by Bakshi.
Fritz may have been little more than a horndog cat, but he still made history.