Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fritz the Cat (1972) & The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974)

          One of those notorious movies whose cultural significance remains obvious years after its initial release but whose entertainment value does not, Fritz the Cat enjoys a number of peculiar distinctions. Among other things, it was the first X-rated cartoon, and it eventually became the most successful independent animated feature of all time. Based on the work of underground comics icon R. Crumb, Fritz the Cat is a deliberately vulgar comedy that lampoons many of the prevalent attitudes of the 1960s, taking equal pains to skewer pretentious hippies and close-minded Establishment types. That all of this takes the shape of a talking-animal movie is simply the most obvious way in which Fritz the Cat is gleefully perverse; truly, images like the film’s opening vignette of a construction worker whipping out his schvantz to urinate on a passing hippie would have been startling in any format.
          Even with its wall-to-wall outrageousness, however, Fritz the Cat hasn’t aged well. The intentionally crude animation isn’t the problem, since it’s as clear today as it was in 1972 that writer-director Ralph Bakshi was trying to get as far away from the cuddly comforts of Disney cartoons as possible, giving his raucous flick the grimy quality of a cheaply mimeographed underground ’zine. The problem, or at least one of them, is the stream-of-consciousness storytelling, which jumbles everything from loose rap sessions to carefully staged slapstick bits, with more than a fair share of puerile X-rated content thrown in for good measure, into a numbing cavalcade of wrongness.
          In its sharpest moments, Fritz the Cat is a with-it takedown of pseudo-intellectual college dudes who feign existential angst in order to talk impressionable coeds into bed, and in its most juvenile moments, the movie is an over-the-top farce with characters humping in every portion of the frame. Bakshi can’t seem to decide if he’s after social commentary or cheap thrills, so the whole thing ends up being sloppy and tiresome. The movie shows nerve by depicting civil disobedience, drug use, police brutality, racism, rape, religious intolerance, terrorism, and other hot-button topics, but at a certain point merely depicting these things isn’t enough; one wants the picture to offer more than shock value.
          Bakshi also has no idea when to quit, layering on unpleasant scenes like the bit in which a redneck slaughters a truckload of chickens because their clucking annoys him, or, because one onscreen discharge apparently wasn’t enough, the scene of a dude standing up during a gang bang to urinate all over a cop. So, ultimately, Fritz the Cat is more of a déclassé museum piece than a true counterculture classic.
          The inevitable sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, simultaneously has more and less going for it than the original picture. (Bakshi didn’t return for the second film, so Nine Lives lacks his wild narrative approach.) On the plus side, Nine Lives has a discernible story structure—married to a shrew and living on welfare, Fritz gets stoned and hallucinates various alternate lives—and the animation is slicker. On the minus side, the movie gets so fixated on scatological humor that it’s like a precursor to the modern gross-out comedy. Sample Fritz dialogue: “Hey, Juan, you better get back in the phone booth, man—I feel a fart comin’ on.”
          Whereas the satirical targets of the first picture were the social mores of the ’60s, giving Fritz the Cat trippy coherence, Nine Lives goes all over the place, offering everything from simple sexcapades to elaborate vignettes about religion and, believe it or not, Naziism. The movie’s bizarre peak depicts Fritz as Adolph Hitler’s personal orderly, a sequence that climaxes with a nude Fuhrer confessing his homosexuality to Fritz while giant psychedelic skulls float around the screen; Hitler then tries to rape Fritz until an Allied bomb hits the site and obliterates Hitler’s one remaining testicle.
          Devotees of the Fritz movies might argue that the flicks make more sense when accompanied by controlled substances, but Fritz the Cat and The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat are so strange they almost are controlled substances.

Fritz the Cat: FREAKY
The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat: FREAKY

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