Dr. Toon examines how two famous animated films bookended the Sixties counterculture.
The past month saw an important anniversary in the history of American animation, one surely noticed by industry veterans and fans alike. On April 12, 1972 Fritz the Cat premiered in theaters, one of the most influential films ever to dress in ink and paint. Under the direction of former Terry studio and animation enfant terrible Ralph Bakshi, Fritz was a stunning social satire that could not be ignored. Much is made of the fact that Fritz was the first X-rated animated feature ever released but in retrospect, that is a mere sidebar. Fritz The Cat was an uncanny mirror of the cultural times, and that is of more importance than any edict issued by the MPAA. What's more amazing is that Fritz had a sister film that premiered four years previously, one just as reflective of its milieu. Further, both films were mirrored in legendary concerts that in themselves were bellwether statements about America. This is the tale of two films, Yellow Submarine and Fritz the Cat, and two concerts, Woodstock and Altamont.
There had been a counterculture youth movement growing in the United States ever since the 1950s but much of it was underground. By 1966, however, the counterculture entered the mainstream thanks to figures such as LSD guru Timothy Leary, the emergence of psychedelic themes in art and music (the Grateful Dead were particularly instrumental in the latter regard), and an unbridled attitude towards sexuality that rewrote societal rules of male-female relationships. The seminal event of the “hippie” movement" likely took place on January 14, 1967. The Human Be-In, held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, alerted the media that something weirdly new was afoot. That summer was dubbed the Summer of Love, and it came with a soundtrack: The Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
A futile and unpopular war was being waged in Vietnam, and reports of campus protests dotted the news, becoming so common that the term "student unrest" was a regular feature of the news. Young students may have had a secondary agenda of avoiding the draft, but their desire for a world where peace had a chance was also sincere. Their moment culminated in Bethel, New York on August 15-18, 1969. The Woodstock music festival may have had its share of bad trips, and bad vibes, but it emerged as an event of legend. The counterculture declared the founding of "Woodstock Nation" and it appeared, for a brief time, that America's youth was omnipotent, capable of anything they could dream, powered by the spirit of peace, music, and love.
If this movement had an animated equivalent, it was doubtless the Beatles film Yellow Submarine. The movie, which premiered in America on November 13, 1968, constructed a whimsical mythology around the themes of Sgt. Pepper and featured many of the band's most psychedelic numbers. The animation design, under the direction of Heinz Edelman, reflected the mind-bending designs of mod artists such as Peter Max. Director George Dunning presided over a vivid romp that ended with Pepperland restored, the evil Blue Meanies redeemed, and love triumphant. Yellow Submarine was more than just a notable film; it was wish-fulfillment for the Woodstock generation, the fantasy that if everyone, empowered by music and love, could strive All Together Now, the world could still be turned to good. War might be abolished. Evil, like the Chief Blue Meanie, could finally admit that its cousin was the Bluebird of Happiness. The acid-laced beauty of Woodstock Nation was too perfect to last. And it didn't.
And there was Altamont.
In retrospect, it is amazing to realize that the free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway took place on December 6, 1969, only four months after Woodstock. The hippie counterculture went from perhaps its apex to its media-proclaimed death in less time than it took for Hair to finish its Broadway run. If Woodstock was love, peace, and music, Altamont was bad drugs, bad vibes, violence, and murder. The poorly planned concert featured some of the same bands that headlined Woodstock – Jefferson Airplane played both – but the stars of the show were to be the Rolling Stones, a group often held up as the dark side of the Beatles (a reputation the Stones were happy to exploit). Both bands were composed of the same working-class ilk, but the Stones were raw, sexual, satanic, and (musically) more anarchic.
Security for the concert consisted of the legendary motorcycle outlaws known as the Hell's Angels, and it is part of the Altamont legend that their fee was $500 in free beer. The drugs were bad. The crowd was surly, harrying both the musicians and, more foolishly, the Angels, who were not the type to shrink from a fight. As the bad vibes amplified, Jefferson Airplane front man Paul Kantner attempted to calm the waters and was knocked unconscious by an angry Angel for his efforts.. The disaster reached its climax when a stoned young African-American youth named Meredith "Murdock" Hunter confronted a Hell's Angel; moments later, as the Stones played "Under My Thumb", his lifeless, 18-year old body fell before the stage, stab wounds peppering his upper back. A dream died with him.
Woodstock Nation was already withering before the social and political events that would doom it. A demonic hippie cult leader led his "family" on a killing spree, and the Tate – LaBianca murders horrified a nation. Richard Nixon, once re-elected, showed his promises to end the Vietnam War to be a deception. By 1970, when Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead. So were four student protesters at Kent State University. Jim Morrison was not far behind, passing the next year. A renegade official in the Department of Defense named Daniel Ellsburg leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, and America discovered that it had been systematically lied to about the Vietnam War. Some members of the counterculture, both black and white, became radicalized, advocating violence and revolution. Altamont, too, had its animated equivalent, also birthed in 1969.
Underground comix artist Robert Crumb created a horny, nihilistic cat named Fritz. The comic came to the attention of Ralph Bakshi in 1969, who saw possibilities in the character. Bakshi pitched Fritz as potential project to animation producer Steve Krantz. After production problems that moved the film from New York to California and more difficulties in finding a distributor, Fritz the Cat finally premiered in April of 1972. Fritz was a disturbing and cynical film; where Pepperland was a bright haven of peace and beauty, Bakshi’s America was a hideous mélange of racial stereotypes, grimy factories, offensive billboards featuring spouting toilets and cows vomiting up their own milk. Urban grime and decay were prominent themes, and there is rarely a break from it.
The film, like the Altamont concert, is deeply flawed and contradictory in its construction and execution, and Fritz proves to be the most inconsistent character in the film. Violent scenes, such as the beating and rape of one character, echo the concert’s brutality. Perhaps not coincidentally, a major villain in the film is an outlaw biker. Mick Jagger and crew would have been more at home with the crude sexuality of Fritz than the Beatles; all is lust and little has to do with love. Ironically, a black man (or crow, as Bakshi would have it), is also senselessly murdered in the movie trying to protect Fritz.
The films had another interesting parallel as light-and-dark siblings. When the Beatles saw Yellow Submarine late in production, they were so enchanted that they insisted on filming a live action coda featuring themselves. When Robert Crumb saw Fritz the Cat, he was so disgusted that he battled (unsuccessfully) to have his name removed from the film.
Not long after Woodstock, the Beatles disbanded. After Altamont, Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden quit the band in disillusionment. The Rolling Stones exorcised Sympathy for the Devil from their live sets until 1975.
Ralph Bakshi would go on to make controversial statements about race and society for several more animated films, and no one touched nerves in the same way until Spike Lee came on to the scene. George Dunning died in 1979 while producing an animated version of a Shakespeare play, The Tempest. The surviving work recalls the visual look of Yellow Submarine.
In retrospect, Yellow Submarine was the better film, technically superior to Fritz the Cat, far more arresting in its story, visuals, and music. Whether it was superior in spirit depends on which view of the era one takes; the ugly truths and sour malaise depicted in the latter film are perhaps more realistic than chants of “All You Need is Love”. The most salient thing to consider is that, once again, animation responded to the prevailing times and moods by producing twofilms, each one corresponding to shifts in the cultural stratum. They also correlated with two events, both rock concerts, that bookended the rise and fall of the counterculture in America. Yellow Submarine and Woodstock. Altamont and Fritz the Cat. Rarely have two features – or two concerts -- portrayed so well the symbols of disparate eras.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.