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Book Review: 'Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi'

The former work-for-hire power transitions into a source of proprietary animation for the global market.

People don't just keep rising to stardom. Sometimes you get to a point and then you hit a brick wall, sometimes you get rich and fall flat on your face, sometimes you get shot in the head before anything big can happen, and sometimes you actually do make it. America isn't all rainbows and you're an idiot if you believe it's always in your control.
-- Ralph Bakshi, Unfiltered, p. 164
Reading Unfiltered mimics the experience of watching one of Bakshi's films.

Reading Unfiltered mimics the experience of watching one of Bakshi's films.

Ralph Bakshi, during the course of his tempestuous and controversial career, managed to do virtually everything described in the above quote, at least in a figurative sense. That career is now chronicled in a long-overdue biography by Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell. When I interviewed Ralph Bakshi in 2001, my first thought was that Ralph Bakshi does not think like anyone doing animation in Hollywood. My second thought was that Ralph Bakshi does not even think like most independent animators, either. It is this Ralph Bakshi, tearing through the cultural landscape like a cartoon juggernaut run amok, that can be found in the pages of Gibson and McDonnell's book.

In the pages of Unfiltered, Bakshi comes across as an unstoppable force; when the man had something to express or create he did so with a raging disregard for the opinions, viewpoints, and sensitivities of others, yet this is not as sociopathic as it sounds. Ralph Bakshi followed the muse of his own creativity through obstacles and barriers that would probably have stopped other animators at the storyboard stage.

The author's coverage of the early years at Terrytoons (Ralph's first job) is essential to understanding the man. He took advantage of a loose and virtually rudderless studio system and essentially promoted himself to animator in defiance of union rules. As Bakshi put it, "I wasn't there to paint fuckin' cels." Bakshi was able to do so, as this book reveals, through the utter conviction that he was making important statements while raising the cultural capital of animation in American culture. To a large degree, he succeeded. Bakshi inspired and influenced countless numbers of today's animators; in his semi-retirement today he is a figure of esteem and respect.

Gibson and McDonnell write in a rough-hewn, colloquial style throughout the book. This works rather well since many of the quotes by Bakshi seem to be either angry or profane. The prose is, in fact, as unconventional as the subject of the book, including such locutions as "Ralph's aim to make cartoons balls-out honest." Reading Unfiltered thus mimics the experience of watching one of Bakshi's films.

The book is uneven in some regards. Gibson and McDonnell seem to present Bakshi as animation's equivalent of Quentin Tarentino (who wrote the forward) or at least Sam Peckinpah, even though Bakshi made a different statement with his use of violence. Three of the double-page spreads in the book depict characters getting riddled with bullets, and the most violent images from Bakshi's film are inevitably the ones that show up in the book. The authors also give very heavy coverage to Bakshi's first three films (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin), which were also the most controversial. Later films in the Bakshi canon get far less print, even though they were as daring in their way as the aforementioned three.

Bakshi's penchant for the sword-and-sorcery genre is reflected in the 1977 film Wizards.

Bakshi's penchant for the sword-and-sorcery genre is reflected in the 1977 film Wizards.

Bakshi always had a strong penchant for the sword-and-sorcery genre and in fact made three films (Wizards, Lord of the Rings, and Fire and Ice) in this vein. These works do not seem to interest the authors as much as the "balls-out" films do. This is regrettable, since the rotoscoped Bakshi version of the Tolkien saga served as a direct influence on a young Peter Jackson. The only other piece to get extensive coverage is American Pop, probably Bakshi's most accessible and polished film. Other parts of the Bakshi history are sketchy; although the acrimonious break with Steve Krantz is well-documented, the later split with John Kricfalusi is not, and the process by which Bakshi was gradually stripped of control of Cool World is less detailed than it might have been.

Gibson and McDonnell do a stellar job, however, in highlighting Bakshi's later years and projects, highlighting every one of them at least briefly. While many may remember Bakshi's uproarious revival of Mighty Mouse (and the fact that he had the entire future Spumco studio at his command), few animation fans may recall his version of Dr. Seuss's Butter Battle Book or the short-lived HBO series Spicy City. The authors also include samples of Bakshi's poetry and a plethora of his paintings. Rarely has there been such a successful effort to portray all sides of this maverick auteur. The authors also do important work in detailing Bakshi's early life in Brownsville, NY, debunking many myths along the way. Brownsville, long reputed to be a hellhole, is portrayed as a rough, vibrant, multiethnic playground that was indispensable to Bakshi's later work and career.

Had this book contained no writing at all, however, it would still be worth the price. Gibson and McDonnell have obtained page after page of stunning original art from every period of Bakshi's career. Early and late doodles by the master alternate with film stills, background art, and concept sketches. Nor do the authors stop there: Many among Bakshi's longtime crew are given their due. Art by John Sparey, MGM veteran Irv Spence, and a visual sequence that was animated by a young Mark Kausler for Heavy Traffic can also be seen. The wonderful character concepts done by Louise Zingarelli for American Pop are on display, and the double-page spread of Don Morgan's nymphets from Coonskin is a treat that recalls the work of Fred Moore.

Unfiltered begins with a quote by the man himself: "No one has any idea who Ralph Bakshi is." Thanks to Gibson and McDonnell, the readers of this book will emerge with the clearest picture of Ralph Bakshi to date. They also may find themselves unable to resist raiding every source in sight to obtain and view his unconventional but important films.

Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi (The Force Behind Fritz the Cat, Mighty Mouse, Cool World, and Heavy Traffic) by Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell. Foreword by Quentin Tarantino; afterword by Ralph Bakshi. Universe Publishing: New York, NY. 2008. 280 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0789316844; ISBN-10: 0789316846

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.