Saturday, April 19, 2014
April 19-20, 2014: Animated History: AnneMarie Donahue’s Guest Post
[AnneMarie Donahue has a Master’s in English from Fitchburg State University, and is now pursuing one in History as well. She’s a wonderful teacher, a historical interpreter and performer and researcher and writer, and a novelist, among her many talents. I’m excited to round off the week’s series on animated histories with her Guest Post on a too-forgotten American animator!]
What we Owe Ralph Bakshi: Or One Doesn’t Simply Rotoscope Into Mordor!
Wizards, hobbits, drugged out punks, over-sexed cats and mixed media, that’s what little girls’ dreams are made of. Okay, well that’s what mine were made of. As a child I was introduced to Ralph Bakshi through his strange cartoons played only on Thanksgiving. As a child I was more captivated by the movement of the animated figures that would appear too fluid and then suddenly become jerky, as if they were more alive than Tom and Jerry. The figures moved with the same unpredictable nature that people did, and the backgrounds were not the endless hall ways that cats chased mice down, but pictures and footage from the history channel and PBS. I wouldn’t know until a little later that Bakshi’s approach to using animation for adult purposes is part of Bakshi’s fame. He would first shoot his principals, then draw carefully over them creating the animated character and the setting to fit the story as needed. From there the background would be toyed with, this created a separation of principal and setting to keep the audience’s eye from sitting too still on one characters.
For example, his animated film Wizards, the story of two brothers born of one woman but from opposite magic fight across a post-apocalyptic landscape for control over the world. The good son, a natural wizard who embodies the use of natured-based magic, intrinsic talents that are only found in those worthy of possessing them, battles his brother, the second son, who, lacking in natural magic abilities, turns his mind to that of resurrecting the ancient war machines of the Third Reich. The allegory is clear and arguably overt. Bakshi, the dirty hippie, sides with the return to a natural way of magic, a natural way of life and by surrendering the characterization of the enemy to Nazi Germany argues against a man-created war machine. His use of the story is simple, but it’s his ability to tell it as a series of backdrops masterful.
Within the story Wizards the brothers travel to find and destroy one another, the backdrop of the destroyed landscape is made from found footage of abandoned cities. Signs of man’s greed and inherent violence can be seen in the burnt out Texaco signs. Bakshi, not even attempting to hide these behind a cleverly painted overlay, simply enhances the image around it, so that the roots of trees, mutated and warped through years of exposure to fallout, grow up around the sign, bending it unnaturally but never actually tearing it down, nor eclipsing it from the viewer’s sight.
The final battle between brothers ends in animated footage fighting over the stock footage of World War II aerial battles. With Avatar, the good son, finally destroying Blackwolf, with the help of more Tolkein-inspired creatures (a very voluptuous fairy, a hot-blooded Weehawkan Elf and a robot fighting against its programming… Windows Vista?).
Bakshi’s success allowed him to negotiate the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Originally meant to be done in two parts, sadly the film was never completed. LOTR was a financial success for 1978, but the critics were uneven and studios didn’t believe that people would really care if the ring got to Mordor. Fortunately Peter Jackson was a fan. Although in an initial interview he claimed to have not been influenced by the movie, a quick look at Bilbo’s birthday will dispel any question. Proudfoot would never had been Proufeet without him.
The use of rotoscoping in this film is important as well, however it is more to capture human nature than human history. Bakshi would often film the extras unaware to see what people who were “off-camera” really moved like. For example the scene in which the Uruk-hai eat the mouthy Orc is actually a bunch of extras attacking a buffet table. Bakshi was no stranger to the macho bravado men create in the absence of women. He addressed it head-on in his earlier films Coonskin, and Heavy Traffic. These films address not only the issue of gendered violence, but rape, sexual abuse and gender domination. Bakshi used some of LOTR to reflect his earlier work for a comment on gender roles.
Bakshi would finish off a trio of films with American Pop released in 1981. This film, following the life of Zelmie a young Jewish immigrant to American through his descendents, to watch the how the American dream is achievable only to those who will sacrifice their former identity to the new god. Told through the development of the man, the film also follows the story of America as the country grows from an emerging financial superpower, bought for with the sacrifice of unskilled labor dying in the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, to a global leader in World War I. Zelmie, injured abandons his dream to sing and becomes a Jewish mobster. His son, following in the footsteps his father hoped to erase joins to fight in World War II. Leaving behind his pregnant bride and very promising music career the young man is shot by a German soldier as he plays the piano. The son, now removed from his Jewish heritage entirely is absorbed into Italian mob culture and eventually escapes to California, leaving behind a pregnant waitress in the Mid-West. The blond-hair blue-eyed great-grandson of the immigrant achieves the musical success only through desertion of heritage and ideals. Which Bakshi ensures will hit the audience like a punch to the gut as we watch Pete, the great-grandson, mockingly “rock out” to a rabbi singing the prayer that his unknown great-great-grandfather died to during a Pogrom.
More than a collection of America’s greatest hits, American Pop, is really a collection of America’s darkest secrets. The use of immigrant labor, the threat of assimilation and the myth of the American Dream as an achievement of industry and labor, Bakshi takes full aim at all of these and pointedly demands his audience to fess up. Fortunately his medium, animation, kept the message from hitting too hard and becoming too preachy. At the exact moment the audience might feel too bad for “little Pete” we seem him swagger down the street as a successful and unabashed coke dealer who has no problem holding the drugs and his customers hostage until they agree to hear one song.
I have to admit, I did always like Bob Seger.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other animated histories and stories you’d add to the week’s series?]