Cumartesi, Temmuz 28, 2007


Sunshine (U.K., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Danny Boyle

At an unspecified point in the far, far future (an endpoint, possibly), the Sun is dying, now just a dim blur in the sky, and Earth--where mankind is still stranded--is trapped in perpetual winter. In an attempt to reignite the star, Earth sends out the Icarus, a giant nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan and protected by a vast, disc-shaped shield, but somehow it's failed in an attempt to deliver its payload straight into the heart of the Sun. Now the Icarus II, built by depleting the scant remains of Earth's resources, is sent on the same mission, manned by eight scientists fully aware that they may have to sacrifice themselves to save mankind.

It's Sunshine, the latest from Danny Boyle, the stylish director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later. Boyle can be maddeningly inconsistent (as with A Life Less Ordinary), but on the other hand, if mankind were about to become instinct and we could only send a handful of artists into a capsule to help populate a distant planet, Boyle would be one whose DNA I'd choose to preserve. Even his unsuccessful films are dazzling and original; if he fails, he fails spectacularly, and he always takes great risks. Which really suits him to this material, since Sunshine is about a crew willing to risk anything on a mission that's somewhat insensible, on the slim chance their results will be spectacular. This is Boyle's first science fiction film, and reminiscent of the two SF films by that other great British export, Ridley Scott. It's hard SF, more Isaac Asimov than Philip K. Dick, meaning that the emphasis is on realism. Screenwriter Alex Garland (who also wrote Boyle's 28 Days Later) understands that survival in space depends a great deal on complex mathematical calculations (all of which must be accurate), a vast network of machinery and protective material (none of which must fail), and dollops of luck. The fascination of Sunshine is watching everything slowly fall apart for our poor astronauts. First a tough decision is made, which everyone will ultimately regret: to rendezvous with the Icarus I, whose distress signal they intercept. Then there's a mathematical miscalculation: in figuring how to alter the ship's trajectory to intersect with another object in space, the crew's navigation officer forgets to account for the ship's shield, and thus exposes part of the Icarus II to the blazing sun. And that section contains their air supply and the Oxygen Garden, the greenhouse upon which they depend almost as much as the shield. Now short on air and badly wounded, their only hope is to salvage something from Icarus I to help them complete their mission. Either that, or they must sacrifice members of their own crew to extend their oxygen supply. The chain of events continues, relentlessly, with as much tension as Boyle and Garland delivered in 28 Days Later. Ultimately (and a little disappointingly), the film becomes a horror film, as the crew is stalked by a killer intent on sabotaging the mission. But even then, Sunshine resolutely demonstrates how both the Icarus II and its mission operate, piece by piece, and it's mesmerizing in its details. The last hard SF film of this variety was Peter Hyams' 2010 (1984), although it owes even more to the Stanley Kubrick original and, of course, Alien (1979). The crew even communicates to a ship's computer with a female voice, like HAL in the former or "Mother" in the latter. (The computer is always soothing and comforting, even when making drastic decisions which jeopardize lives.)

Although an emphasis is placed on the science, this isn't to say that the film is devoid of philosophical undertones. In fact, the whole premise of the film forms the spiritual undercurrent, which then, brilliantly, extends to the execution of almost every scene. All of mankind is dependent on something he had taken for granted: the light of a star. To repair it, one has to be prepared for self-sacrifice. The plot's mechanics, which deal with painful decisions followed by deliberately transcendent scenes of sacrifice, echo this idea of the greater depending upon the seemingly trivial. Every scientist aboard the Icarus II understands that sometimes you have to sacrifice the arm to save the body. In one of the most refreshing scenes in the film, one crew member suggests they take a vote, while another disagrees: "We're scientists." They should, instead, let the most qualified make the decision. A democracy doesn't necessarily make the best decision, just the most popular one.

Moments like this are what I value so much in Sunshine. Mace (Chris Evans), the ship's engineer, is the most unlikeable character at the outset of the film, brawling with the team's physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), and passionately arguing against a rescue mission to the Icarus I. But by the end of the film you've come along to his way of thinking, and you're enthralled and impressed as he risks his own life and endures agonizing pain to salvage the mission. Capa, the surrogate for the audience, operates in a murkier moral realm, and makes decisions more slowly. Still, the crew understands that he's the most important member of the team, since he's the one trained to deliver the nuclear payload into the Sun; appropriately, they would do anything to keep him alive. By the time one character finally breaks down and behaves irrationally and selfishly, the audience has taken the cold, rational side of the scientists: they know that character must die, because he's no longer useful to the mission.

It's all about preserving sunshine, and there's some amazing photographic effects in the film, many of which appear to have been achieved in-camera (like last year's The Fountain). As a result, there isn't a single effects shot in this film that isn't completely convincing. The cinematography, by Alwin Kuchler (Ratcatcher), is breathtakingly beautiful, even when it shouldn't be: the Sun, after all, is dazzling, but it's also deadly, and Boyle treats each death in the film with a reverence bordering on the spiritual. We watch people die carefully, with an eye to the details, and there's always a bit of awe to the process. One of the most spectacular photographic effects is the observation room, where the crew is able to look directly at the sun through tinted glass--a tinting two key characters inevitably dials down, to great risk and some nasty sunburn. This is a film that isn't afraid to gaze directly at the Sun.

Perşembe, Temmuz 26, 2007

Talk to Me

Talk to Me (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Kasi Lemmons

Talk to Me is the story of Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), a Washington D.C. radio DJ and ex-con who brought wry social commentary through street parlance in the late 60's, and with James Brown helped quell riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the film he's guided by a radio station exec, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who later becomes his manager and attempts to transform Greene from a straight-talking voice of the people into a Lenny Bruce-style comic and finally a local TV talk show host, greeting minor celebrities and politicians like a rough-around-the-edges Johnny Carson, Hughes' idol. But all Greene wants to do is spin records; as he tells Hughes early on, being a con and being a DJ are the only talents he has.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons with a smooth, sometimes sensual touch, and sporadically very funny, this biopic is what is commonly called an "actor's film," which means that if you were to replace the key actors with lesser ones, the flaws would be all the more apparent. Who doesn't like Don Cheadle (Boogie Nights, Traffic)? And Chiwetel Ejiofor, a standout supporting character in Inside Man, gets a wonderful chance to display all of his talents in a central role here. There's also Taraji P. Henson as Vernell, Greene's girlfriend, who aggressively supports her man, and aggressively gets her revenge when he strays. All three are amazing, and worth the glowing praise the film's receiving. But on the whole, Talk to Me suffers from cliches handed down from the biopic genre. While it's entertaining to see Greene and Hughes stage a siege at WOR radio, barricading the doors so that Greene can have a shot at proving himself on the radio, the payoff--gee, those people aren't calling to complain, they LOVE Petey!--is a predictable groaner. Too many of the film's plot points unspool in this fashion, hitting the notes you expect as the necessary linking material between more interesting scenes. Screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa also hammer home their central messages way too often, until the film finally takes on a patronizing tone. Most crucially, although the relationship between Hughes and Greene is at the center of the film, it's treated with such armchair psychology that you crave a more complex, nuanced treatment.

Still, there's so much here that sparks that you might wilfully ignore those flaws. Apart from the performances, the film boasts Kasi Lemmons' loving gaze. Look at the shot that comes right after Greene leaves the booth after his MLK broadcast. After the congratulations, the crew--who was locked in a physical fight just before learning of MLK's death--now moves as a fluid unit, one body after the other passing almost sensuously before the camera while the Sam Cooke song plays, and finally the camera turns to catch Martin Sheen's station manager, Sonderling, breaking down in tears in the hallway. The mise-en-scene, the movement of the camera, the warmth of the performances, all comes together into a visual poetry. There are other moments like this in the film, and a tribute to the skills of Lemmons, who also directed the acclaimed Eve's Bayou. Even if she could sustain moment after moment like this, she'd still be saddled with a script that hits its marks like a child whacking away at a toy xylophone.

If you're curious, and you love the performers, it's a film worth seeing. Plus the music is great, and there's an amazing James Brown impersonator. Like the film itself, you know he's not the real thing, but he knows the moves.

Cuma, Temmuz 20, 2007

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn (U.S., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog comes to Hollywood with his latest film, Rescue Dawn, although, characteristically, the unending quest for the "voodoo of location" sends him off to Thailand to film the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Navy pilot who crashes into the jungles of Laos during Vietnam. He previously filmed this story as a documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), with the real Dieter (now deceased) reenacting his own capture by Viet Cong--to such extremes that some criticized Herzog for pushing his interview subject past the boundary of good taste. Nevertheless, that film is now regarded as one of Herzog's great documentaries, alongside My Best Fiend (1999) and the more recent Grizzly Man (2005). Of course, Herzog has always despised the strict definitions of "documentary," and has always seen his pictures as a form of storytelling which needn't follow any particular blueprint. That helps explain why his retelling of Dieter Dengler's story in Rescue Dawn is slightly fictionalized, essentially telling two narratives: one for the wide audience who has never heard of this P.O.W., and another for those Herzog fans who are familiar with the previous film. The German Dengler now becomes a German-American with no discernable accent (played by English actor Bale serving up a respectable, if somewhat plastic, American accent). The way he and his fellow P.O.W.s stage their escape has been altered to provide a bit of surprise in that parallel narrative, as well as the tragic fate of one of the key characters, and there are also winks here and there, such as Bale actually envoking the title of the Herzog doc. As a Hollywood film, it is astonishingly brutal and harrowing. There may be a happy ending, but it's compromised by our knowledge of the loss and struggle that's come before.
It is recognizably a Herzog film, from the breathtaking visuals, to the obsession over details (we learn, for example, how to break out of handcuffs, and how to start a fire in the jungle), and, naturally, the central plight of a driven individual who battles a harsh and unforgiving wilderness. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its overexposed cinematography, which somehow manages to look exactly like Vietnam War documentary footage from the 1960's. Character actors Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies so completely embody their roles as fellow American prisoners, psychologically devastated by a longer stay in the jungle prison, that they are never less than convincing, somewhat shaming Bale's less natural, overcalculated performance. Despite Bale's weaknesses, and a somewhat rushed opening and an abrupt resolution, Rescue Dawn should hopefully silence those critics who think Herzog should stick to documentaries (I'm looking at you, Film Comment). It's a vital piece of filmmaking.

Salı, Temmuz 17, 2007


Paprika (Japan, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Satoshi Kon

There are animated movies and then there are animated movies.

John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy, frequently posts on his animation blog simple but illuminating analyses of what makes for attractive, eye-popping animation. He's insistent that animation should be expressive but honest, appealing without being cutesy, and in one screenshot-driven critique from last March, demonstrated profoundly why simple cel animation from the 1940's and 50's is infinitely more visually pleasing than any given shot from Shrek. Each moviegoing season cranks out more disposable, computer-animated, would-be-blockbusters with sassy zoo animals, penguins and polar bears, learning obvious life lessons while making anachronistic references to popular culture which become instantly dated. Pixar remains the only studio to consistently produce quality CG animated films, the latest of which, Ratatouille, is genuinely worthy of praise and admiration for both its striking animation and smooth, funny storytelling. (It also helps that its protagonist, the chef rat Remy, is not a character that we have seen in animated film before: he's not a neurotic "everyman" audience stand-in, but a genius who won't compromise with anyone to create his masterpieces.) As the glut of mediocre CG films grows, and studios such as Disney and Dreamworks close down their cel animation departments, a rebellion has been steadily growing from critics and fans alike. This is most clearly seen in the growing adulation for Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon. You know all about Miyazaki, no doubt, but you may not know about Kon, who created the praised feature films Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress. What sets Kon's films apart is their unusually mature subject matter--not mature in the sex and violence department, mind you, but with stories and themes that are genuinely complex. Tokyo Godfathers was a fairly realistic comedy about three homeless men who find an abandoned baby, and become unwilling guardians for the child. Millennium Actress (working out a theme first introduced in his short film, "Magnetic Rose") reenacts the career of an actress, as seen through the eyes of a documentary crew sorting through her biography--and becoming, somehow, entangled in the events of both her life and her movies. The stream-of-consciousness narrative is carefree and breakneck, yet ultimately arrives at a moving and meaningful conclusion. It's hard to imagine the story being told in live action, but on the other hand it's hard to imagine any other director with the imagination to tell such a story in animation.

The same can be said for his latest film, Paprika, which arrives on U.S. shores riding a wave of critical accolades from fed-up film critics who want American animation to grow up already. Like his other works, Paprika uses realistic, not cartoony, animation, in service of a story best appreciated by grown-ups. It has been rightly compared to the novels of Philip K. Dick. Chiba Atsuko is a therapist who uses a device which allows her to interact with a patient's dreams. In dreams, she becomes "Paprika"--sexier, more adventurous, and ever transforming to meet the requirements of each individual dream. A mystery unfolds when someone begins to use the device to blur the barrier between the dream world and the waking, so that a fully conscious, fully sane individual can suddenly become prisoner to an unseen fantasia, happily shouting nonsense phrases and plunging straight out a window. With the assistance of one of her clients--a detective--as well as the creator of the device--a fabulously obese man with the mind of a child--Chiba and her alter ego Paprika rush to prevent the entire world from collapsing into the dimension of dreams.

Plot twists come almost too quickly to process, and at no point in this film is an explanation repeated or delivered slowly: you're expected to be paying attention. But ultimately the plotting proves to be less complicated than it at first appeared, and those who view the film a second time will be rewarded with a clearer understanding of all its clever touches. What's most surprising is that the film elevates the discussion of "dreaming" to other media. The Internet is mentioned as similar to dreaming while awake (the Detective visits a website--Paprika's--which seems to plunge him into a dream), but Kon is even more compellingly drawn to compare the dreaming experience to entering a dark movie theater and plunging into the fictional worlds presented on the screen. At the start of the film, the dreaming detective pursues a criminal through a circus (The Greatest Show on Earth), then swinging through a jungle (Tarzan), then on a speeding train (From Russia With Love), and through a romantic film (Roman Holiday). The sequence of dreams is reenacted a couple times, until the detective comes to the realization that they're all films--and, furthermore, that he had wanted to be a film director, but instead became a cop, a decision which has subconsciously haunted him. The theme of dreams-as-films is woven throughout the film, from this pre-credits sequence, which ends with the sounds of a projector coming to the end of its last reel, through the opening credits, with the titles projected upon the backgrounds and Paprika's face, to the final, poignant, and completely unexpected resolution. But along the way you're served with some of the best surreal-apocalyptic anime imagery since Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, and action and suspense scenes bursting with imagination: for in dreams, none of the standard rules apply. Paprika becomes Pinnochio, a fairy, and a sphinx, while being pursued by dreams mixed and matched by the collective of dreamers trapped by the dream-device--blue butterflies, a creepy geisha doll, and a parade of appliances and frogs that at one point break out of a projection booth and invade a movie theater, sweeping up Paprika and the detective and carrying them helplessly on. At this point in the film you'd be advised to look over your own shoulder, toward that white, flickering light in the booth. Satoshi Kon knows the truth: we're all prey for his untamed dreams, which have found ultimate expression in the form of animation. Would that other studios take his lead.

Çarşamba, Temmuz 04, 2007

The Legacy of Ralph Bakshi

"Can I just say before I leave that I hate Ralph Bakshi?"

The person who was speaking was a houseguest, and he'd seen the signed Lord of the Rings cels hanging on my wall (from Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation), and the Coonskin/Street Fight VHS tape in the basement, no doubt, and he felt compelled, on his way out the door with his duffel bag under his arm, to have this passionate opinion heard. It was as though to engage in a discussion about Ralph Bakshi meant to get into a fight, and if you had to get into a fight, and you're a houseguest, then it's best to do it when you're already on your way out the door. Bakshi, as a topic amongst animation buffs, is like a political persona. He's the Michael Moore of animation. People get into screaming matches over the man's films. Consider the following to be my full, belated defense of the man and his films to my houseguest, to replace my mumbled, two-sentence reply as I escorted him out the door.

First, know that I understood the comment, and I perfectly appreciate the opinion of anyone who might believe Bakshi's films are terrible. My own admiration for Bakshi is hopelessly compromised. He has made some terrible films, and some almost-great ones, but never a perfect one. Nevertheless, his work was groundbreaking, and it's difficult to think of anyone in the American animation industry today who is stretching the limits of animated storytelling to the extent that Bakshi did--particularly in his peak, during the 1970's (a decade which, in my consciousness, Bakshi embodies). He introduced the idea that animated films don't have to be for kids. Although he has worked in the Saturday morning cartoon medium (Spider-Man in the 60's, Mighty Mouse in the 80's), the work for which he's known--his feature-length films--are intended exclusively for adults. Albeit immature adults.

The animator, of Russian/Jewish descent, was born in 1938 in Palestine, but raised in Brooklyn, and his sensibility has always been of the street, if not of the prankster sitting in the back of the classroom and drawing dirty cartoons for his friends. By the early 70's, he had climbed the ladder of television animation, directing various cheap cartoons, and seemed set upon a career as a second-rate Hanna-Barbera. Instead, he recruited his colleagues into working with him on an X-rated animated feature film--the world's first--an adaptation of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat comix. Crumb was the celebrity of underground comix, thanks to the cover he produced for Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills as well as his "Keep on Truckin'" cartoon, which had become an icon for the hippie movement. Crumb grew to resent how his drawings had become (often misunderstood) trademarks for movements he disliked--he was a bookwormish beatnik with sexual hang-ups, not a free-loving, longhair freak--and he used his comic books to satirize pop culture, even subvert his own marketing: he deliberately killed Fritz when the cat had outstayed his welcome. Still, when Bakshi approached him about adapting Fritz to film, they hit it off over their mutual love of old jazz and blues records, and a contract was signed. It was another agreement Crumb came to regret (not his last); he hated Bakshi's Fritz the Cat (1972). Regardless, the movie was a tremendous commercial success, and played grindhouses for years. It surely helped that it was released at the height of the mainstreaming of X-rated films; Midnight Cowboy had won an Oscar a few years prior, and upscale audiences were eagerly attending screenings of hardcore films like Deep Throat and Beyond the Green Door. Fritz the Cat was neither a porno nor an arthouse film. The film is deliberately juvenile, relentlessly sarcastic, sour and cynical. First Fritz attempts to stage an orgy, which disappoints; then he's on the run from the cops, seduces a woman at a black bar/dive and starts a riot, joins some Hell's Angels, and eventually falls in with a bunch of anarchists who want him to plant a bomb. All of it is pretty aimless, and as loose in its plot as much of Bakshi's films; it also becomes rather plodding and dull in its second half. Yet there are satirical jabs that work (as with the free-love orgy that misfires, or the hippies who turn out to be Weather Underground-style terrorists), and Fritz the Cat is full of eye-popping style, with bursts of energy straight out of a rock and roll musical. The highlight, and possibly the prototypical Bakshi moment, is a startling interlude in which a crow, wearing sunglasses and snapping his fingers, listens to "Bo Diddley" while, behind him, a photograph of classic urban Brooklyn slowly envelops the scene. It's live action, it's animation, it's rock and roll, it's street life--all of Bakshi's interests rolled into a fat joint.

Whatever you might think of Fritz's qualities, it certainly blew open the conventions of animated film with a stick of dynamite. Emboldened by the film's success, he immediately embarked upon Heavy Traffic (1973) with much the same crew, establishing his name and style as a trademark. Heavy Traffic--also conveniently rated X--is superior to Fritz in every way, but it's also more inaccessible, and almost uncomfortably personal. I'd argue it's the quintessential Bakshi film, and required viewing for every naysayer. The main character, Michael, is a Bakshi surrogate, with a Jewish mother and an Italian immigrant father who constantly elevate their domestic disputes into violent, brutal confrontations (which are both funny and disturbing). He escapes by drawing cartoons, which are brought to life for the viewer through fantastically profane sequences that exploit the X-rating to its fullest. Meanwhile, his angst is alleviated by his newfound love for a young black woman. The film is bookended by live action sequences, suggesting that the film is just another of Michael's "cartoons," an exaggeration of his real life (and, by logical extension, Bakshi's). The style is again the star, frequently casting animated characters against live-action backgrounds, or with its heavy jazz soundtrack and the frequently recurring "Scarborough Fair," which offsets the events with either energy or melancholy, as required. In fact, the cumulative effect is something very moving, which is surprising, since the film acts as a wild ride of emotions: repulsion, laughter, sadness, elation. Mark this as one of his best efforts.

His next, and the last of his early phase of raw, personal features, was Coonskin (1974). Bakshi, a white Jew, decided to make a film about the state of contemporary black America. You can imagine how it was received. But it's extraordinary in many ways and worth tracking down (it's been released on VHS under the less controversial title Street Fight, though "Coonskin" still appears on the print). The premise is the flipside to Song of the South, Disney's portrayal of a happy black slave (Uncle Remus, actually the creation of the white author Joel Chandler Harris) who recounts slave folklore of the trickster Brer Rabbit and his pals to the eager children of the plantation owners. Coonskin, which has a live action prologue and epilogue, features an updated, urban version of the Remus stories. After a jailbreak, and while waiting for their getaway car, Pappy (Scatman Crothers) tells Randy (Philip Michael Thomas) all about the adventures of Brother Rabbit (Thomas), Brother Bear (Barry White), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone), who travel from the country to the big city and immediately encounter problems with some black revolutionaries and the Italian Mafia. The Superfly-like Brother Rabbit wields a gun and rises up the ranks to become a crime lord, while utilizing some of the tricks familiar from the Remus stories. A tar baby is used in a ploy to take out the Mafia. The briar patch becomes a trash can: Rabbit begs a gang not to be thrown out the window, so they throw him out, where he lands in the trash, and declares proudly that he was born there before safely escaping. In Coonskin Bakshi asserts that African-Americans have been stomped into the trash for so long that the only rational response is crime, violent revolution, or suicide. "Miss America," a blue-eyed blonde with big breasts and a tight-fitting American flag uniform (or is that just body paint?), continually taunts the impoverished, dwarfish black men who approach her, thwarting their every attempt to make it with her, and driving one to blowing his brains out. But these cynical moments of satire, played with cartoonish sound effects, are balanced by the occasional quieter moment of tragedy. A single black mother gives a long monologue about the men who always leave her, rocking her baby while her stories are etched out in chalk in the background. When the wife of the Mafia boss is gunned down by her own family, her enveloping coat spreads around her bloody body to form giant white wings. She transforms into a fairy, then a moth, swatted out of the air by the callous mob. Bakshi always seemed to enjoy these little digressions, giving minor characters big moments, and both of these scenes have nothing to do with the plot. Yet they provide emotional texture and widen the scope of his subject. His next films would be more epic in narrative, but his early, social films have a depth to which he would not return.

That may have been a retreat. Coonskin received heaps of criticism, and it's easy to see how it could be misunderstood, or, perhaps, not received at all, since it's a film by a white man about blacks (never mind that some of the famous black exploitation films of the period were written or directed by white men). Take the incendiary opening titles, which feature Scatman Crothers soulfully singing a piece of blues called "Ahm a Niggerman" (video above). On its own, the scene is powerful, and if the titles didn't tell you whose film it was, you might think it came from Melvin Van Peebles. But the song is written by Bakshi. To some, this will make a huge difference. One of the criticisms leveled at Song of the South is that it was a film by white men selling out African folklore--folklore of the slaves, and precious to a heritage--to white America. Even if Bakshi's film is attacking white America for what it's done to black America, it's still a story told by a white man. Therefore Coonskin was sabotaged from the start, and it played only a week in theaters before Paramount Pictures decided to bow to the controversy, withdrawing it from circulation. (Earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino--another white man given to comment on black America--screened a personal print at a "Grindhouse Festival" in Los Angeles.) So withheld, the film has become something of a legend, which it's earned: watching it again, the film still feels like live ammunition. Now the question is which will be released on DVD first: Coonskin, an angry invective against racism, or Song of the South, which has genuine racism stitched subtly into its cloth?

Wizards (1977) was Bakshi's attempt at escapism, a "children's film" (or so he improbably asserts in an interview for the DVD), which was released concurrent in theaters with the considerably more successful Star Wars. In fact, Bakshi's, which also features Mark Hamill, was originally to be titled "War Wizards," but George Lucas asked Bakshi to change it. The original title would have been more interesting, and also more appropriate. It's a fantasy adventure, but one concerned with war and how it dehumanizes its soldiers. The "war wizard" Blackwolf uses the new magic, technology, to hypnotize his troops and organize a mass slaughter. Kiddie stuff? No, it's still a Bakshi film, and it's pretty intense. Blackwolf's chief rival is the benevolent, albeit cranky, eccentric, and horny wizard Avatar, his brother. When Blackwolf's armies encroach upon the peaceful kingdom of Montagar, Avatar, with the fairy Elinore, the warrior Weehawk, and the death trooper Peace--a servant of Blackwolf's suffering from amnesia--set out on a quest to save the world. Bakshi makes few concessions to his young audience. There are fairies, elves, and lots of magic in this Tolkienesque land, but also sex and violence. Elinore's nipples protrude from her slinky costume, and the elderly Avatar runs off with her in the end. When Peace, drawn to resemble a Vaughn Bode illustration from Heavy Metal magazine, attacks the elves in the early scenes, he riddles their bodies with bloody bullet-holes. The central image of the film comes when Blackwolf, having uncovered a storeroom of Nazi propaganda and weaponry, shows footage of Hitler to his minions, who are immediately mesmerized. This bizarre mixture of adult fantasy, slapstick humor, and Holocaust imagery has made Wizards one of Bakshi's best-known films, with a true cult following. I watched it at a very young age in the early 80's, with much the same expression as Blackwolf's mesmerized soldiers. I struggled not to just like the film, but to conceive of it. It expanded my consciousness like some visceral coming-of-age rite. The slaughter of the elves, the Nazi footage, Elinore's blunt sexuality, and, in particular, the moment when Avatar unexpectedly pulls out a revolver, calls Blackwolf a "son of a bitch," and blows him away, seared onto my tender young brain. Each time I revisited the film I tried to love it, but it was too difficult, too savage to be adored. Only a few years ago, when it was released on DVD, could I finally absorb the work and appreciate the minor classic that it is. I mean, who else would dare make a kid's fantasy film about the Holocaust? Only in the 1970's, Bakshi's heyday, could such a film be made, although in recent years he has toyed with the idea of making a sequel.

Wizards was a transitional film in many ways. It was an epic fantasy, foreshadowing Lord of the Rings, but it was personal, confrontational, and satirical, like Heavy Traffic. The characters were hand-drawn against exquisitely painted backdrops and, strikingly, some live action ones, but some experimental rotoscoping (animating over live action) was applied in the shots of Blackwolf's army. The rotoscoping technique would soon become a major element of Bakshi's style, and a technique for which he would be most often criticized by animation buffs. Although the method was employed in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other early Disney films, Bakshi would come to rely upon it so heavily--and so obviously--that many came to think him lazy, preferring the artistry of animating a character's movements from scratch instead (which Wizards does employ). In addressing this issue, it's important to realize that Bakshi began to use the technique--in Wizards--as an experiment in style. He didn't need to use it; he thought the look was interesting, and added another component to the film's visual palette (as much is related in his audio commentary track for the film). Indeed, Wizards' hodgepodge of visual styles is one of its great assets; every frame of the film looks fantastic, and the rotoscoping is just one more trick to keep the picture from looking dull. But as he came to rely upon it more and more--reaching its apex in Fire and Ice, which was filmed entirely in live action before being handed over to animators--it was a budgetary consideration rather than an exclusively artistic one. Animated films are time-consuming and expensive. Bakshi, to keep his studio funded, needed to complete each project quickly so that it could be in theaters within a year or two of its initiation. When embarking on epic projects like The Lord of the Rings and American Pop, using rotoscoping as an aid for the animators made the features viable. It's doubtful LOTR, American Pop, or Fire and Ice could have been made without the technique, for it would have added years to their production schedules and hugely inflated their budgets.

Just to have the opportunity to film The Lord of the Rings (1978) was a huge boon to Bakshi's studio. Though still a fairly low-budget production, it was the Big Time by his standards. He abandoned his abrasive, cartoonish style, intent on faithfully serving Tolkien's intentions, and used rotoscoping to attain lifelike movements from all the realistically-drawn characters. The result was that LOTR was the handsomest Bakshi film to date. The score, by Leonard Rosenman, was rich and epic, and Bakshi hired a top-tier voice cast, including John Hurt as Aragorn and Anthony Daniels as Legolas. Bakshi was a great admirer of Tolkien's books, and respectfully kept his trademark personal stamps (social comment, crass cartoonishness, blunt satire) out of the picture. He was surely aware that his audience would be coming because of the source material, not because the director had made Fritz the Cat. At the same time, it is recognizably his work: though the majority of the backgrounds are hand-painted, certain scenes, such as those with the Black Riders, feature live action backgrounds for an otherworldly, stylish effect. The Black Riders themselves, along with orcs, goblins, and all the evil forces of Mordor, are typically treated in the film as live actors painted over through rotoscoping to form something that looks truly supernatural--a sharp contrast to the more recognizably "animated" hobbits, humans, and elves. To my young eyes (for this is the first Bakshi film I saw), the Black Riders were nightmarish, so evidently the effect worked.

LOTR, which saw wide release, is still deeply flawed, and rubbed many the wrong way. Even this avid fan of the picture has to admit its missteps. The rotoscoping, though effective in capturing movement or for creating the stylish alien quality of the Black Riders, is overused in other scenes, such as when the hobbits visit the Prancing Pony in Bree (in which many of the inhabitants look distractingly live action) and especially in the late scenes involving the Riders of Rohan (again, they have the appearance of live action) or the climactic battle at Helm's Deep--which is also pretty long and dull. In fact, by the end of the film one has the weary feeling of watching a low-budget live-action film with very little animation involved at all. The work on the climax looks rushed, as though Bakshi was simply overwhelmed with the task of animating all the soldiers, orcs, and horse-riders, and instead just gave them a cursory paint-job before sending the prints out to theaters to meet his deadline. As this is the climax, it's a pretty major flaw. The film also leaves a bad taste in your mouth because it ends so abruptly. Bakshi intended the film to be called "The Lord of the Rings, Part One." At 132 minutes, it was one of the longest animated films ever made, but, doggedly faithful to the source material, he was only able to get through half of Tolkien's trilogy. So his film ends midway through The Two Towers, finding a makeshift climax at Helm's Deep and Saruman's (presumed) defeat, but leaving his hobbits Frodo and Samwise only part of the way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, and the evil Sauron quite unvanquished. Though his distributor refused to release the film with the appropriate title, the original closing narration made it explicitly clear that this was only the end of part one of The Lord of the Rings. Since Bakshi was not allowed to make a sequel, a version prepared for television changed the ending narration to provide a quick "and they lived happily ever after" summarization. Though not all home video versions have featured that edit, unfortunately the Warner Brothers DVD does. (Well, at least it's widesceen.) Finally, the plot itself is rather confusing to those unfamiliar to the books. The wizard Saruman has been changed to "Aruman," in a pre-emptive attempt to alleviate confusion with the evil lord Sauron. However, in certain scenes characters still call him "Saruman." And I pity any non-Tolkien fans trying to figure out what's going on in the second half of the film, when we are hurriedly introduced to the kingdom of Rohan and its strategic importance to Saruman and Sauron. In this, and in most other respects, Peter Jackson's patient, three-film retelling of the saga excels.

Nevertheless, even now that Jackson's version has become the definitive cinematic account, it's worth revisiting Bakshi's for what it does right. For one thing, it's far more faithful to The Fellowship of the Ring. When Frodo is pursued on horseback by the Black Riders, he's not accompanied by Arwen, bravely waving her sword and summoning magic to defeat them. Instead, Frodo, wounded from the Nazgul blade, is horribly alone, separated from his protectors and helpless. I remember watching this scene as a child and being terrified. As Frodo awaits his approaching doom, the background becomes live action images of a stormy sky, so that it appears the Riders are drawing him back into their shadow-world. It seems there will be no rescue, which makes it especially cathartic when he's delivered by the rushing river, with spectral white horses at the foaming head. When the Fellowship visits Lothlorien, it's not a spooky, dangerous place like in Jackson's film, whose Galadriel has piercing and flaming eyes. Bakshi's Galadriel is Tolkien's: a wise, beautiful woman who charms Frodo and Samwise, even as she warns them of the power of the Ring and the consequences of their possible failure. Also, since Lothlorien is portrayed so peacefully, it provides a necessary break from the frightening encounters in the Mines of Moria (which are effectively played by both directors). But maybe the sharpest contrast comes when Frodo reunites with Bilbo in Rivendell, and Bilbo becomes tempted by the sight of the Ring. Here, Jackson is more faithful to the letter, while Bakshi grasps the essence of the scene and comes away with something more emotionally effective.

Tolkien writes: "Slowly he drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him." This is what Jackson actually shows: a bony, groping, wrinkled creature, actually a puppet created by Weta Workshop, sort of a Gollum/Bilbo, which is then grafted onto actor Ian Holm's face via CG.

Now look at how Bakshi treats the passage. Bakshi's film is animated: he could easily draw Bilbo looking like a Gollum. Instead, he shows a more realistic treatment of the passage: Bilbo looking pathetic, like an addict hitting rock bottom, before suddenly shrinking away in shame. Your reaction to the scene in Jackson's version might be horror (which is what he intends) or laughter; it's a coin toss. But Bakshi's is clearly the more emotionally honest, and requires no tricks to get its point across powerfully. Also note how much is played in the eyes of Frodo, as he raises his fist (slowly revealed).

It's also worth point out that although the painted backgrounds in a Bakshi film can be spectacular (especially in Wizards and Fire and Ice), often they're deliberately abstracted, either representing a distorted, fisheye view of the world (such as in a key bird's-eye view of the city in Fritz the Cat, or in much of Cool World), or simply lacking in detail, and losing the boundary-line of the horizon. His LOTR always seemed to look like the books--more so than the gorgeous New Zealand scenery of Jackson's films. Why is that? Upon closer inspection, often the backgrounds in Lord of the Rings are lacking in detail, consisting of color more than landscape, or making plain their origins through thick, obvious brush-strokes. For me, this is film as a reading experience: when I read a book, I often see the characters more sharply than their settings. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers paint in my mind's eye dark, cloudy, shadowy worlds, vague but menacing. Bakshi's film captures that look and feel through his abstracted backgrounds. But he is constantly pushing his animation into the abstract, either through the obscenely rubbery bodies of his cartoons (at one point in Coonskin, a woman grabs Brother Bear by his penis and stretches it across the room before he follows like a rubberband), or the phantom-like, semi-transparent rotoscoped demons in Wizards, or even the plots of his early films, which are almost nonexistent.

Another Bakshi calling card is the "street" dialogue which sounds improvised, as words get lost in mumbles, and characters realistically interrupt each other, like in an Altman film. Fritz, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin use this technique heavily, as does American Pop (1981). This film is one of his epics, but Bakshi discards fantasy for rigid realism--to the point that you might question whether the story really deserves animation. The central character is American popular music itself, as witnessed by generations of a single family of Russian immigrants. We begin in the early twentieth century, move through the jazz age and the Depression, World War II, the beatniks, Haight-Ashbury rock and roll, the dawn of punk and just a hint of the commercial-pop to come. It's a strange story, particularly since it's less comprehensive than it seems (one could argue over the merits of musical genres included and excluded), and actually the compelling moments come not from the lanky main narrative, but the little moments which stick in the memory. The scene, for example, when a young WWII soldier behind enemy lines visits a bombed-out building, finds a piano that's miraculously survived, and begins to play it. A Nazi emerges from the rubble with a machine gun, but lowers it to listen to the tune. When it's over, he thanks him, then guns the American down. Scenes like these can be found nowhere else in American animated film. (I always say "American," because Japanese anime, which Bakshi says he admires greatly, has explored plenty of unusual avenues in storytelling.) Eventually the story gets into standard-issue 60's rock bio territory, as one of our various protagonists is hired as a lyricist for a Jefferson Airplane-style rock band, and becomes, with the lead singer, addicted to hard drugs. The emotional resolution of the film's tenuous storyline just doesn't work: that man's son becomes a rock star, after peddling drugs on the street. He seems pretty shallow and cynical, so what exactly is the emotional payoff? It also doesn't help that, in retrospect, perhaps the evolution of American music was not all building toward Bob Seger's "Night Moves" after all. Still, the soundtrack (as with all of Bakshi's films) is very good, with Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Doors, and some musical sequences which generate real excitement (watch for the swing dancing scene). I caught this on late-night cable in the mid-90's and couldn't believe that such a film existed in obscurity. It was issued on DVD a few years later, once the complicated musical rights had been renegotiated. Strange that so much effort and expense would be put toward restoring a Ralph Bakshi film that's so indifferently remembered, but another musical adult animated film, Heavy Metal (1981), had just gone through the same revival, and the American Pop DVD was no doubt piggybacking its success.

His next film is, in my opinion, his worst. Hey Good Lookin' (1982) was an attempt to return to his earlier style, and featured a minimum of rotoscoping and quite a lot of unpleasantness. It looks like the quickie that it is. Narrated by a trash can, it tells a 50's story of greasers, babes, and switchblade fights, in which the nostalgia is constantly undercut by Bakshi's typical violence and cynicism. Unfortunately, the film is almost unwatchable, and has gained a certain cult notoriety only because it's so difficult to see (there was a brief VHS release, and it awaits a DVD bow). There are Bakshi die-hards who love this film, but I'm not one of them.

If Hey Good Lookin' was a misguided attempt to regain some of his street cred, Fire and Ice (1983) was the artist courting commercial success again. He was back in the fantasy genre, but Fire and Ice had a lower bar to achieve than Wizards and LOTR. For one thing, the story would be simple, since he only needed something that could accompany the art of legendary fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta. Frazetta created the storyline with Bakshi, co-produced the film with him, and the result is an idealized melding of their imaginations. It's the least flawed of all his films, because he knew what he was doing and he wasn't overreaching. Yet because the bar was so low, it couldn't be the breakthrough "masterpiece" that his previous films had wanted to be. The plot is incidental, but it concerns an evil sorceror, Nekron, who can control a mountain of ice and an army of subhuman warriors. Both weapons he brings against a civilization living upon (and within) a volcano, and in the jungles between these two armies, two warriors try to save a kidnapped princess. Ultimately the film argues for peace, but the message is rather compromised by the exciting and violent action scenes. Here the rotoscoping is most effective, as axes slice through bodies and warriors swing through trees. As you might expect from the union of Bakshi and Frazetta, there's a gorgeous, semi-nude jungle princess who provides eye candy, but there's also musclemen and prehistoric creatures. It's very pulpy and the sensibility is Robert E. Howard's, which makes sense, since the screenwriters (Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway) had written for Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian. To those who like that sort of thing--and I'll admit I'm very much one of them--the movie's a thrill. Others will just find it shallow and simplistic in comparison to heavier films like Coonskin.

After Fire and Ice, Bakshi returned to Saturday morning cartoons to helm the short-lived New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. He loved the idea of reviving the Terrytoons of his youth, but one brief scene in one episode, in which Mighty Mouse snorts from a flower to gain the energy to defeat his foes, garnered enough negative attention to get the show cancelled. Critics were appalled that the director of X-rated animated films would be given free license for a kids' TV show, corrupting the minds of youth. In 1992, Bakshi returned to feature-length filmmaking with Cool World, in which a cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) is brought into the realm of his creations and seduced by one of them, possessing the great name Holli Would (Kim Basinger). But now you know why you should never have sex with a cartoon: the act makes them flesh and blood, and they subsequently run amok in the real world. If it sounds like Bakshi's satirical, R-rated answer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, well, it could have been--but the film was rated PG-13, the animated characters were mostly annoying, and the live action scenes were incoherent. The film was panned, and Bakshi, after a short run on the cable series Spicy City, retired from animation and turned to painting.

In recent years, and with the advent of DVD, Bakshi has had something of a low-key revival. The website ralphbakshi.com, run by his daughter, announced that he was scripting a Wizards II comic book and assembling a production team for a brand new animated film, to be called The Last Days of Coney Island. It's reportedly his cel-animated, R-rated answer to the current glut of CG kids' movies. So now I'd argue that Americans need Bakshi more than ever, and that we need to apologetically welcome him back. In retrospect, the majority of his films seem like daring and completely original experiments. He may have been hampered by low budgets, rushed deadlines, and a crude sense of humor, but the best of his work contain moments of sharp insight and emotional truth that are all too rare in the still-immature medium of animation. American animation, in particular, could use his explosive, confrontational sensibility to shake it out of its malaise. At the least, Bakshi's films can provide inspiration for the next generation of animators, who need to lob a few hand grenades at the status quo to wrest the art form back from the suits. Give us stories about class, sex, and war. Give us stories of the street. Give us thing we've never seen on screen before. For chrissakes, give us something new, as Bakshi was always trying to do!