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Fritz Don't Profess Any Graces

Fritz the Cat Opening today at the Abbey

By Michael Sragow

FRITZ THE CAT is more than a hot-shot college feline chasing tail and getting pussy. It's a zoot-suited, claw-wagging crow shuffling to a Harlem bugaloo. It's three Mickey Mice breaking into cheers as USAF jets strafe New York City. It's stoned eagle at a Village dope party, and a mare raped by a sadistic leftist rabbit. It's pure unadulterated funk, and, aside from riots in the street--I can't think of much that suits the present moment better.

Forget the social comment you might have been expecting. The consciousness of R. Crumb, Fritz's original creator, is that of a disaffected urbanite who reads the Daily News with chortling masochism and controls his paranoia by making Obscene statements. His message (and that of the film made from his comic books): the world isn't really so screwed up, since everyone's just in it for a taste of ass and acid, so why are we all anxious?

Sure, it's grade school stuff, like shooting a moon at a priest. But adolescent destruction, if it may lack point, has purpose. Bring everything down when society's massiveness gets you, and you'll no doubt feel better. Which is why Fritz belongs to the suffering and the ignorant, to the sweethearted guys who get it in the neck, to 12 year-old idealists of all ages who need a rest from disillusionment--who need the total disillusionment which Crumb and his animator push.

The Fritz of Crumb's first sagas went to a bigcity education factory, and soon got sick of his existence. He bugged out, searching for Truth and Beauty in these United States. Between fucks, Fritz--good fellow that he was--got suckered and succored by every imaginable self-interest group (while milking them for everything he could get). Crumb never closed the cat's case, though he did fantasize a finally played-out Fritz, shtupping yet another bitch, swigging one last Ripple with a porker named Heinz--and slowly dying of his own terrific life-style.

Cartoonist Ralph Bakshi softens up the story. He makes Fritz into a harmless NYU romantic, circa 1967. (The date is a needless hedge, and a more potent campus might have made Fritz dangerous.) This doesn't work for much of Fritz: under Crumb lies agony, under Bakshi gas. The screen Fritz enacts the essential Crumb pose of a phony out for pleasure under moralistic guises. He sees through all the other phonies and beats them at their game by living out his fantasies in fact. But this Fritz is enveloped with his animator's love (he's even cuter facially than the original). Whenever he falls, he just picks himself up and starts all over again. Watching his animal erection gets dull and there's no tension to the drama.

BAKSHI has picked a perfect locale to set the film's first third. From MacDougall to St. Mark's, from Washington Square to the Lower East Side... are the spots where high school girls go for experience, and college jazz artists (and sometimes real musicians) give it to them. Here also lies the East Coast seedbed of escapist counter-culturism and intellectual voyeurism--fit for an Abbie Hoffman (remember Abbie?) even more than for a Fritz. If Bakshi, unlike Crumb, speaks from such a milieu's heart, still that milieu indicts itself.

The fanfared social jibes don't emerge from essential themes, (there are none), but from the droppings of Crumb's bathroom wit that Bakshi slaps into his narrative. (A Ph.d. candidate will someday call Fritz 'picaresque'). Fritz's black-talking, muscle flexing crow friends are the natural men of his world, though Fritz himself is far from psychotically WASP-ish. All the traditional Americans--pig cops and hardhats and a hound dirt-farmer--are sweating ignoramuses so whacked-out by work that they can't ever get it together. Radical politicos and Hell's Angels join paws in the headiest mix since PCPJ; even Orthodox Jews are ribbed mercilessly in the film's funniest scene: a blasphemous chase through a Bowery synagogue filled with sidecurled dogs.

Cartoon-qua-cartoon, Fritz The Cat isn't much. The good scenes (there are plenty) come straight out of Crumb, while the Bakshi-formed transitions are usually banal. (Bakshi can't cut to save his life within scenes either.) The voices are fine, the music jaunty, and at one point--when Billie Holiday is heard singing "Yesterdays"--the soundtrack gets beautiful. The color is gloriously trashy, but Bakshi lingers on his settings at ridiculous length.

Despite the fuzziness and fumblings, Fritz the Cat brings Crumb's figures to the screen in most of their full lewd-ness--which is finally why you pay your roll of nickels Th-th-that's all...Fucks!

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