Ralph Bakshi: From Brownsville to Hollywood

December 5th, 2011 | Marc Weidenbaum | 2 Comments | Categories: Blog, Events, Tikva Records

  • Nobody lives in North Beach anymore. We learned that last night. We heard a Haight-Ashbury hippie tell it authoritatively to a songwriting New Yorker who’d just driven across the country, spinning lyrics in Kansas cornfields and penciling them on scraps of newspaper during late-night bus rides.

    We learned a lot last night, as legendary animator Ralph Bakshi held court in the storefront clubhouse that is Tikva Records in San Francisco’s Outer Mission, on the third night of extensive December events being held there. The event was titled “The Jewish Roots of Ralph Bakshi,” and it featured the man himself, along with one of his oldest friends, the poet Melvin Wilk, and writer/scholar Richard Simon, who served as moderator.

    But before Bakshi, Wilk, and Simon even took the stage, we were treated to an opening sequence of Fritz the Cat (1972), in which R. Crumb’s famous character ends up in the bathroom of a New York synagogue. And we watched in full the feature-length American Pop (1981), Bakshi’s paean to the evolution of music in this country, and the central role of Jewish Americans. It was during a scene in American Pop that we were informed about North Beach’s high vacancy rate. The packed house laughed in unison.

    What else did we learn?

    We learned that Bakshi is a “beat poet at heart,” as he was introduced early on by Richard Simon. The proposal seemed a bit surprising at first, given Bakshi’s strong association with such fantasy fare as Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978). But it was borne out quickly, as scenes of wild free-associative verse from such films of his as Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975) were screened.

    We learned that these poems are exercises Bakshi undertakes when trying to sort out what he is thinking and feeling when he works on his movies. He interjected poems throughout the evening, including a preacher’s spiel from Coonskin. Yes, a preacher’s spiel, a conglomeration of the black and Jewish American experiences. It was a repeated conviction on Bakshi’s part that the Jewish and black American experiences have more in common than is currently allowed.

    We learned that Bakshi’s family wasn’t religious. He described them as hard-working, and “a certain type of Jewish — knew we were Jewish, but weren’t kosher either.” He interrupted the discussion early on to read a poem of his that encapsulated his anger regarding inaction during the Holocaust. The poem’s focus was theological, but he later emphasized inaction on the part of the Allied Forces.

    We learned that Bakshi, born in Haifa, in what later became Israel, to displaced Russian parents, was raised in poor parts of New York City (the Brownsville section of Brooklyn), and, briefly, Washington, D.C. There was a memorable moment when Simon asked Bakshi if he regularly depicted poor Jews as a means to offset the perception that Jews are, by and large, of above-average wealth, education, and prominence. Simon’s specific phrase was “privileged class,” and he asked Bakshi if there was a political intent to displaying the “underbelly” of Jewish American life. Bakshi replied, with a mock aghastness that quickly endeared him to the audience, “That’s ridiculous. That was my life. It wasn’t the underbelly — it was the belly. We grew up that way.”

    And we learned that you can listen entirely without irony to Pat Benatar and to Bob Seger in San Francisco’s Mission District on a Saturday night. They feature prominently in the American Pop soundtrack, along with songs by Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Doors, among many others.

    In other words, it was a great evening, full of surprises.

    Melvin Wilk, Bakshi’s childhood friend, told stories — about everything from French-class pranks to Hollywood recording sessions. And in his own contribution to the discussion of diaspora, Wilk read poems that received some of the evening’s strongest applause, one in particular about the flowering of Jewish life in Iowa, where he taught English at Simpson College for many years.

    Another surprise: Richard Singer, the actor who played Benny Belinsky, a central character in American Pop, was in the Tikva audience. It was the first time Singer and Bakshi had seen each other in many years, and Singer took some time at the microphone to talk about the “natural” approach that Bakshi employed when recording voices. Among other things, Bakshi groups actors together for conversation, rather than recording them separately and taping take after take in search of the “perfect” one. He also records family members. The kibitzers at the opening of Fritz the Cat include his father. “I can listen to my father whenever I want,” he said wistfully, explaining that he was long dead.

    All in all, the night resembled nothing so much as one of Bakshi’s own animated films. While most animated movies are fully scripted and drawn uniformly from start to finish, Bakshi’s are often extravagant melanges of found footage, psychedelic effects, amateur and professional line readings, improvised dialogue, and wildly varied drawing styles. Likewise the evening at Tikva Records was a glorious jumble of anecdote and history, poetry and fantasy, cartoons and flesh, debate and affection, anger and erotica, humor and death, ghetto realism and yearning assimilation.

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2 Responses and Counting...

  • Melvin Wilk 12.05.2011

    Exceptionally well done, making the event, the evening, seem something worthwhile.
    And you zero in on the best details about Ralph–there was so much to choose from!–
    and manage to encapsulate the essentials. Thanks for the paragraph about
    me. You got it.
    Mel Wilk

  • Marc thanks for this it was a warm wonderful night
    Check out my lower east side street art on my website

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