Robert CrumbWorld War IIBob HoltSkip Hinnant
The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat
Medium: film
Year: 1974
Director: Robert Taylor
Writer: Fred Halliday, Eric Monte, Robert Taylor, Robert Crumb [characters]
Keywords: Fritz the Cat, animation, World War II
Country: USA
Actor: Skip Hinnant, Reva Rose, Bob Holt, Robert Ridgely, Fred Smoot, Dick Whittington, Luke Walker, Peter Leeds, Louisa Moritz
Format: 77 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 15 March 2012
I enjoyed it more than the first one, although this isn't a popular opinion. That'll be because I didn't much like the original, of course.
Quick recap. Fritz the Cat is a comix character created by Robert Crumb and brought to life in a landmark X-rated 1972 animated film by Ralph Bakshi. Crumb disliked the first film and neither of those two had anything to do with its sequel. According to Bakshi, Crumb doesn't even acknowledge its existence because if he did, "He would have to say, 'Well, Ralph did do a better picture than Nine Lives.' So to Robert Crumb, there is no Nine Lives. It doesn't exist."
Fritz himself is a 1960s counter-culture scam artist who likes drugs, sex and more sex. He's also a cat. Everyone in his world is an animal. Fritz is the main reason I didn't like the first film, since I didn't particularly care about his exploits or indeed whether he lived or died. (He probably works better in the comics.) A peculiarity of this sequel is that Fritz himself isn't very important in it. This is good. He's a framing device, if you like. His "nine lives" are random anthology pieces in different historical eras, including one that's a racist alternate universe, and Fritz is merely this guy who drifts through them. Sometimes he's scummy and Fritz-like, while at other times he's just a patsy who's walking into a world of pain. Sometimes he barely features.
This will have alienated fans of the comics and/or the first film, but for me it was a life-saver.
The animation and soundtrack are fine. The animation style is faithful to Bakshi's. The music isn't quite as memorable, but it has its moments. There's one bit where the sound's so bad on someone's dialogue that I can't believe this wasn't a real conversation that someone recorded and then drew animation to fit, because someone wanted shooting if that was recorded in a studio. Even the sex, drugs and violence aren't letting the side down, although it's not going as far in that direction as Bakshi did. (It's only R-rated instead of X-rated.) Instead they make up for it by being more gratuitous in oddly childish ways, so a dog urinates on someone's leg for no reason and the first thing we see in the film is a flushing toilet.
The important thing though is that the film's about something. Both of them are, actually. The original was taking a hard, detailed look at 1960s counter-culture and the people who lived it, being in some ways an animated documentary with a ton of captured dialogue recorded on the streets. It was outstanding in this regard, resulting in a film of integrity and strength.
This film though has moved on. It's not about the 1960s at all, with its one sixties element (i.e. Fritz) being more explicitly a loser than ever before. The film's framing story, if you like, is a nasty, filthy reality set in the then-present day (1970s). Fritz is unchanged, but he has a nagging wife who hates him and a toddler-aged son whom he's taught to masturbate. He lives in a hovel. He doesn't have a job. The film is extremely aware of this. Fritz is of course never going to stop doing his own thing, but now we see that he's living off welfare cheques and running from shop to shop in search of someone willing to cash them. This is a politically aware film, not in the "fascist oppression, man" sense but instead in the much more specific sense of 1970s inflation, unemployment and the 1973 oil crisis. There's also a ton of live-action footage, e.g. oil refineries exploding as a Gulf Oil spokesman says soothing things on the soundtrack.
They bring up the lunar missions, except here they're going one further, to Mars. There's an entire Life of Fritz devoted to it, except that a voiceover wonders about the cost of this scientific endeavour and compares it with the struggles of the economy. This is an angry film and its anger has no limits. God is an incoherent bum living in a trash can and Satan is a preening homosexual in pink.
There's a Life of Fritz in Nazi Germany. This is quite cool, if only for the fact that Fritz is indeed a German name and it's interesting to see the film subverting the Nazi image by putting our anti-hero in there. Is he a principled rebel? Hell, no. Does he want to seduce girls? Got it in one. The Nazi high command discuss the end of the war in a big committee scene that's nearly identical to a similar scene later in the Oval Office, but less racist. Yes, you read that right. For the avoidance of ambiguity, this film is portraying more racism in America's leaders than in the Third Reich, although in fairness the Americans don't have a scene where everyone's weaselling out of their principles and playing pass-the-parcel with a gun because they don't want to commit suicide. Hitler does indeed have only one testicle, by the way, and he wants to sodomise Fritz.
The film doesn't even love the Americans who win the war, though. The lout who kills Fritz appears to accidentally shoot himself in the groin.
The racial angle could almost be seen as uncomfortable. I'm not talking about the Jews, the Puerto Ricans or the Indian who looks like a Dr Seuss character. No, the difficult bit is the alternate universe where New Jersey has seceded to become New Africa, with an all-black population and all kinds of racial stereotypes pushed to the limit. There's a "your momma" killing and Fritz says something shocking in "these chicks know where it's at by the time they're eleven anyway". You don't need me to elaborate. I think (and hope) that this is caricaturing and satirising attitudes that were still almost beyond satire in 1974, as is demonstrated by the extraordinary scene where Symbolic White Man and Symbolic Black Man cut the rope bridge they were both walking on, leaving them both stranded on tiny peaks hundreds of feet up in the air, and then start shooting and bombing the hell out of each other.
Fritz also meets Duke's ghost, i.e. the black man who got killed as a result of Fritz's actions in the last film. That's not why he ends up in front of a New Africa firing squad, though.
There's a long 1930s sequence that's almost entirely old sepia footage, with a dancing Fritz superimposed on top. Al Capone's in there. "I was one sharp continental-type stud."
Overall, I liked it. It's interesting. I had a sinking feeling when it was just Fritz in his hovel being shouted at by his wife, but I think it was Fritz Meets God that perked up my interest and after that I was along for the ride. This film was entered into the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, by the way. On the downside it's very slightly more cartoonish and has moments where the animals are animals ("You don't even change his kitty litter"), which Bakshi rigorously avoided. They also recycle Fritz's speech from the end of the first film, which is sufficiently distracting that I hope it's a signature speech from the Robert Crumb comics. However the important thing is that this is an underrated movie with a lot of vitriol to throw.
"I've been God for about three and a half years now. Lot of responsibilities, you know."