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    Ralph Bakshi’s Urban American Folklore

    by Christian Niedan

    I’ve always loved folklore — well, the idea of it anyway. Though it can sometimes be an expression of bigoted hearsay, I am still fascinated by any story that can survive generations of telling and retelling, despite many tellers with differing versions. Moreover, these tall tales often evoke cultures that vanished before cinema, TV and the Internet became modern society’s myth-makers.

    Village of Idiots, currently airing on The Jewish Channel, is one such folktale. The product of Canadian animators Eugene Fedorenko and Rose Newlove, this animated short film tells the story of Shmendrik, his mythical town of Chelm, and evokes with humor the hard lives of Old World European Jewry — a subject that’s also influenced several American animators.

    Don Bluth’s 1986 film An American Tail is arguably the most widely recognized Jewish-subject animated feature to come out of the U.S. market. Taking place in 19th-century New York City, it features a Jewish family of immigrant mice — a plot point which upset cartoonist Art Spiegelman, because Maus used that same gimmick as a metaphor for Jews in the Holocaust. But while the talking cats of Maus were Nazis, the feline protagonist in Robert Crumb’s classic 1960s comic strip Fritz the Cat was a youthful hedonist. So when Ralph Bakshi animated Crumb’s work for the big screen in 1972, it received an “X” rating and promptly went on to become a smashing financial success. The clout Bakshi earned from this allowed him to direct a series of wide-release adult animated features whose plots draw heavily from the fine art of the folktale.

    Though born in Haifa in 1938, Bakshi actually spent his youth stewing in the American cauldron of urban racial integration — the subject of another TJC film, Brownsville: Black & White. His family arrived in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1939, but moved to the mostly-black Foggy Bottom section of Washington D.C. in 1947. There, all of young Ralph’s friends were black, so he convinced his parents to let him try and attend the local segregated school. In response, the principal called the police, and the family soon moved back to Brownsville — which itself boasted a group of youths whose approach to integration was just as daring as Bakshi’s.

    As chronicled in Brownsville: Black & White, the Brownsville Boys Club (BBC) was founded in 1940 by youths barred from using local playing fields. In response, they created a 2,000-strong integrated youth organization which survived until Robert Moses inflicted housing projects on the neighborhood, bringing on a new form of segregation in urban renewal that killed off budding racial unity. We learn that today’s BBC reunions occur along racial lines — much like the composition of Brownsville gangs Murder Incorporated, The Saints and The Gents, who helped bring the neighborhood its dangerous reputation in the 1930’s and 40’s.

    Growing up in such a mix sharpened Bakshi’s later animated portrayal of New York City race relations. His memorable 1975 film Coonskin was steeped in the folklore and racist stereotypes found in Disney’s notorious Song of the South. With Coonskin, Bakshi transplanted South brothers Rabbit, Fox and Bear to Harlem, where they became violent gangsters. Like Village of Idiots, this film presented a stylized version of the past, using it as a platform for current social commentary. Bakshi’s fable was distributed by Cinemation Industries four years after the company launched the Blaxploitation genre with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film whose naughty X-rated reputation proved (as with Fritz the Cat) to be a major box office draw. And yet, Coonskin never caught on with audiences, soon disappearing from theaters.

    Bakshi had better success with 1981’s American Pop — tracking 90 years in the lineage of one Russian Jewish family whose members are defined by their music. Beginning with the first generation’s flight from 1890’s Russia to New York City, and ending there with the fourth one’s rise to pop stardom, the film’s soundtrack incorporates several songs by Jewish-Americans like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. In addition, Bakshi also throws in versions of people he grew up with back in Brownsville, and never shies away from depicting the effects of crime and drug abuse on their lives.

    Looking back, my own introduction to Bakshi’s work came at a younger age than was probably healthy for me. When I first saw his 1977 film Wizards on VHS, I was amazed by visuals and subject matter not seen in the Saturday morning cartoons I was used to. Later, I saw his New York-set films, which convey the filthiness and danger of the city during the 1970’s, but with plots that recall Bakshi’s Brooklyn roots, and with caricatured performances that would resonate with me long after I viewed them.

    That resonance is key to any folktale. Otherwise, why would anyone bother retelling the stories of Shmendrik, Chelm or even the BBC — whose integrated existence might seem to many present-day Brownsville residents as no more than a local myth? Yes, as long as people love a good story, folklore will survive.

    December 31, 2009 | Read more Docent posts. No Comments »

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