Cool World Duncan McAfee. Talking about Ralph Bakshi’s animation:
I first chanced on Cool World, some time in 2016 and it changed the way I approach painting.
Cool World is Ralph Bakshi’s wonderfully flawed 1992 feature about a cartoon dimension that exists in parallel with the real world. The premise of the film is ridiculous, a naive adolescent fantasy. It stars a young Brad Pitt as Frank Harris, an inter-dimensional cop whose job it is to stop humans (Noids) sleeping with cartoon characters (Doodles). The creator of Cool World, Jack Deebs (played by Gabriel Byrne), lusts after his own creation, the overtly sexualised and suggestively named Holli Would (Kim Basinger).
Now, I like the fact that Cool World is kinda stupid. It’s like a B-movie Roger Rabbit and the film is not actually very good; Bakshi for years disowned it (although he does now speak positively about the technical animation). But, watching it that first time, I thought; what a glorious mess! It’s hard to follow, disjointed and disorientating, the story-line is unclear and confusing, but there’s just so much happening at the same time; it’s intensely mesmerising.
I loved the dewy-eyed Disney-esque rabbit family, the mobsters, clowns, mad scientists, talking babies, superheroes, jazz musicians in zoot suits and all the other incidental characters being squashed by a giant falling safe, trodden on or run over, as if trying to distract us. It’s a world built out of incongruous bits and pieces and characters that don’t fit together. It’s bewildering, almost overwhelming. Does it remind me of the real world? I guess so.
There’s tension between the Noids and the Doodles. They’re drawn to each other but have to be kept apart. This attraction or repulsion, has been a common thread in my work; ambiguity between collapse and convergence.
The film charts Would’s seduction of Deebs, something that is somehow going to give her real sensations and the ability to live in the real world. Once this is achieved the film races towards a climax where the dimensions collide, the barrier between imagination and reality collapses. Noids are chased by Doodles with giant mallets, people turn into cartoons and there’s chaos.
On one level the film seems to be about navigating the boundaries between our interior and exterior worlds, skating on the thin ice between reality and fantasy. And it says ‘here’s what might happen when the balance tips’ – what’s unleashed is madcap and outrageous, puerile and joyous. For me this awakened something a bit more childish and confrontational. My work suddenly seemed too polite. I started using brighter colours, my brush and marks became looser and characters more free to evolve.
I soon discovered that I was an early Bakshi fan without realising it. It turns out he was the mastermind of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures for television in the late 1980s; I’d already absorbed some of that irreverence as a child and now recognised the pull of this exaggerated, surreal and confrontational imagery. Bakshi has said that the important things in animation are energy and emotion, imagination and a bit of outrage. A bit of outrage is good. It reconnects you to your childhood; children don’t have the same sense of politeness. But it’s not only about the possibility of causing outrage, it’s also expressing yours, being honest and pointing out the great farce of it all.
I later found Bakshi studied at art school and identifies many of the same influences as me. He draws on Francis Bacon, even including a Bacon self-portrait in the opening scenes of his independently produced The Last Days of Colney Island. He mentions Chaim Soutine’s awkwardly human bellhops and chefs, the American social realist painters of the Ash Can School and Jack Levine’s satirical figurative painting. These are all subjects for another time, but it was exciting to find someone turned on by the same things in painting, but doing something different with it.
Cool World was made in the days before cheaply available CGI. Instead, like theatre sets, the backgrounds are drawn and painted, blown up, and stuck onto plywood. It adds a strange, off-perspective to the scenes. An actor might be walking through a physical space with several different planes of skewed illusory space and several styles of animation drawn on top of this. Each scene is richly layered, with elements from each strata interacting with one another. I wanted to make paintings like this, with elements created at different times slipping across one another, reaching between planes to grab and push and pull and punch, leaking and bleeding together, drifting apart but still somehow a single unit, whole.
Cool World is definitely not Bakshi’s best work. But it is an exhilarating in-at-the-deep-end introduction to his visual style. Shortly after seeing it for the first time, I made a series of eight 3x4ft paintings, letting characters evolve through a mixture of chance actions and loose reference points.
A guy called Paul materialised; he seems to have forgotten to put on trousers and is connected to a bird by sticks & cogs. There’s Bad Boy, a tubby greaser wearing nail polish and one high heal who may be masturbating. And there’s a chap called Francis emerging from a Beano-esque ball of scrapping limbs, a skull and a dripping phallic cucumber. These characters are funny, messy, flawed, colourful and twisted. They are not icons. They’re emotional beings. The paintings capture someone having a bit of a moment. It’s all somehow fantastical and funny but also real and carnal.
I continue to be inspired by Bakshi. His attitude and expression inspires the freedom to express my own irreverence more honestly, to let imagination run free, to depict anything and have it behave in any imaginable way. Paint is sloppy and drippy and messy; rather than trying to control it and tame it, let it do what it wants. None of it is pretending to be lofty; it’s celebratory and gritty, real and honest, and just a little bit outrageous.
Ralph Bakshi, now in his 80s, lives and paints in his studio in New Mexico. Duncan McAfee is in his mid 40s, lives and works in South East London.
See more of Duncan’s work…