Review: Ralph Bakshi

 

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Long overdue swansong (?) from the master of gritty hand-drawn urban animation.

Ralph Bakshi defined the animated back alley scuzz look of 1970s NYC, spoiling with grit, dirt and counter-culture grime, in his iconic classics FRITZ THE CAT, HEAVY TRAFFIC, COONSKIN, and AMERICAN POP before shifting tone to fantasy fiction with WIZARDS and LORD OF THE RINGS. One last shot at a crossover animated/live action feature film was the heavily neutered COOL WORLD from 1992 (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, it ain’t), but since then, with the very notable exception of 1997’s great SPICY CITY series for HBO – which may appear polished enough for Nickelodeon, but reeks of cigarette ash, dried blood and spilt hooch – it’s been a while since Bakshi wallowed in the crass, crime-obsessed, politically and racially boiling New York street scum that built his reputation.

LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND is a project Bakshi was vying to get off the ground since at least the early 2000s, originally conceived as a feature before paring it down to this 22-minute short funded by a 2013 Kickstarter campaign. Before then, I had lost hope that the film would ever really be completed (I sometimes fantasized about winning the lottery so that I could give Bakshi a million bucks). The man’s been stuffed through the Hollywood grinder more than a few times, so the iconoclastic and unrepentant Bakshi had sensibly switched his sanity and focus to painting and teaching animation. But you can bring the hash pipe back out of the closet because suddenly LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND is here, available for streaming rental at Vimeo On Demand as of October 29th, 2015 – Bakshi’s 77th birthday (see bottom page for the link).

Going in I was nervous, trying to subdue my expectation for the biting, honest, violent New York Ralph I cherish from COONSKIN (1975). It’s almost like when (3/4 of) the original Black Sabbath recorded a new album after a gap of 35 years. Sure, I’m steaming with excitement, but now that the encore is over, is this… the end? I might be overdoing it. Bakshi did get nice and angry in 2012 with the two minute short TRICKLE DICKLE DOWN, a distressed scream against a prospective Mitt Romney presidency. And clearly, the dominance of the crowdfunding model can really work for a fearless anti-populist if they have a wide fanbase, as Bakshi does.

The first thing you’ll notice about LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND is that it’s a messy, ugly-looking film. And I mean that both as a compliment to Bakshi’s intentionally unpolished creaks and splatters and as a criticism of the production techniques. The characters are all distorted with drooping lips, warts, pig snout noses and lumps of sagging flesh, the “normal” populates of Bakshi’s 1960s Brooklyn looking as bad or worse for wear as the shadowy abominations lurking in his Coney Island freak show colony. Every character is hand-drawn, without any sketch lines erased, misshapen and unrefined with no attempt at polish. It’s a gutter awash with spewing crud, turds and spit.

This is offset by the vibrant sparkle of HD computerized color that is too crisp, too clear for this particular filmmaker. Of course, it’s 2015 and LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND was never photographed on film under panes of glass in a room choking with smoke, and in that sense it can never have the warmth of classic Bakshi. The editing has a lot of primitive digital tricks that feel like they could have been rectified with some basic Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro support. The title cards look just plain cheap and without style. Here and there is pixilation from image blow ups, and the repeated trick of making the whole screen image (not just a character or focal point within it, but the entire 16 x 9 frame) retreat into the distance before bouncing back up close is a trick I actually used in one of my high school animations from 1996, because I didn’t know how to do anything better.

But if you ignore or embrace these technical contradictions, then CONEY is a nasty, gritty film of desperation and horror in 1960s Brooklyn, every character a crooked cop, perverted degenerate, abusive mobster, rejected clown, prostitute, pig, drag queen, pimp or alcoholic. IT’S BAKSHI’S WORLD, MAN.

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The loose and not always consistent plot follows a handful of lowlife men in the radius of a friendly whore named Molly. The character of Shorty – who opens the film with the line, “My mother doesn’t love me anymore” (a sentence repeated in agreement by the rest of the barflies in a joint called “The Stool Pigeon”) – grew up hard in Coney Island, dancing in the freak shows with a fortune teller for a mom. He makes an impression with the mob after butchering the (literal) clown who beds his mother, resulting in a seemingly never-ending sponge of guts and gore raining from the sky.

Two crooked alcoholic cops, Max and his partner Louis, cook up a plan to bust the Blue Moon Whorehouse and get a big fat raise. The problem is that Max (a dead-ringer schlub for mob goon Stevie from SPICE CITY) is in love with Molly, who works there at night. Little does Max realize that Louis is a closeted queen in love with his partner, and hoping for Molly’s arrest and imprisonment to clear the way so he can slide in when Max is vulnerable.

Cut five years in time, and Shorty’s a big man with a low rider, now in charge of the Coney Island freak show, a spooky, ghoulish, mist-drenched place, and gutting up clowns for protection money. Max, when he meets Molly fresh out of prison, is so disgusted and ashamed with his decaying looks and what a trainwreck he has become, that he turns into a swearing, jabbering mass of shits and farts (literally). Not a lot of sunshine.

Bakshi’s backgrounds are made up either of swathes of paint or extensive collages of cityscape photographs, newspaper clippings, covers of EC’s Shock SuspenStories and True Crime and cigarette ads mashed all over the perimeter of the frame. In Coney Island itself, vintage footage of amusement park rides are hidden in the backdrop and blend in superbly. The music is gorgeous and appropriate throwback jazz courtesy of Mark Taylor, the one thing in the film that is quantifiably pretty.

Bakshi’s films have always blended live action with animation, often via the Rotoscope technique of filming a sequence with live actors then tracing over the film to create animation. LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND dispenses with this, but there are many live action inserts, including 8mm black and white footage of cabaret dancers, on stage inside a bar full of hand-drawn, slobbering, male degenerates, vile sub-creatures ogling a real, beautiful woman.

Never has Bakshi used archival footage more shockingly than in his film WIZARDS (1977), when the villainous Blackwolf unspools real Nazi propaganda films to rally his troops for war. Bakshi one-ups this in LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND with repeated footage of the JFK Zapruder tape and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Without directly factoring into the plot, his reuse of the 20th century’s most infamous live murders adds to the unhealthy crux of the times, I suppose, infecting the film with a deeper sense of an end to an innocence that probably never was.

But for all the messy gloom, the true fatalism of LAST DAYS OF CONEY ISLAND comes at the very, very end. The closing credit scroll is an extended “IN MEMORY OF”, listing every dead animator that Bakshi has ever worked with – Frank Frazetta, Irv Spence, Jim Tyer, Virgil Ross, and dozens more – a grim, loud reminder of the grotesque march of time that drags everyone of us down. It’s a pretty clear statement that the golden (and silver and bronze and copper and…) age of classic animation is dead, dead and gone forever. Really hoping this isn’t the last barbed-knuckle punch from one of the medium’s greatest. Rent it.

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