Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 7: Hey Good Lookin’
Hey Good Lookin’ might be the least known of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography. Completed and intended for release in 1975, it was conceived as a live action/animation hybrid documenting life in New York in the 1950s. Using largely improvised dialogue, it would be a natural continuation of Bakshi’s work on Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, only taking it further by being mostly in live action with only the protagonists being rendered in animation. Warner Bros. balked at releasing a feature so experimental in the wake of Coonskin’s botched release, demanding that the film be entirely animated. For more than half a decade, Bakshi and a small team of artists worked on the film on the side while Wizards, Lord of the Rings, and American Pop were released, all to decent financial success. In a bittersweet conclusion to the story, Warner Bros. decided to give the film a token release in 1982, all but burying it on a few screens before it disappeared forever. We’ve seen a paltry home video release record since then, with nary a hair of the original live-action hybrid footage appearing.
Hey Good Lookin’ returns to the Brooklyn of Bakshi’s youth in the 1950s. Our protagonist is Vinnie, the leader of the Brooklyn Stompers gang and who seems to have earned his position more with impeccable hair and clothes than fighting ability or strategic acumen. His best friend is Crazy Shapiro, a hot-blooded son of a homicidal cop with an almost total lack of self-control. The third member of our main trio is Roz, the daughter of a strict rabbi who fancies Vinnie as some kind of Adonis. Much of the time, we’re also in the company of Roz’s friend Eva, portrayed as a soft-hearted naïf (who has an obsession with making peanut butter sandwiches). Many of the film’s scenes are just records of these characters hanging out getting up to youthful mischief.
When a plot starts to take shape, it takes shape along racial lines. Vinnie, while dashing away from a confrontation with raging Sicilian mobsters, runs into the Chaplains, the local black gang. They arrange a rumble between the two gangs, and Vinnie is stuck with the task of motivating the lackadaisical Stompers into agreeing to fight the Chaplains. Like all of Bakshi’s “urban trilogy,” this plot functions as more the most important of a series of episodes rendered in jerky animation and performed with dialogue that at least sounds improvised most of the time. At the very least, we do have a proper climax, with the two gangs brawling while the cops start a firefight. Suffice to say that not all ends well for our band of friends, and that Vinnie’s habit of avoiding sticky situations––so as not to muss up his hair, most likely––does not earn him the greatest respect. After all, he has a difficult time even convincing the gang he supposedly leads to get into a scrap.
Most of the appeal of this film, then, lies in the rapport between our leads. Vinnie, Roz, and Crazy are all rough characters, but endearing for the most part. Most notably, our cast includes Richard Romantus and David Proval as Vinne and Crazy, both fine actors who also starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Tina Romanus, credited under the pseudonym Tina Bowman, rounds out the main trio as Roz. Their conversations are naturalistic and have the variable, analogue pacing one would associate with chatting with friends. The contrast between the grounded dialogue and the highly stylized and frenetic animation produces frustration as well as enjoyment. Hey Good Lookin’ carries a sense of being rooted in a particular time and place, but it’s not a film one can get lost in or invest oneself in. There’s a constant sense of being put off, of being a mere and conscious observer at all times. That impression is occasionally shattered by the humour and the sense of good fun, but the film remains alienating overall.
Despite its rough production history, the final version that we got still features some striking images. SOMe of the backgrounds break from the scratchy, gritty style we know Bakshi for and uses photographic or pop-art collage. Vinnie’s room is the prime example, a menagerie of 50s ephemera that inform the character just as much as his trademark hair and many-zippered leather jacket, which eventually becomes a token of memory. Like American Graffiti (and Happy Days, though without any sanitizing impulses), Hey Good Lookin’ depicts the 50s through the eyes of the 1970s. It has little kinship to the media of the 50s except by way of short references, eschewing the sophisticated brooding of late noir and the insipid blandness of most 50s television. It’s not a postmodern comment on the nostalgia for the 50s but rather an earnest attempt to expose the roughness that Bakshi saw in New York in his youth, though never without that old-school cartoon sensibility that he brings to even his most realistic work. The film’s nostalgia is more honest than many other 70s attempts to revive the 50s, certainly revealing in a time gone by but without the desire to present the past as an idealized lost age.
Take, for example, the scathing portrayal of a white 50s rock vocal group who come to put on a show for our protagonists. Their mannerisms and appearances are grotesque, their talent questionable, and their end…rather messy. By which I mean, they get flattened by a car that bursts through the wall of the auditorium. It’s both laughably grim slapstick and a potential dig at the white appropriation of black music starting with Elvis. And while the soundtrack oozes in 50s nostalgia, with original songs standing in for classics Bakshi couldn’t afford to license, its relationship to 50s music in the narrative is much more ambiguous, as is the rest of the film.
Which brings us to a question that I often reflect on when watching and contemplating Bakshi’s entire filmography: what is animation’s capacity for realism? So many of his films attempt to capture the sense of a particular time and place and to pass for a realistic portrayal of people and settings. Characters are set against photographic backdrops, dance to or sing real popular songs (in diegesis), and are voiced in unconventionally spontaneous ways. Character design and movement, however, are rooted in cartoon caricature and exaggerated animation styles. “Realism” in Bakshi’s urban trilogy emerges mainly from setting and writing rather than character animation. When cartoony characters are placed in a setting and in situations that are antithetical to more traditional animated fantasy, the effect is to highlight the alienating difference of the surrounding environment. It grounds the drama so that when more sombre moments arrive, they can be executed with more gravity.
Contrast this with the Disney’s approach, which is to animate characters as realistically as possible while placing them in fantastical and exotic settings. Though the difference is partly a result of economic constraints on Bakshi’s films, it also exposes an essentially different way of viewing animation as a medium as well as its role in reproducing reality. Disney creates worlds that are inviting and that stand in for the universal, beckoning viewers into a world that is comforting and familiar in its distance from our own. Bakshi wants us to see the world through his own perspective, taking us to his hometown and giving us the grand tour of his favourite dives and introducing us to the memorable people he knows. What’s important in Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Hey Good Lookin’ is not so much that the characters look and move realistically but that they interact with their setting and fellow people in ways that we can recognize. They make no pretence to universality or accessibility, and their locations are both closer to our own and removed from us by gonzo exaggeration. It’s not an inversion of Disney, but a rejection of Disney’s approach in favour of something more explicitly political and personal on both an aesthetic and narrative level. A contemporary comparison for us would be autobiographical comics like Persepolis that similarly use highly abstract or exaggerated styles to tell much more specific stories.
For me, Hey Good Lookin’ is the least successful of Bakshi’s movies. It exposes his weaknesses in ungainly ways and has a lower density of bravura surrealist moments or truthful introspection/commentary. Most of the quality in the film is much more low key. It’s in the conversations and performances, which are much more difficult to highlight in a short blog post. All of his failings in depicting women I’ve described earlier reappear here, though there is one scene of Roz and Eva encouraging each other and bantering that I rather liked. Let’s just say that you can readily identify the woman protagonist of a Bakshi film by finding the character whose nipples are visible through her shirt. Not a distinction I would personally covet.
That said, I would not write off Hey Good Lookin’, and it has its notable fans, including Quentin Tarantino (not an arbiter of good taste by any means, but worth pointing out). Someday, I would love to see the original live action hybrid film and see how much lustre the project lost in its seven-year hell of refashioning and neglect, but what we have is an occasionally hilarious, rough-hewn animated film with some scenes that make the viewing experience marginally worthwhile.