Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 10: Last Days of Coney Island
“But if we’re going to go back to using hand-drawn animation, it frees us to use hand-drawn animation. In the old days, when you’d do hand-drawn animation, you’d try to make your line very slick. It wasn’t with a computer, but you’d try for a certain slick-ness, a certain clarity, which all animation did: Disney, Warner Brothers, UPA. But the computer has freed us, I feel, to get closer to what painting is. We don’t have to be slick any more. Hand-drawn animation could never out-slick a computer.”
Ralph Bakshi, in an interview with Simon Abrams
To say that Last Days of Coney Island brings us “full circle” in Bakshi’s career would be more than wobbly rhetoric. In his latest and so far final film major film release, Bakshi makes a number of distinct returns. He returns to Brooklyn in the 1960s, the incubation chamber for his entire career and the subject he has mythologized and demythologized throughout his entire career. More than any other animator, Bakshi has himself become part of the 1960s New York myth, one of its most organic and self-conscious offshoots. Despite the fact that Bakshi, now in his late 70s, lives in George Herriman’s Southwestern territory, he produces another film in the line of Fritz, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin. Last Days of Coney Island shows this animator living and, in more ways than one, commemorating the dead, by his artistic bywords: collage, expressionism, and independence.
But perhaps I’m too eager to begin eulogizing. Last Days might be an irreverent tribute to death and loss, but it is the work of a vital and still-living artist. And as much as it clings to the old world of street toughs, mob cops, and underground comics, the film is just as much a product of the present. Distributed on Vimeo, funded on Kickstarter, and processed in Photoshop and Toon Boom Studio, the film exists in the weird neverland of today’s film industry where Hollywood has no pocket change for $2 million animated films anymore but you can raise $175,000 for your own project with no oversight. Considering that Bakshi’s entire career has consisted in doing more with less, you can see how working this way might appeal to him despite his selective commitment to craft traditionalism.
And what came out of this hybrid process? Put shortly, Last Days of Coney Island is a condensation of the Bakshi urban film. With a scant one fourth of Bakshi’s usual 80-90 minute running time, the film’s narrative flails and flies to reach its bitter conclusion. We encounter our usual troop of castoffs and lumpen elements––mobsters, bartenders, closeted gay men, prostitutes, crooked cops––and their stories are presented broken, fragmented. Bakshi centres not one protagonist but three, mixing dialogue low in the soundtrack and hitching the result to a Mark Taylor jazz score that scrapes and burns along with the sketchy images.
“Sketchy” is meant quite seriously here, since the frame has not been cleaned or scoured of errors or clutter. Every frame more resembles painting, Bakshi’s post-Hollywood career of choice, more than classic animation. Character forms are still cartoons, probably the most grotesque and even unsettling Bakshi has created yet, but they fill frame space in a different way. Easily dismembered, often subject to surreal transformations, their bodies share the elasticity of traditional cartoon figures but don’t have any inherent stability. They’re always collapsing, reconstituting themselves, and flowing like water sloshing in a porous container. “Flowing” might even be the wrong word, since the character movement looks unfinished, jerking from pose to pose without the refinement we’re accustomed to seeing even in Bakshi films.
Backgrounds, meanwhile, are a collage of paint, old photographs, vintage video footage, and scraps of paper and, at times, even old pulp fiction book covers. We often see stretched and pixelated video footage of, say, the Kennedy Assassination, and perceive the obvious borders between two JPEGs pushed into the background. At no point do the characters exist comfortably in frame, as the scenery is always pushing and containing them. Despite some of Bakshi’s apparent unease with digital conventions––use of some editing techniques that are distinctly out of style and title fonts that are basic and dull––the overall effect is both to ground the film in a certain time and to communicate how that time and place was already composite, a recycled collection of random ephemera from all times. That was, after all, the essence of Coney Island. And this film, scrounged together from digital scans of vintage photos, embodies that essence in its very form.
I haven’t discussed the story itself in detail for a couple of reasons. The first is that the film is too chaotic and flippant for me to form much of an emotional attachment to it. Characters go through years of their lives, are killed suddenly, make startling revelations, all into a void the film would have filled if it had been 90 minutes long. Second, the film is relatively short and easily accessible, and contains some ironic twists that clarify the thematic intent of the film.
That intent, as the title might imply, is to mark the passing of an age, or rather several ages. Last Days ends with a dedication to a number of Bakshi’s collaborators who have died before him, positioning this as a tribute to a whole generation of animators and their work. In some ways, their traditional craft has itself passed with the advent of computerized production. Of course, Coney Island itself stands in for a certain mythical conception of the United States itself. Bakshi uses Coney Island to periodize the United States, with its collapse coinciding with the phenomenon we usually call The Sixties. Given that the director spent the first half of the 70s reflecting on the aftermath of Kennedy, King, Malcolm X, Kent State, etc. etc., we can even see Last Days as a sort of origin story for the New York we see in those movies. A thorny milieu on the edge of collapse, a convulsion of violence, and the dissolution of an entire world find their way into the story. It’s the Big Crunch, a compression of tension and pain and trauma that will only explode when the likes of Fritz are forced to swallow it.
So what can we, as radicals and viewers, make of Ralph Bakshi? Most poignantly, his urban films dramatize the pitched battles waged on the carcass of urban decay. They revel in showing the toll of violence, instability, corruption, and, of course, exploitation on the human body and mind. In his fantasy visions, we see a flowering of the utopian desires that can only wither and rot in the contemporary world. By no means are Bakshi’s politics commendable, nor should we uncritically claim his work as some kind of beacon in the darkness. I think we should approach Bakshi’s work with both their content and process in mind. We can see them as fists slamming at the boundaries of animation and its capacity for expression. We can appreciate them as always-compromised protests, the work of an artist strongly embedded in the worlds he portrayed and furious at the horrible state of things. Above all, I think we can see him as the most impure (or is that the purest?) and radical edge of the New Hollywood, the prophet who most clearly articulated its machismo, its righteous rage, and its cutting failures. But a history of animation or film without Bakshi? I hope I’ve shown that such a history would be impoverished by this exclusion.