Last Days of Coney Island
(Catch my previous Bakshi review here: Spicy City)
It’s been a long time coming, but here we are. I’m finally wrapping up my review series of the filmography of American animator and director Ralph Bakshi. If you missed the beginning of this series, you can backtrack and start HERE with my review of Bakshi’s first feature length film Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated American cartoon, and still the highest grossing independent animation ever released ($90 million USD in 1972, or the equivalent of $550 million USD in 2018).
After Bakshi’s 1997 series Spicy City was cancelled, he retired from the film industry entirely and began producing art and small-scale independent works on occasion. In 2012, fifteen years after his retirement, a 75-year old Bakshi began a series entitled Bakshi Blues in which he planned to comment on modern social and political issues in short animated episodes. The first of these was called Trickle Dickle Down and was a critique of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his party’s failed economic model. The episode, however, was not the Bakshi Renaissance some reviewers of the time hopes it would be, as it included almost no new animation, instead choosing to cannibalize a 1970s Bakshi film called Coonskin for animation. Furthermore, the projected series was never picked up by any network and Bakshi gave up Blues after just the one outing.
But there was one more hope. In 2006, Bakshi worked with a small team of animators to create the first eight minutes of a project he called Last Days of Coney Island, which he hoped to shop out to studios as a proof of concept. Bakshi believed then that the idea was born to succeed, that any studio would be salivating at the prospect of financing his next work. But none were. And despite animation being a much less expensive medium today than in Bakshi’s heyday, he was still unable to self-finance such a large project as a feature-length animation, not to mention setting up a distribution network for a film that would most likely be rated R. The project sat on the back burner for another seven years, until 2013 when Bakshi decided to use Kickstarter to get the project going once again. The gambit paid off and ultimately collected more than $170k from almost thirteen hundred backers. And two years later, on October 29th 2015, Bakshi’s 77th birthday, Last Days of Coney Island was released online.
The film is the ugliest, grittiest work in Bakshi’s oeuvre. Characters appear drawn off the cuff, with inter-lining and modeling lines always apparent underneath their rough-hewn forms. The urban landscape of this dilapidated New York amusement district, Coney Island, is made up of found objects, old posters, and other real, physical media attached to the animation as a backdrop. Live-action footage of JFK’s assassination, Oswald’s assassination, and various retro pornographic materials are on display alongside traditional animation and l’art trouvee. The result is a mixed-media approach akin to the types of stylistic work Bakshi was creating in the early 1970s before his high fantasy turn.
The seediness of this city, of New York City, is reflected by the art style and other artistic choices made to represent it. And it seems that Bakshi’s last refuge for the muck and mire and down and out living in the Big Apple is Coney Island. The short film’s look is only obviously similar to one other filmmaker’s works, at least to my mind, and that man is David Lynch. And the films I’m talking about here are not the features Lynch has produced over the years, but his early experiments with animation on works like The Alphabet or Six Men Getting Sick where one feels, through viewing the films, very keen tactile sensations of not only what the film looks like or sounds like, but what it feels like, what the materials of its rough-hewn construction feel like to the touch. The effect of such an art brut technique is to make the viewer even closer to the world pictured within the films, and no doubt, Bakshi understands this element of his production well.
The story is of an NYPD detective named Max whose beat is out in Coney Island amongst the freaks, the clowns, the prostitutes, and the drug dealers of this seedy place. He has fallen in love with a prostitute named Molly and finds his relationship to the woman one that limits him from doing his job as well as he could. One day, his partner sends a group of police officers to check out a trap house wherein they kill numerous drug addicts and prostitutes, before arresting the last ones left alive, Molly amongst them. Max blames himself and begins to drink himself into oblivion, becoming more and more unhinged and resentful of his station in life. And when Molly returns, his self-loathing is so deep that he refuses to return to her side, refuses to burden her with his presence (which she welcomes with open arms and would surely not interpret in the same manner).
A second man, Louie, grew up in Coney Island. He began as a weak man who was constantly at odds with those around him. But as he grew, he became as vicious and animistic as his surroundings. He extracted protection money from the town’s freaks with the threat of violence always an implicit for any of those who refused. He caught his mother sleeping with a clown, with one of the freaks, and responded by violently killing them both. This brought him to the attention of the mob, for whom he became the major connection in Coney Island.
But as a boy, Molly was the only person who spoke to him kindly. The only one who smiled at him and made him feel like everything was going to be alright in a world that had obviously gone to hell, and was ever-worsening partially through the influence of his own impotent rage. He coveted Molly and hated Max, and when Molly returned from prison and immediately forgave Max, the man whose actions landed her in the brig in the first place, Louie could no longer take it. To add insult to injury, Max sauntered off, feeling sorry for himself, leaving behind the vulnerable Molly who was a dead soul, the type who had little left of redeeming quality to give to the world, little left of joy to get from it. And she would not go to Louie in her pain, the thought would never occur to her. So Louie shot her, he shot her until his clip was empty, until his rage subsided, and extinguished the last flame that helped him to see his way through the morass that was Coney Island.
The film is an artistic work, first and foremost. The type of movie that a kid tries to watch and has no real clue what’s happening. It’s cultural references are dated, its look is not commercial, it soundtrack is jazz, its mood and mise-en-scene is that of a pulp thriller, of a crust punk film noir. If this is the final film by Ralph Bakshi, now almost eight decades old, it is a fitting close to a long and distinguished career. And rather than presenting its audience with a moral, with a hope for the world, with some beacon of a promising future, it presents us with the truth: That life is shit, that love is hell, and that violence always has a reason, that each person’s logic is sound, and that’s the final word.