Reviews: Last Days Of Coney Island

Dana reviews the new Ralph Bakshi movie, released today.

Last Days of Coney Island displays the shadowed world of a once-thriving entertainment area made famous during the early part of the Twentieth Century in a twisted tilt-o-whirl metaphor for the ride which makes us all sick – the ride of broken dreams and shifting loyalties, the ride of life. Ralph Bakshi, master of the coarse urban animated character anthology, announced his intent to create his latest short-film project back in 2006. It would take years of production hell, and a fan-funded Kickstarter campaign, to bring the film to life. Animated by hand, as has been all of Bakshi’s best work, with digital touch-up rendering to smooth out the finished product while still retaining the grit and integrity of its most human elements, Last Days feels like a return to 1973’s Heavy Traffic.

There is a strange dichotomy present from the very beginning, from older grained filmstrip to the digitally rendered animation. The violence inherent in Bakshi’s work is as brutal as it has ever been, in chalk strokes as fierce as any slashed across a storyboard during the 1970s. Last Days is as much a reverie as it is a storyboard. Amongst the entrails and distorted viciousness, there is a hidden sweetness……a lighter side to these caricatures, which leads us to the genuine purpose for all the seemingly senseless carnage.

For much of the film, we are treated to what appears to be an animatic – a schema which doesn’t tell the entire story. But looking deeper within, we see that Bakshi has provided a fully-functional buffet: the blood-spattered beyond has a story to tell us. And, in fact, it almost feels as though we are caught up in the animatic schema for Heavy Traffic – until the psychedelic landscapes begin to pay off, and we are caught up in Bakshi’s psychedelic, 1960s spin. It is through this filter that we come to know the characters, and, perhaps, Bakshi himself.

There is a distinct difference between the roughly drawn characterizations evident in Bakshi’s earlier work; the digital touch-up work in Last Days of Coney Island is evident, and stands out like a sharply-lined schematic amongst the rough-shod characters.  In fact, for those unfamiliar with Bakshi and his caricatured cast of wonders, it would be difficult to follow the action. It is the animation, above all else, which brings this film home. Bakshi’s sensibilities, which run through the palette of animated expectation, are what truly bring this piece to life. For those who are unused to Ralph Bakshi’s line-drawn, heartfelt connection to these characters, the storyline would seem a lost cause. But the art direction brings the characters back from the edge of oblivion just in time – Last Days of Coney Island brings to life a hopeless, ugly Brooklyn of the 1960s illustrated like the comic-book doodles of a middle schooler, as devoid of anticipation as the face of its protagonists, as lush and colorful as its hopes and dreams.

We know everything is fake, and the characters do, too – but perhaps, it is within this very artifice that they – and we – find our artifice justified; there is a reason we wear the masks, and these characters, who have seen and lived it all – have, too. There is a point at which the stories become reality, and we must face the interconnected tales we have ignored thus far. In a sad, faraway caricatured way, the characters of Last Days face up to these realities; in a colorful chalkboard of dissonant choruses – they recognize that they play a specific role, but are unwilling to give up the masks.

And it is strange, because in many ways it feels like the ghosts of Heavy Traffic, come back to life to tell us a cautionary tale about the times in which we live. But they are not the same characters, and their message doesn’t quite resonate, at first. By the end, it is difficult for those of us who have known and loved Bakshi’s work for so many years to decipher whether a message has even been delivered at all. But, above all, I believe that what Bakshi stands for is the reflection within the negatives…..a strange dichotomy between the lesson and the punishment. For, without one, the other ceases to truly hold any power. And in a seemingly-simple, 22 minute film, a lot can truly be said.

Nothing has truly changed between the 1960s squalor of Last Days of Coney Island and the sleek, smooth animation of today. The only real difference resides within the people who seek the keyholes, the people who know where the real shifts between reality and possibility lie. It is the artists – like Bakshi, like his cohorts – which reach out for the truth. We are pieces of the whole story, and until there comes a time when the synopsis can tell the complete narrative, we are stuck between what is said and what is sewn, the digital and the analogue, the unexceptional and the definitive.


-Dana Culling

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