Today is the birthday of Ralph Bakshi, and the master animator has a present for us. The Last Days of Coney Island is the new, epic, animated short film written and directed by the man who gave us everything from the revolutionary Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic to Hollywood hits like The Lord of the Rings (1978) and Cool World. Mr. Bakshi's last outing was Spicy City for HBO in 1997, so The Last Days of Coney Island -- available on Vimeo On Demand -- marks a truly surprising return to form for the birthday boy, who turns 77 on October 29th.
With thoughts spanning from New York to New Mexico, I open by asking Mr. Bakshi if he'd glimpsed the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Y'know, convivial small talk to ease us into a storied career.
"I heard about it," laughs Ralph. "No. I'm very much in the wilderness, on top of a mountain. You know, I look at a lot of clouds. Nobody comes by here except the deer. And a lot of ravens."
The artist's milieu thus established, I go straight for the info useful to newbies: What inspired Last Days? Mr. Bakshi's response proves nearly as epic as his film:
"The films that I really love: Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin -- there were certain films that I was very much myself in. And some other films tend a little towards Hollywood -- which annoyed me, and I fell off my mark. So: Last Days is very personal -- it's like (Heavy) Traffic and Coonskin -- it's very much about what was happening in New York, in Brooklyn, and in the country in the '60s: which is somewhat similar to what's happening today. There's a certain madness in the air. You had, you know, all those assassinations. And then you had the hippies, and you had the abstract expressionist movement, and you had the beatniks. You had all these other things happening in Manhattan. And in the ghettos, we had all these uneducated people -- people that I love very much; people not because of their own fault, all these vibes that are happening, and they're reacting off of it. They're trying to become successful, in their own way, for love and for life. And their stories, for me, were always very heartening and credible, and I really liked these people, and what they tried to do. They're bouncing off of what the abstract expressionists were doing, and they're bouncing off the go-go girls -- it's all confused. They're living in Brooklyn, and they're living in Coney Island. At the same time, you have all these political assassinations.
"So the picture -- which is a new way of telling a story, for me -- how do you get through a lot of information, how do you entertain -- with what Last Days is about? It plays itself out in a desperate way -- which is what the government was doing -- simultaneously. Then of course the coup that shot Kennedy, and Robert, and Malcolm, and Martin. We walked through that, disastrously accepting all the bullshit that was given to us. And I want to clear all that up. How I do it is unusual, but I'm very proud of this film. I take it to my own personal level artistically, which is all I care about now: going somewhere that I haven't been before. Hopefully people will like it, too. I'm satisfied I did the best I could, telling a feature-length story in 22 minutes."
Mr. Bakshi is on a roll. Roll, man, roll!
"Today I find the same kind of madness going on. That's what got me going on Last Days -- and that's part of your question. You have these enormous, enormous global events happening: Syria, Russia -- I don't have to tell you what's going on. And you have in our government, people fighting over personal issues: the right to abortion. I'm not taking a stand. Whichever! We're totally engrossed in all this minutia -- which I guess is important -- but no one's addressing the major issues and destruction facing this country. We've lost our honor, in some weird ways, and we've lost our sensibilities. That's what drives me. That's why, at 77, I'm still doing this stuff. I don't want to be preachy; this is all done subliminally. I'm telling you this. It's not an obvious thing -- or it is."
Quote of the Year, that: "It's not an obvious thing -- or it is."
Ralph rocks a bit more:
"It's part of how I work. I never know what I'm doing until it's over: I kind of start in the middle of the film. This film started at the middle, I worked at the beginning, and I worked at the end, and I re-did the middle, you know? It's a lot like an abstract expressionist work -- which is what I grew up with. I love collage! I hate scripts! I write scripts just to rewrite 'em. You start a film by telling it what to do, and if you're really smart, after a while, the film starts to tell you what it needs. You gotta shut up and listen. And wherever it takes you, you go. And that's basically how I work, and I think it still lives up to that, uh, artistic thing, which is why I feel so free."
Try that approach in a Hollywood boardroom! Ha. Gotta love a maverick -- which is precisely what Mr. Bakshi is. And he's quite happy with new technology, new platforms:
"Going on Vimeo," Ralph notes, "this is the best thing that's ever happened to independents. I've always been independent, but I had to fight the studio, and they'd beat the hell out of me! How independent is that? They're tearing up my films, and screaming at me, and not releasing me. Now I don't have to do that anymore!" Ralph laughs; he's earned these laughs.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to be alive at 77," Ralph enthuses, "as animation goes down this route! You know, I did my own poster, I did my own advertising on Vimeo, my stuff goes on Facebook -- it's got 150,000 people watching -- we keep sending them all emails," he adds, having worked with just a very small, talented crew on Last Days. "This is amazing! This is what I've been dreaming about my whole life! I don't need to fight -- I'm not fighting anymore.
"The point is, it backed me up totally in what I do: the computer, the programs on the computer, and the Internet. It's a marvelous, wonderful thing. I can't say enough about it. I just wrote a letter to Digital Arts, in New York -- I used to teach animation there in the '80s -- and I told them how important it is for the animators to understand that they're free!"
I myself adored geek culture when that was kind of a bad thing, so of course I have to ask Ralph about his animated (and notoriously rotoscoped!) adaptation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings -- scripted by Peter Beagle, and a major influence on Peter Jackson & Co.'s live-action adaptation. Bakshi's 1978 version followed directly on his own fantasy epic, Wizards, and preceded his remarkable cultural document, American Pop. We close with him regaling me with a terrific anecdote.
"I understand motion, I understand these things," Ralph concedes. "I understand very little about anything else: women, life, anything. When it comes to digital, I know my stuff. But that comes from my rotoscoping days, and my experimenting. That was also very tricky. So I'm in Spain, shooting the live action for Lord of the Rings. And we're ready to go down on this field, you know, I'm on a castle -- a 14th-century castle [in an aside, Ralph notes it's the castle from El Cid!] -- but there's cars in the scene. Everyone's in costumes, there's horses, orcs -- but I'm shooting to be photographed, and then to be redrawn! I don't have to care what the background is, right? So you've got the trucks from the motion picture production standing there. So I took the film in to the lab -- and they quit! They would not work on this 'garbage'! 'We're not doing this stuff! What kind of director is this?! He's got cars in the scene! He's got airplanes coming through! He's got telephone wires, and he's shooting a period piece!' They refused to work on the film! For three weeks, the guy in the Spanish lab tried to calm everyone down and explain what I was doing. They refused to be pigeonholed with my crap, they said! The whole crew just looked at me -- I shrugged and walked away. They finally straightened it out, but until it comes to life, I can't do anything.
"It's because I bend the rules a little," Mr. Bakshi chuckles knowingly. Last Days of Coney Island is solid proof of this, and bless him for that. Happy birthday, Ralph!
Images and trailer courtesy of Bakshi Productions.
The Last Days of Coney Island: Official Page