Ralph Bakshi has been animation’s most outspoken maverick and he’s back with Last Days of Coney Island, his magnum opus, available exclusively on Vimeo on Demand. The 77-year-old displays a newfound creative energy and sense of purpose about the ’60s using Coney Island as a metaphor for the corruption, decay and violence of the era. The Kennedy assassination, in particular, becomes a linchpin for the decline of the country. The impact of Coney Island is like viewing a moving painting. it’s visually and culturally very dense, and crams a feature length narrative into 22-minutes. It also demonstrates the influences of Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock Jim Tyler and George Herriman. And like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, Coney Island gets under our skin in conveying an inhumanity that crushes our spirit.
Bill Desowitz: What’s new for you with Coney Island?
Ralph Bakshi: What’s new for me is, first of all, the story structure. In other words, we went to one scene to one character to one scene without narration or the characters explaining where they were and what was happening. That cut out a lot of exposition and allowed me to pack more information into 22 minutes. There’s as much story in this picture as there is in Heavy Traffic or Coonskin. And so I found a different way of telling a story. There isn’t one scene that I left hang over for what we in animation call personality. Everything that animation does to slow it down and make it boring for adults.
BD: Or younger audiences who don’t like exposition either.
RB: My entire audience today are young. I have my older fans still hanging around. But all the young kids are finding my films. As far as being able to digest information, you’re right. They get it. There’s no problem with the information. But I added a line to the end of this film today, which you haven’t seen. A voice-over because a lot of people are not getting exactly what I meant at the end [about the connection between Lee Harvey Oswald and a surprise murder]. I wanted people to make that [conspiracy theory] leap with ‘bullshit, more bullshit.’ America went with it and that’s when I believe America changed and all the problems we’ve had lead right to today.
BD: Talk about your process.
RB: All people make films for audiences to like. I’m making films for myself as an artist makes a painting. I hope you will love it or like it or make you think, which is all a painting ever does. This thing about being too dense for audiences, I hope that audiences get the references but they’re my references from my life that I may be putting into my last film. Basically, that’s how I’ve worked and gotten into short-tempered arguments. There’s so much more to the art of animation.
BD: You get under our skin.
RB: I’m supposed to.
BD: Exactly. The idea’s to provoke us.
RB: Animation never does that. Do you know what a victory that is for the medium? A Martin Scorsese film like Good Fellas does that. Nothing much is happening on the screen but I’m able to elicit a feeling of disgust that I felt when Martin Luther King got shot, Malcom X got shot, the Kennedys got shot, the kids at Kent State got shot, the kids in Vietnam got killed.
BD: And in Coney Island, you localize violence and inhumanity.
RB: Which is what everyone was doing in this country. Everyone, whether we know it or not, reacts to what the government does. The Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the riots, the entire country was acting crazy even though they couldn’t relate it. Now with all the shit, nobody trusts or believes anybody.
BD: Talk about new tech simplifying the animation for you.
RB: Toon Boom allowed me to pencil test my animation the minute I finished it at no cost. Photoshop, where you can color the animation, where you can change colors on backgrounds, where you can put in live-action mattes. The computer allowed me to do more work, better work than I’ve ever done in my life, with five people instead of 200. It’s amazing. And the other thing that’s most important to me that no one’s going to recognize is I don’t need money per se. I made decent money in Hollywood. This Vimeo is such a freedom giver to animators because I’m distributing my own films and getting the money right back (thanks to Paypal). This breaks the chain that personal films don’t make money. Here it is!