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Bakshi later immortalized Brownsville of the 1940s and ‘50s in his 1982 movie “Hey Good Lookin’,” which depicts the trials of high school romance and the rivalry between black and white street gangs. The neighborhood provided not just memories, but also inspiration for Bakshi’s collage-like style. He remembers apartment walls covered with layers of paint that no one ever scraped off, and his grandfather’s tiny wooden synagogue, which he found “very warm and artistic.” “My style came from … the dirt on the floor,” he said in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail. “It came from the paint. It came from the old wood. It came from these things being mixed together. It was not the clean suburb with trees and leaves falling perfectly on a block.”
All of those influences showed up in his first film, “Fritz the Cat.” Like other early Bakshi movies such as “Heavy Traffic” (1973) and “Coonskin” (1975), “Fritz” dove into an urban melting pot where the ingredients didn’t mix well. The main character — an anthropomorphized cat created by comix legend Robert Crumb — is an undergrad at NYU and a wannabe beatnik of the worst kind. The movie also portrays trigger-happy cops, crotchety old Jews, and cynical black pool hustlers whom Fritz encounters on a voyeuristic trip uptown. Rather than create a mythologized version of New York in the ‘60s, “Fritz” presents a complex and diverse city that has more than one identity.
Bakshi also used “Fritz” to embark on new experiments in animation. Though he was trained in the rushed style of Terrytoons, the studio where he got his first job, “Fritz” gave him room to innovate. To get the right look for the film he wandered Manhattan with a 35 mm camera, taking pictures of sewer grates and deli windows, garbage bins and terra cotta facades. The photos were later traced and laid over impressionistic background paintings, creating a rough yet naturalistic look that became a hallmark of Bakshi’s films.
“Fritz the Cat” also introduced a second Bakshi trademark — voices taken from candid conversations. In the opening scene a trio of construction workers discuss their daughters’ dating habits while eating lunch atop a girder. The actual conversation took place in Bakshi’s office over a bottle of scotch, but the construction workers were real enough. Later in the film Fritz’s friends are voiced by young men who happened to be hanging out in Washington Square Park; when Fritz wanders into an East Side synagogue to get away from the cops, we hear a trio of old Jews — in reality Bakshi’s father and uncles — discussing their poor eyesight. Such techniques resulted in movies that aren’t just risqué cartoons, but documents of their time and place.
Though Bakshi eventually drifted from urban themes, he also returned to them, repeatedly. “Hey Good Lookin’” recalled his Brownsville youth, and “American Pop” (1981) chronicled four generations of an immigrant family from shtetl to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Now, with “Last Days of Coney Island,” Bakshi is turning again to New York City, this time to its legendary beach spot.