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For a child of Brooklyn, Coney Island naturally evokes fond memories of swimming and sunbathing, eating hotdogs and riding roller coasters. But “Last Days” takes place after the halcyon summers of Bakshi’s youth, when the area was on its long slide into decay and disrepair. The first segment of the film centers on Shorty, a four-foot tall dwarf and enforcer for the mob, voiced by Matthew Modine, and other characters include cops named Louis and Max, and a call girl named Mollie, who has recently gotten out of prison. Despite the “Last Days” of the title, Bakshi makes it seem more like a wake.
The decline of Coney Island was a local tragedy, but it wasn’t just the beach that was in trouble. As Bakshi tells it, the fate of the neighborhood was a metaphor for everything happening in America, including the assassinations of Kennedy and King. “Coney Island was a place where poor people could go and not feel poor,” he said. “You wouldn’t run into any Rolls Royces, and you didn’t feel that there was anything that you could not afford to do. But it ended up trashed, and I felt that America was headed the same way.”
Bakshi describes “Last Days” as a period piece, but he’s not shy about making contemporary analogies. Coney Island is looking a lot better now, even after Hurricane Sandy, but gentrification may be as foreign to its spirit as mob rule. “If they build it into some sort of big, fancy place, then it’s not Coney Island,” he said. “They could call it Coney Island, and I guess that’s fine for the rich people, but that’s not the Coney Island that was so important to millions of people who were struggling to give their families a good time.”
As much as Coney has changed, however, there’s some Bakshi-esque spirit left. Alongside chain stores and restaurants there’s still the freak shows, carnival games and junk food. Most important, Coney Island is still the place where New York City goes to the beach. The parade of characters on a summer afternoon — Russian men with giant brown stomachs; guys and gals in board shorts and bikinis; an impossibly muscled man wearing nothing but an American flag Speedo — could be straight out of a Bakshi film.
Indeed, after watching Bakshi’s movies it’s hard not to see the city through his eyes. The loudmouth at the bar becomes one of his lowlife villains; a homeless person is one of his down-and-outers; twilit art-deco buildings morph into the purple-and-blue structures of his throbbing metropolis. Even pesky NYU undergrads swarming the Village are descendants of Fritz the Cat himself. You can take Bakshi’s word or not about the Kennedy assassination. But in a larger-than-life city like New York, Bakshi’s animation may be the truest portrait.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG