Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 31, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1982)

7. Hey Good Lookin’

A passion project for Bakshi, “Hey Good Lookin”” had a long history. The film was originally completed in 1978. Only the three main characters were animated while the rest of the cast was live action. At the time, in a pre-“Roger Rabbit” world, the studio said audience wouldn’t accept cartoons interacting with live action actors. Bakshi spent money out of his own pocket, making his next two films intentionally more commercial, in order to reanimate the whole film. Finally, in 1982, four years after production initially ended, the film was released… And subsequently buried. The film is no doubt the most obscure of the director’s work.

Unfairly overlooked, in my opinion. “Hey Good Lookin’” has the anarchic energy and style of Bakshi’s earlier three films but made by a more experienced, studied filmmaker. The film was made in response to the fifties nostalgia fad in the 1970s, with the director intending to show the decade as he actually experienced, with all the violence, horniness, and casual racism that actually went on. The story revolves three teenage kids. Vinny, our protagonist, a member of a street gang called The Stompers, who fancies himself a well-dressed, stylish man. He’s out to prove something. “Crazy” Shapiro is Vinny’s best friend, a fellow Stomper and, as his nickname shows, pretty much a nut. His cop father hates him and actively tries to kill him. As the film progresses, we see just how crazy Shapiro actually is. Rounding out the trio is Rozzie. Someone who knew Vinny as a young child, she’s back in the city as a voluptuous, busty, sexually vivacious young woman, obviously catching Vinny and Crazy’s attention.

The film is loosely plotted. The earlier half mostly revolves around Vinny and Crazy getting drunk and getting into trouble. Once Rozzie and her overweight friend Eva appears, both boys become interested in proving themselves as men. Vinny demands a gang battle (a “rumble”) between his own gang and the black street gang, the Chaplins, even if the rest of the gang is uninterested. Without saying too much more, things end up going pretty badly for everyone. The film ends in violence. A framing device set in (then) modern day New York, involving a homeless man showing an older woman the fragment of his leather jacket and telling her about his life back in the 1950s.

Perhaps I could say Bakshi is making some point about the boundaries of masculinity. Maybe the futility of violence. Perhaps the connection between street violence and sexual frustration? The fact that the film raises any of these questions makes a case for it. However, “Hey Good Lookin’” is mostly about the characters and, perhaps more importantly, the time period. There’s an eye towards detail concerning the 1950s setting. Some live action backdrops are used but mostly we get a gritty, street-level view of New York during the decade.

As for the characters, they’re a vivid bunch. As the film progresses, you can tell Vinny is tiring of his life style. Starting out as a narcissist, obsessed with his hair and his zipper-laden jacket, he grows disillusioned with the life and his friends, especially when the situation explodes into violence. Shapiro is violently insane, no doubt, and you get to see just how much before the film is over. He even proves just how little he cares about those around him. However, a sequence were his father beats him bloody shows his behavior in context. Though introduced as a sexy, boy-obsessed teenage dream, Rozzie maybe gets the worse of it. She might be the most bloody thirsty character in the film, in her own way. The character’s vividness is help by, maybe, the best voice cast Bakshi has ever had. Richard Romanus, David Proval, and Tina Bowman (Later married to Romanus in real life) all give fantastically layered performance. This film has, at times, been compared to Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” no doubt because Proval and Romanus were both in that film together too.

Another important element towards establishing the time frame of the film is the music. Which is a bit of a mix bag in this case. I think the low budget prevented the production from having a period accurate soundtrack. So, instead of hearing actual hits of the fifties, we get 1980s produced sound-alikes. The songs aren’t bad. A few of them, such as the title track or the main love theme, are even pretty good. I’m not sure who sang the songs but they do a decent job of replicating the sound of the time. Even then, it’s hard to overlook the drum machines and eighties production so obvious on them.

Though relatively focused on the main characters, Bakshi still allows his mind to wander to surreal asides several times. The film opens with a trash can and a pile of garbage discussing wither or not heaven exist, in a funny, undeniably memorable sequence. (That sequence ends with the pile of garbage yelling “Fuck this city!” Perhaps revealing the film’s motive and intent?) One of the side characters is the gravely voiced leader of the Stomper gang. While driving around town, he casually abuses his girlfriend, shoving her head through the roof of the car, Tex Avery-style. That scene ends with the car crashing through the wall of a theater, killing a rock band. (Something no body seems that upset about.) No doubt that the freak-out scene to beat in this movie is the climatic acid trip. While standing on the rooftops, shooting at the rival gang, Crazy starts to trip balls for no particular reason. Parking meters and highway signs come to life and laugh or scream at him. He’s eaten alive by giant demons, hugged by giant pairs of breasts. It’s an odd, completely unexplained, extended moment. Perhaps a visual representation of the character’s state of mind? If that’s what the inside of his head looks like, no wonder he’s crazy.

Even with all of the above, the main reason I like this movie so much is probably because it might be the director’s most beautifully animated feature. Especially after two film’s worth of heavy rotoscoping, to see the love and detail put into each frame here is fantastic. Beyond the detail, everything moves so fluently. The character designs are wonderful, exaggerated in an appropriately cartoon-ish manner while still having the character of a human face. The content might be pretty ugly but “Hey Good Lookin’” is very pretty to look at.

Despite the quality, nobody saw the film upon release and it remains mostly unseen to this day. The critics who did see it weren’t impressed. An official DVD release is obviously out-of-the-question, though bootlegs and torrents are widely available. The movie was recently put up for download on iTunes, which I hope is a test-run for an actual release, probably through Warner Brothers’ Archive DVD-on-demand program. If a release like that happens, perhaps the film will be rediscovered and reevaluated. It might very well be the filmmaker’s best work. [Grade: B+]

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