Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 14 April 2011
Source MGM DVD
Categories Ralph Bakshi’s Cool Worlds
No more funny animals! For his second film, Heavy Traffic, Ralph Bakshi returned to the passion project he had tried to get off the ground before unexpectedly finagling the rights to Fritz the Cat from a deeply resentful R. Crumb. Though superficially similar, the two films are Bakshi playing decidedly different games, with different stakes: the first was an unexpectedly ambitious exploitation film, the second an unusually raunchy art project.
The biggest upgrade from Fritz the Cat is a securer sense of place. The X-rated follies of Fritz ended, a little incongruously, with a montage of sepia-toned stills of old New York set to Billie Holiday’s “Yesterdays,” evoking the sort of sentimental urban nostalgia Woody Allen would come to specialize in by decade’s end. Presumably this was intended to contrast with the grittier, more “realistic” cityscape depicted in the rest of the film, but the background work in Fritz - constrained by both budget and the need to evoke Crumb’s style - was too limited to really get the point across. For Heavy Traffic, on the other hand, Bakshi and his crew clearly committed a good deal more time, attention and money to backgrounds, and the film’s ingenious mix of live action footage, photographic stills, rotoscoping and line drawing (as well as occasional straight lifts from fine artists like Edward Hopper) reflects the city at its seediest and slimiest. This is the New York of the late John Lindsay years, the decaying, restless metropole that had yet to be reminded that it was “the greatest city in the world” by Republican governments and finance and venture capital.
The character animation, too, while still rough-edged, is quite a bit more developed than it was in Fritz the Cat, blending the conventional cartooning style of Terrytoon Studios (where Bakshi learned his craft in the 1960s) and the sophomoric exaggerations of vintage Mad magazine, with something of the flavor of 1970s subway graffiti and Funkadelic LP covers seeping in around the edges. (Words like “seeping,” “oozing” and “crawling” seem just right here.) For the first time in Heavy Traffic, a Bakshi-esque mode of behavior begins to assert itself. Bakshi’s characters typically slouch a lot; their slumped postures indicate a beaten-downness, but also a what-the-fuckness: an affect captured uniquely well by someone who’s seen a lot of depression, both emotional and economic, and knows how it gets into people’s bodies. They also cry a lot: tears, often appearing at unexpected moments not indicated by the story or the soundtrack, are a Bakshi specialty. If they are women, their nipples pop out (there are more wardrobe malfunctions per scene in Heavy Traffic than are, strictly speaking, plausible; “you young kids ain’t the only ones with things hanging out, you know,” the hero’s middle-aged mother proudly insists). If they’re men, they whip out their dicks and use them, either for urination, masturbation, or simple prideful self-display. If they’re beaten, shot or stabbed, they bleed profusely, though they (mostly) don’t die, seeming to occupy a disconcerting gray area somewhere between cartoon invulnerability and actual human tenderness.
But who are these people, anyway, other than vehicles for an emerging Bakshian body language? The protagonist (and obvious directorial stand-in) is Michael, an aspiring young underground cartoonist living whose work has yet to sell because “I still jerk off.” (At one point we see him pitch a science fiction comic strip similar to Bakshi’s own forthcoming Wizards to an elderly newspaper publisher, thus precipitating a fatal heart attack.) He still lives in a tiny apartment with his constantly squabbling mother and father, Angelo and Ida, who punch each other through windows and chase after one another with meat cleavers when they’re not hounding their son to act more Italian or Jewish (respectively). Michael spends most of his time either drawing dirty comics at home or racking up high pinball scores at a local arcade, but does occasionally step out to interact with the likes of Crazy Moe, a madcap homeless man and self-described “crazy nigger” (an appellation Michael’s a little too excited to repeat); Snowflake, a flirty transvestite with a long, aardvark-like snout of a face, who delights in throwing herself at straight construction workers and getting beaten up by same; and Shorty, a legless regular at the local strip club who pushes himself around on a wheeled dolly and pines after the bartender Carole, a black bombshell straight out of the following year’s Foxy Brown. Through a strange twist of fate (it’d be pushing it a little to call it “plot”), Michael ends up with Carole, first as her nervous lover (he’s a virgin until she deflowers him) and later on as her pimp.
Due to its autobiographical nature and its origination with Bakshi, Heavy Traffic is a good deal more coherent than the overtly sketch-like Fritz the Cat, though it still has the air of something assembled in the editing room as opposed to planned out carefully in advance (Bakshi, sacrilegiously for an animator, usually eschews storyboards). A version of the old folk ballad “Scarborough Fair” performed by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66 is, for some reason, the film’s recurring theme, despite being inappropriate in both mood and lyrics. (Nor, for that matter, does the generically 70s title make much sense.) Marginally more effective is the live-action leitmotif of a pinball game, which Bakshi often cuts back to in order to enliven an action scene or link one section of the film to another. As in Fritz, Heavy Traffic still gets most of its dramatic energy out of its acts of sexual and scatological outrageousness - some of which, especially the scenes involving Snowflake, have aged uncomfortably - but here they’re more in the service of an overall carnivalesque vision than an out-and-out desire to shock. Relatively sophisticated social observation will often bump up against lewd toilet humor. One brief moment can stand for many to demonstrate Bakshi’s schizophrenic mix of the subtle and the sledgehammer: Angelo, having just run afoul of the mafia by allowing black dock workers to handle their olive oil, attempts to light a cigarette, fumbling the action several times out of fear; a nice, psychologically acute touch. We then cut to a shot of his legs, and… he shits his pants (complete with gross squelchy sound effect). Oh, Ralph…
Heavy Traffic was a surprise hit, not only commercially but with reputable critics as well (the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, for instance, named it one of the top ten films of 1973). Its success allowed Bakshi to pursue his perverse personal desires in a series of films throughout the 70s and early 80s, most of which played variations on the autobiographical themes of Heavy Traffic while toning down its gross-out excesses (a little). Though occasionally off-putting in all sorts of ways, the movie is entirely genuine, and echt Bakshi, giving you a taste not just of New York at one of its lowest historical ebbs but of a feverish and dirty mind hurling itself against the battlements of an artistic medium. For those looking to get on Bakshi’s peculiar cinematic wavelength, this is the place to start.
Fritz the Cat1972
The Lord of the Rings1978
Hey Good Lookin’1982
Fire and Ice1983
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures1987–1988