The work of cult filmmakers are often a love or hate proposition: from Ed Wood Jr. to John Waters to Jesus Franco, either you can tune in to the avant-auteur’s wavelength or you can’t. There’s no middle ground. Another noteworthy example of a filmmaker who fits this bill is Ralph Bakshi, an animator who has produced some of the most controversial animated features in film history. His filmography is the kind of work that a film fan either finds hypnotic or alienating – but either side of the argument will have to admit he creates a very distinctive stylistic ride for the audience to take.
Heavy Traffic was his second film and a good example of his “take it or leave it” approach to filmmaking. The centerpiece of the storyline is an obvious auteur surrogate named Michael (Joseph Kaufman), an underground cartoonist trying to figure out his place in the world and how to deal with women. At home, he’s caught between a philandering father (Frank DeKova) who aspires to being a mobster and an angry Jewish mother (Terri Haven) who acts out on her now-loathed husband in violent ways. Michael either spends his time drawing or wandering aimless through an often sleazy and hostile cityscape.
Things change for Michael when Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson), a black barmaid he’s sweet on, gets fired from her job and goes home with Michael while she figures out her next move. However, she’s too feisty to play the role of a dream girl – and like Michael, she has dreams of escape that she lacks the budget or resources to realize. The two begin to plot and hustle a way out of their urban jungle… but that jungle is full of scheming characters who might not let them out before extracting a pound of flesh.
That synopsis might sound straightforward but don’t expect Heavy Traffic to follow such an orderly path. Bakshi adopts a storytelling style that takes the concept of the episodic narrative to panoramic extremes – almost every featured player in the story gets their own vignette – and then further ups the ante by steeping the proceedings in a style that is both gritty and psychedelic all at once. Michael’s obsession with playing pinball is used as a rather obvious but still effective metaphor for the ups and downs of city life and Bakshi’s storytelling style mirrors that with its zig-zag approach to plotting.
This is also not a work for the sensitive. As is often the case in Bakshi’s work, there are broad ethnic stereotypes, particularly the mom and the dad characters. There’s a certain moral ambiguity at play here – and the sexual and violent elements are dealt with in a gleefully lurid, over-the-top manner. Heavy Traffic is very eager to rub the viewer’s nose in the elements and attitudes of its squalid neon cityscape – and Bakshi unleashes his id with gusto to realize it all on celluloid.
That said, if you can hang in with Bakshi’s wild and exploratory approach to animated storytelling, Heavy Traffic packs plenty of rewards into its slender 78-minute running time. For starters, the visual design of the film is dazzling. Bakshi freely mixes animation and live-action footage: for instance, there is a great moment where some animated characters are driving and the view through the car windows is real live-action street footage. Stock footage and vintage photos of New York are used as part of stylized backdrops, creating a stylized cityscape that pulses with color and life in a way that a lot of the animation of the era did not.
It’s also worth mentioning that Heavy Traffic is a film of moments so the best viewing approach is just to sit back and let the neon-tinged vignettes wash over you. Bakshi’s episodic style works because he provides an amazing sequence every few minutes to dazzle your eyes. Obvious highlights include the moments where Michael’s cartoons are brought to life, including an amusingly horny interpretation of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” that plays like Krazy Kat meets Robert Crumb and a post-apocalyptic “religious” story with a female mountain and God in a featured role.
The main narrative provides plenty of stunners in its own right, like a bit where a transvestite goads an unwitting john into beating him up – it plays like sadomasochistic slapstick – and a bit where the dad meets up with Mafia don who never stops slurping his spaghetti, even when he gets ventilated with bullets. Music often plays a vital role in these bits, like a throwaway gag where a gang of greasers laughingly beat each other to a bloody pulp, underscored by the Isley Brothers’ rendition of “Twist And Shout.”
Simply put, Heavy Traffic represents the Bakshi style in all its expressive, hell-bent-for-leather glory. Those who aren’t scared off by the explicit content or the indifference to conventional storytelling will be taken in by its breathless, beautifully alive displays of individuality and imagination. If you can warm to the style, Heavy Traffic is a brain-blasting experience worth having.
Blu-Ray Notes: this title just made its high-definition debut on U.S. disc via a blu-ray from Shout! Factory. It’s a bare-bones item, with no extras or trailer, but it does feature a nice new transfer of this title. There’s a bit of age-related speckling here and there but it does justice to Bakshi’s neon-sleaze visuals with expressive colors and a sharp level of detail for the mixture of animated and live-action textures. The mono soundtrack is presented in a lossless fashion that sounds pretty robust for its age. If you love Bakshi’s work, this offers a suitably eye-popping way to enjoy it.