Heavy Traffic

1973, Movie, R, 76 mins


After his success with FRITZ THE CAT (1972), filmmaker Ralph Bakshi turned his talents toward human characters with this decidedly personal project. Filled with autobiographical resonance and razor-edged humor, this is a cynical portrait of one young man's coming of age. Set against actual New York City backdrops, it follows an aspiring underground cartoonist and his travails with family, lovers, and the random chaos of urban life.

Michael is a 22-year-old artist, still living with his mismatched parents--Angie (Frank de Kova), his philandering Italian father, and Ida (Terri Haven), his long-suffering Jewish mom. Yet even when their arguments get violent (like mom shoving dad's head in the oven), Michael hunches over his drawing board, working on his cartoons. Nothing seems to go right for the guy though, such as when he gets the chance to lose his virginity, thanks to a willing girl and a rooftop mattress. Instead, Michael accidentally knocks her off the building and leaves her hanging naked from a clothesline.

In other subplots, a transvestite named Snowflake is beaten by a construction worker who discovers that she is actually a he. Meanwhile, Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson), a sexy black woman, quits her bartender gig, and pretends to be Michael's girlfriend in order to brush off the affections of Shorty, a legless bouncer. When Carole winds up in Michael's bed, his response is to promptly pass out on the floor. And when Angie brings a grotesque prostitute home as a "gift" for Michael, he's furious that his son is seeing a black woman.

Soon afterward, Angie gets hauled into Snowflake's amorous clutches, deals with the local Godfather, and hires Shorty to separate his son from Carole. Unfortunately, success as a cartoonist eludes Michael, and each becomes more bitter with time. Pulled deep into urban sleaziness, Carole poses as a hooker while Michael bashes her customer's head in with a crowbar. Shorty then appears with a gun, and blows Michael's brains out. Shifting to live action for the final minutes, Michael overturns a pinball machine, roams the city streets, and chases after Carole--finally dancing with her in the middle of a park.

Originally released with a self-imposed X rating, but later lessened to an R, this is a film with something to offend any politically correct viewer. Along the way, it hits every stereotype imaginable, including Jews, Catholics, African-Americans, Italians, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Bakshi even portrays God as a giant, bare-assed rapist. Still, Bakshi has equal disregard for everyone, and it's precisely that attitude which makes the film work. The result is a relentless cartoon microcosm, as well as animation's answer to LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1989).

The film has its fair share of weaknesses though, including a disjointed script, little depth, and a tendency for its more heartfelt moments to be cut short by its more brutal agenda. Sex is ugly, violence is over-the-top, and the laughs are pitch black, and usually spawned from tragedy. Bakshi also has the opportunity to pay homage to others' distinctive style, from Vaughn Bode to early Krazy Kat comics. He also makes good use of a bluesy "Scarborough Fair" by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '77. Despite its weaknesses, this is, nevertheless, a breakthrough in mainstream animation, with Bakshi visualizing things which could (at that time) never be shown in a live-action film. (Graphic violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations, substance abuse, extreme profanity.) leave a comment

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Heavy Traffic
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