Heavy Traffic was Ralph Bakshi’s follow-up to his groundbreaking X-Rated animated feature film Fritz the Cat. It’s personal, emotional, at times shocking, and above all an undiscovered gem of a classic animated feature film from probably the most influential American animator of the past fifty years.
Opening with a man playing pinball to one of the best versions of “Scarborough Fair” I’ve ever heard in my life, Heavy Traffic gives us its opening credits sequence and wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter: the streets of New York. This movie is an adult cartoon portrait of street life in 1973. The satire is a bit sharper than it sounds, I assure you. A lot of the characters are a bit, for lack of a better word, caricatures, but the feel of a real setting and real characters can be felt deeply and it runs through this film’s veins.
Our story revolves around Michael, an aspiring underground cartoonist, as we follow a few days in his life. We see his crazy parents, his crazy friends, and a few of his crazy relatives. It’s hard to give this film a plot, per-say, sort of an edgier Catcher in the Rye for the 70’s if anything, with a bit more hope for its main character. Michael stumbles through life, and the film, having random encounter after random encounter.
The film in essence is a kind of collection of vignettes that have just enough continuity to all come together in making you start to care for the characters and their irresistibly natural dialogue. It’s fearlessly experimental, even bold at times… Michael, throughout the course of the film, begins dating a black girl named Carol to the disappointment of his caricature of a New York Italian father who enraged by his son’s “disrespect” to the family, and he attempts to put a hit on his son. The true point of this film is to be an animated representation of New York society in the 70’s. Down to the fact that a shaky pinball game represents shaky society, ready to snap at any moment.
This film has its weak points which in my opinion don’t COMPLETELY overshadow the good ones. For example, the animation quality isn’t consistent at times (unfortunately a common thing in Bakshi films). Some scenes are animated very well and some are more mediocre and a SMALL handful of scenes have absolutely no direction or fluidity. There were budgetary issues abounding -another common problem with Bakshi films.
Much like Bakshi’s next film Coonskin, this movie ambitiously tries a lot of live action integration into its backgrounds and for the most part it works. The film opens and closes with live action book-ends and that also works… but a lot of the experimenting with live action integration creates problems and ultimately ends up looking like total shit. One scene in particular involves female underwear models at a photo shoot and the entire movie quickly grinds to a halt until it’s over. The experimenting is just way too much with the on and off negative and the models’ face paint… but once it’s over the movie is pretty much right back on track.
Not every scene is perfect, this is a Bakshi film mind you, but the scenes done well are done pretty well and in general it has a lot going for it. I mentioned the dialogue already but it is worth knowing that Ralph Bakshi was all about making his dialogue sound as natural as possible. He would even go record dialogue right off the streets, and some of that shows up in this film. The characters? Well, you have a slew of fucked up faces to choose from; they tackle stereotypes, and people who are often looked at as stereotypes but really aren’t. The soundtrack is lively enough to breathe a life into the film that only further seals my opinion that this is a quintessential film of the 1970’s. An awful lot of cynicism… but an awful lot of heart as well.
Take a Drink: for gunfire
Take a Drink: for drug use
Take a Drink: for stereotypes
Take a Drink: for every instance ‘Scarborough Fair’ makes an appearence
Do a Shot: if something shocks you