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Heavy Traffic
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Screenplay: Ralph Bakshi
Voices: Joseph Kaufmann (Michael), Beverly Hope Atkinson (Carole), Frank DeKova (Angie), Terri Haven (Ida), Lillian Adams (Rosa), Mary Dean Lauria (Molly)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1973
Country: USA
Heavy Traffic Poster

"All of [Ralph Bakshi's] films have been either applauded or criticized with a passion. This is the way he wanted them to be seen. Passive is not in his vocabulary." --Official Ralph Bakshi web site (http://www.ralphbakshi.com)

Passive is certainly the least-appropriate word one could use in describing the career of animation maverick Ralph Bakshi, especially concerning his semi-autobiographical Heavy Traffic, a frenetic, over-the-top combination of live action and crude animation that explores the seedy world of New York's Lower East Side in the early 1970s.

When Heavy Traffic was released in 1973, Bakshi's notion of using animation--up until then, almost exclusively the domain of children's entertainment--to tell adult stories was quite revolutionary. Unfortunately, despite spending another decade pushing this notion with edgy, R-rated animated films such as Coonskin (1975), American Pop (1981), and Hey, Good Lookin' (1982), Bakshi could never get the idea to catch on.

As it stands now, animation is still primarily the domain of children's entertainment, and no other major American director has attempted to follow his footsteps in using the medium to other ends (only the Japanese seem to consider animation as a potentially adult medium). The closest thing out there is TV fare like The Simpsons, whose undeniably sharp satirical edge still pales in comparison to the sheer brashness of Bakshi's work. Of course, the fact that no one has dared to follow him does not discount Bakshi's achievements, and even though most of his films are raw and uneven, they still represent an important and groundbreaking use of the cinema.

The loose, almost jazz-like narrative of Heavy Traffic centers on Michael (Joseph Kaufmann), a virginal 22-year-old aspiring cartoonist who still lives with his violent Italian father, Angie (Frank DeKova), and his even-more-violent Jewish mother, Ida (Terri Haven). The scenes in which Michael attempts to pursue his cartooning while his parents threaten each other with knives is astoundingly funny because it's outrageous, but at the same time it hurts because there's too much truth to it.

Michael's world begins to slide toward the criminal when he becomes involved with an African-American barkeep named Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson). Carole is a hardened woman of the streets, and Michael is turned on by her no-nonsense attitude and strong sense of self-reliance. While Carole at first entertains the notion of making money legitimately by selling Michael's artwork, she eventually turns Michael on to criminal means of making a buck, including posing as her pimp and even setting up a potential customer for a brutal robbery.

All of this is told in a rapid-fire series of scenes that don't always make immediate sense. Bakshi's visual prowess is let loose, and he doesn't mind allowing the film to take a dip into the surreal, such as when Michael makes a pitch to a dying producer for a bizarre religious cartoon. Bakshi and his team of animators mix styles and media with an almost overwhelming hubris, but it works on its own merits because the violent style matches the film's violent tone (this same all-out approach would fail miserably in some of his later films). Heavy Traffic takes place in a dark, ragged world in which sudden violence is lurking around every corner, whether in the form of a Mafioso don (an obvious caricature of The Godfather's Don Vito Corleone), a gang of street toughs, or a bunch of corrupt cops.

At the same time, Bakshi overloads the screen with deviant sexuality of all kinds, from an overweight prostitute that Angie brings home for Michael, to a sad-sack transvestite who seems to get sexual gratification from being beaten by a construction worker who is misled to believe he is a woman. Hookers are on every corner, and despite the energy expended on sex, it never seems to satisfy anyone. Yet, the energy is palpable, as characters are almost incapable of staying in their clothes. The sexual intensity in the film almost demands that various body parts be constantly falling out, as if they simply cannot be contained.

As is probably obvious, a great many people took offense to Heavy Traffic. The film is filled with racial slurs and hyperbolic ethnic stereotypes, outrageous sexual situations, and intensely graphic violence, all of which are trends Bakshi would carry to even great extremes in 1975's Coonskin, which was retitled Streetfight when it was released on video to downplay the film's caustic racial element (it plays like as a violent, urban rewriting of Song of the South). Bakshi has a way of getting under your skin with his acerbic social commentary, and the offensiveness of the material is an integral part of its message. Bakshi's story takes place in a depraved world, and he tells it in depraved means.

The medium of animation allows Bakshi to take everything one step farther than it probably needs to go; yet, his aplomb is, in the end, his saving grace. The sheer ludicrousness of everything about Heavy Traffic ensures that you can't take it too seriously, but the hard, underlying social truths beneath the visual onslaught are still unmistakable. Heavy Traffic is the kind of film that you both laugh at and stare at with sheer disbelief. Both powerful and utterly ridiculous, it is a unique cinematic experience that is difficult to forget because of the passionate responses it evokes. Which is, of course, the only way Bakshi would have it.

Heavy Traffic DVD

WidescreenNo (1:33:1 Full-Frame)
AudioDolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SubtitlesFrench, Spanish
Supplements Original theatrical trailer
DistributorMetro Goldwyn-Mayer

It is hard to get a grip on the visual quality of Heavy Traffic because it varies so wildly from scene to scene. This is not a result of the transfer, but rather it is a part of the inherent nature of the film. Combining traditional animation with location photography and plenty of stock footage and still photographs, Heavy Traffic offers a plethora of visual styles. The animation aspect of the image is always sharp and clear, with good color saturation and a smooth appearance. At the same time, the backgrounds are often washed out and grainy, which is the intended look. The only major complaint is that the film is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame, rather than in its intended theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack holds up fairly well. There is some hissing and barely audible popping from time to time, but otherwise it sounds clean. The dialogue, despite the characters' heavy New York and Italian accents, is always clear and understandable. Some of the music sounds a bit harsh and dated in places, but overall it has a good sound for a mono soundtrack.

The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in full-frame.

Overall Rating: (3)

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