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. Thisis the way he wanted them to be seen. Passive is not in his vocabulary." --Official RalphBakshi web site (http://www.ralphbakshi.com)

Passive is certainly the least-appropriate word one could use in describing thecareer of animation maverick Ralph Bakshi, especially concerning his semi-autobiographicalHeavy Traffic, a frenetic, over-the-top combination of live action and crudeanimation 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--upuntil then, almost exclusively the domain of children's entertainment--to tell adult storieswas quite revolutionary. Unfortunately, despite spending another decade pushing thisnotion with edgy, R-rated animated films such as Coonskin (1975), AmericanPop (1981), and Hey, Good Lookin' (1982), Bakshi could never get the idea tocatch on.

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

The loose, almost jazz-like narrative of Heavy Traffic centers on Michael (JosephKaufmann), a virginal 22-year-old aspiring cartoonist who still lives with his violent Italianfather, Angie (Frank DeKova), and his even-more-violent Jewish mother, Ida (TerriHaven). The scenes in which Michael attempts to pursue his cartooning while his parentsthreaten each other with knives is astoundingly funny because it's outrageous, but at thesame 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 anAfrican-American barkeep named Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson). Carole is a hardenedwoman of the streets, and Michael is turned on by her no-nonsense attitude and strongsense of self-reliance. While Carole at first entertains the notion of making moneylegitimately by selling Michael's artwork, she eventually turns Michael on to criminalmeans of making a buck, including posing as her pimp and even setting up a potentialcustomer 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 intothe surreal, such as when Michael makes a pitch to a dying producer for a bizarre religiouscartoon. Bakshi and his team of animators mix styles and media with an almostoverwhelming hubris, but it works on its own merits because the violent style matches thefilm's violent tone (this same all-out approach would fail miserably in some of his laterfilms). Heavy Traffic takes place in a dark, ragged world in which sudden violenceis lurking around every corner, whether in the form of a Mafioso don (an obvious caricatureof The Godfather's Don Vito Corleone), a gang of street toughs, or a bunch ofcorrupt cops.

At the same time, Bakshi overloads the screen with deviant sexuality of all kinds, from anoverweight prostitute that Angie brings home for Michael, to a sad-sack transvestite whoseems to get sexual gratification from being beaten by a construction worker who is misledto believe he is a woman. Hookers are on every corner, and despite the energy expended onsex, it never seems to satisfy anyone. Yet, the energy is palpable, as characters are almostincapable of staying in their clothes. The sexual intensity in the film almost demands thatvarious 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. Thefilm is filled with racial slurs and hyperbolic ethnic stereotypes, outrageous sexualsituations, and intensely graphic violence, all of which are trends Bakshi would carry toeven great extremes in 1975's Coonskin, which was retitled Streetfightwhen it was released on video to downplay the film's caustic racial element (it plays like asa violent, urban rewriting of Song of the South). Bakshi has a way of getting underyour skin with his acerbic social commentary, and the offensiveness of the material is anintegral part of its message. Bakshi's story takes place in a depraved world, and he tells it indepraved means.

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

Heavy TrafficDVD

WidescreenNo (1:33:1Full-Frame)
AudioDolby Digital1.0 Monaural
Supplements Originaltheatrical trailer

It is hard to get a grip on the visual quality of HeavyTraffic because it varies so wildly from scene to scene. This is not a result of thetransfer, but rather it is a part of the inherent nature of the film. Combining traditionalanimation with location photography and plenty of stock footage and still photographs,Heavy Traffic offers a plethora of visual styles. The animation aspect of the imageis always sharp and clear, with good color saturation and a smooth appearance. At thesame 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 itsintended theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack holds up fairlywell. There is some hissing and barely audible popping from time to time, but otherwise itsounds clean. The dialogue, despite the characters' heavy New York and Italian accents, isalways 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.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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