Much is made of the fact that Ralph Bakshi’s first two animated features — Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic — received the “X” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. What’s really remarkable, though, is that the “X” rating existed at all. Before the early 1970s, not only would these films not have been cleared for theatrical release, they would probably have been illegal to exhibit publicly in most places; but as the last vestiges of the old studio system crumbled away the last vestiges of its censorship arm went with it. Newly liberated filmmakers were now able to do the projects they wanted to do. You can feel that exuberance throughout Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic, his most personal film, and his best.
Heavy Traffic tells the story of Michael Corleone, an underground comic-book artist and 22-year-old virgin living in a seedy New York apartment with his bickering parents. His Jewish mother, Ida, is unhappily married to his Catholic father Angelo “Angie” Corleone, who is a low-level mob lackey, and in a series of absurdist comic bits, Ida and Angie attempt to kill each other with various kitchen implements.
While Angie works desperately to get Michael laid — hiring a local prostitute at one point, to no avail — Michael trades his sketches to brassy local bartender Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson) for drinks. This lands Carole in trouble with her boss and she quits her job. Out of work and being stalked by Shorty, the bar’s (legless) bouncer, Carole moves in with Michael; but because Carole is black, Angie hits the roof and the two of them are forced to strike out on their own.
Unlike Fritz the Cat, which was based on characters created by R. Crumb, the world of Heavy Traffic seems closer to Bakshi’s heart. The neighborhood is filled with mobsters, drug addicts, hookers and low-lifes, but far from being something that Michael seeks to escape, his surroundings nurture him and serve as inspiration for his art.
Like most of Bakshi’s movies this one makes heavy use of rotoscoping and still photos as backdrops. In too many of his films use of these techniques seem driven by low budgets but here they serve to tie the action to the real world, as does an interesting frame device in which a live-action Michael (Joseph Kaufman) plays pinball in a seedy bar. The movie returns again and again to the pinball machine to punctuate and separate the episodic story elements; like most of Bakshi’s projects this one is rather haphazardly plotted.
Overall, this is an arresting and experimental film, one of the most audacious animated features ever made. –Michael Popham
HEAVY TRAFFIC screens Monday and Tuesday, August 24 and 25 at 7:00 and 9:00 at the Trylon. Tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.