Deeply personal and willfully repellant, Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic is not the most coherent film in the entire world. It depicts the world of an aspiring underground cartoonist through a mixture of live action and animation, both of which are rendered in grotesque strokes.
Our hero is the virginal artist Mike (Joseph Kaufmann), who is introduced playing pinball. He lives a monkish existence inside a tenement apartment whose environment is a little like The Honeymooners if it were designed by Breughel and written by Tennessee Williams at his most Sophoclean. The women are mile-a-minute shrews who always seem to have a mammary breaking free from their blouse. The men are thick-lipped ethnic caricatures. They think with their dicks—which inevitably are also put on display—and are unable to control their bodily functions. Eking out an existence in the New York underbelly, they take out their impotence on their women.
Mike’s virgin status is both a stigmatic mark of his inexperience and a validation of his dedication to art. This is reflected in the film’s misogyny. In one scene, Mike is being goaded into having sex with the neighborhood tease, who beckons to him from a rooftop mattress. He accidentally knocks the girl off the roof with his enthusiasm. Mike then cracks the gang up with the line, “She had it coming.” Writer/director Bakshi returns to that image of the girl hanging from a telephone wire, swinging in the breeze like a lynching victim. Although he spends the film being more an observer than a participant in this crazy world, Mike becomes involved with the black bartender Carol (Beverly Hope Atkinson). Fleeing an unwanted admirer, she agrees to shack up with Mike. He takes a tentative step at pimping her out so they can raise some money.
Heavy Traffic functions more as a series of disconnected vignettes, with the occasional foray into a Tijuana Bible-style routine set to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” What sticks is less its trite urban drama than how Bakshi depicts his world. This is a New York City that isn’t recognizable anymore. The colors are various shades of shit. Trash clogs the streets. Characters conduct non-stop interior monologues. Its closest antecedent is Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which actually premiered at the 1973 New York Film Festival months after Traffic’s release.
The racial lines are as strikingly drawn as the character concepts. Mike’s Jewish mother is continually trying to protect her son from his Italian father, a smalltime hood. Pop Angelo, despairing at his son’s artistic bent, brings home a Spanish prostitute to deflower him. The streets are inhabited by figures more likely to be found in an asylum than the Lower East Side nowadays. The neighborhood weirdoes include a jealous paraplegic obsessed with Carol, coiffed Italians who wouldn’t be out of place palling with Tony Manero, and a local crazy who imports the wisdom, “We’re all niggas, boy.” (Profundity isn’t really Traffic’s strong suit.)
There’s the suggestion of Werner Herzog in the film’s anthropological interest in these neighborhood tribes, as well as the characters’ penchant for expressing themselves as much through a harmonica or trumpet as verbally. (That said, the soundtrack is a meager grab-bag that overworks Sergio Mendes’s version of “Scarborough Fair” as a motif.) Every gestures towards grace, however, results in violence. Bakshi depicts this in an over-the-top style of blood-letting and dismemberment. Heavy Traffic’s extremities are a conscious rejection of animation tradition. Bakshi combined animated foreground action with background photographs, many of which depict New York as it might have been when his immigrant forebears arrived in the city. Even this methodology, however, is open to distortion. Bakshi angles the backgrounds in distorted perspectives that offer more disorientation than nostalgia’s comforts. It’s in keeping with a film that wants to burst ‘toons at the seams. Each gag is played out at amphetamine speed, and the only anthropomorphic animals on display are a pair of furiously rutting rats.
If there’s any structure here, it’s governed by the live-action device of Mike playing a pinball machine to organize his slices of life. The results are scattershot. Among the most successful is Mike’s visit to a photographer, where his cartoon form is surrounded by bikini’d women who have been shot and then left as undeveloped negatives on the film stock. Less successful is the lazy depiction of a Mafia godfather eating human beings with his pasta and attended by priests. (He holds court in a urinal.) Mike is shocked out of his pinball reverie when his cartoon avatar is shot in the head. The live-action reunion with Carol hints that Bakshi’s poetic concept of being is rooted more on cliché than experience. An interlude where Mike tells a fable of God being killed by his son is the provocative manner in which the creator is most comfortable.
Nearly four decades after it was released, Heavy Traffic is still an unsettling watch, unsettling as much for its psychological instability as for its vertiginous visuals. The film never asked to be clutched to anyone’s bosom and it probably hasn’t. The poorly-recorded soundtrack–at times improvised by the vocal cast–is at times inaudible. The comic beats rattle by like automatic fire. It’s the interior world of antique photos and countercultural experimental that ends sticking like grot to the plumbing. On that level, Heavy Traffic is successful. It’s a unique trip inside a head where “first thought best thought” contends with “first shock best thought.” Traffic’s unanswered question is whether those thoughts are worth preserving … or even revisiting.