Heavy Traffic

(Check out my previous Bakshi essay here: Fritz the Cat)

After the success of Fritz the Cat in 1972, which was a huge financial and critical success with a $90 million USD box office and as the first X-rated animated feature respectively, animator and director Ralph Bakshi had near carte blanche to begin work immediately on a follow-up. Just as Fritz would be the height of his career financially speaking and every subsequent film would be related back to that one’s box office, the follow up, Heavy Traffic, would receive nearly universal critical praise, and every subsequent feature would struggle to rise to the same level of critical appraisal. These were good times for Bakshi and they would never really be re-lived again.

The film opens in a live-action setting where a young man, an underground cartoonist living and working in New York, wiles away time playing pinball in a penny arcade. As his imagination takes hold of him and he drifts off into daydreams, the film begins to take shape. Animated characters serving as analogues for the young man, Michael, and the people moving and living in the real-world society around him begin to swarm around his head, and although animated, they operate within the boundaries of a world and milieu of stock photos of real city locations, underlit and overexposed to give them a grainy, lived in feeling appropriate to their reality in the real New York City.

Michael’s parents, a Jewish mother and an Italian mob-underling father, are constantly at odds. He cheats on her and is seen as a bad influence on Michael, and so, she wants a divorce, but is blocked in her desire by the fact that ‘Catholics [like her husband] don’t get divorced!’ They attempt to kill one another throughout the film, which originally takes on a fun-loving cartoony Honeymooners atmosphere, and eventually transgresses the level of animation into a real mode of pathos aided by the brutality of the husband’s eventual assault upon his wife.

The film is replete with such instances of cartoon, and hence fantasy, violence breaking out into what feels more real and visceral than almost any live-action film can deliver. The process is a dialectical one whereby our preconceived notions of animated violence as spectacle are first summoned (as in the early playful attempts of the Jewish mother to suffocate her husband in the oven or the fall of a prostitute off of the roof of a building only to land and hand precariously on a wire by her foot for he remainder of the film, unharmed) and strengthened by the zaniness of the film’s earlier scenes. Later, all of the authenticity of the ad-libbing of dialogue, of the real backgrounds in the film, of the use of paintings (like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks), of real modern music (like Chuck Berry’s Maybelline, and a version of Scarborough Fair), and of real locations and social situations, slowly subvert the animated world of the film and present Heavy Traffic as more and more Other to animation whilst simultaneously being something Other to reality.

The reconstructed thing that is the film, the synthesis of reality and imagination, is a hyperreal simulation of the world in which everything is simultaneously more real than animation and more symbolic than reality as such. Bakshi constructs a mode of operation in this film that yields in the viewer a sense of the reality of the film as more symbolic, as more viscerally and intellectually fulfilling in each vignette than either traditional animation or live-action could do alone. And so, when the cross-dressing character Snowflake is beaten to a pulp in a bar by a sauced prospective boyfriend who gets the big anatomical reveal unexpectedly, the violence of the moment is palpable and pathos is summoned within the viewer immediately, even though the scene is played as a comedy. Later, when Michael’s father brings home a woman of ill-repute who he has hired to get his son laid, which prompts a fight between the father and the mother, ending in a vicious beating of the mother and subsequent relinquishing of her usual strong will, her weakness and pitiful state in that moment is otherworldly and tragic beyond belief.

Michael has, however, found a girlfriend in Carole, unbeknownst to his parents. But she’s black, and Michael’s Italian mob father hates the prospect of his son dating a black girl and puts out a hit on his own son in racist rage over Michael’s so-called ‘disgraceful act’ against the white bloodline of his family. the murder does take place, and when it does so, the bloodletting is more viscerally upsetting than any moment I’ve ever seen in animation history. Because of the nature of the animated medium, the scene can be rendered more complete and gruesome than in the live-action medium. And it is. In slow-motion, skull casing imploding, blood ejecting out of the head, and brain matter exposed to the open air as Michael falls to the ground slowly, his life-force leaving him instantly this beautifully choreographed ballet of death.

Unlike Fritz the Cat, which provided explicit interpretations and political points on the nature of life in the city, life in the America, and life in the counterculture, Heavy Traffic says more through merely showing life in these situations. The lives of the down and out, of pimps and whores and criminals and what drives them into those situations, of spousal abuse, of the difficulties of working as an artist from an underground position, of the injustices of racism and how they are carried out most brutally on a personal level by otherwise decent human beings, of vice and how social concepts of cool, cultural concepts of cool are often adopted by the weakest, least ‘cool’ figures in a manner that keeps them down emotionally, socially, economically, psychically. Drug use, alcohol abuse, free love, waste of money, time, and physical resources on expenditures inimical to psychological and fiscal well-being.

The film made $1.5 million USD on a $900,000 budget. A very modest increase in budget from the $800,000 of Fritz the Cat. A very modest return on investment at a surprising 60x less revenue than that earlier feature. But a money-making film nonetheless, and an achievement that placed Ralph Bakshi within a fiscal pantheon as the only person since Walt Disney himself to make two animated features consecutively that both made money. Bakshi was hot, and he would remain so for quite some time on the critical and commercial, and thereby cultural, strength of his first two features: the only two animated features by that point to have received X-ratings. And it didn’t hurt that he was working in a time when the New Hollywood filmmakers and the counterculture had a large hold on the cultural imagination of America, and that Bakshi was ideologically beside them in his interest in city life, urban life, and the problems coincident with that time and in his era.


Cody Ward

[Next up Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 attack on racism, prejudice, and stereotyping Coonskin]


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