In last week’s rundown of My Favorite Martin Scorsese Pictures, I remarked that the enduring immediacy of Taxi Driver was a quality of that movie that existed in spite of the fact that “the scummy New York City of the film has evolved—or is that devolved?—into a much safer if more commercially sterilized urban theme park.” Thinking more about that distinction inspired me to look back to a movie that might just as vividly embody that time and place…so I finally, finally made time to watch Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic for the first time.
Depending on your generation and interests, you might have different things leap to mind first upon hearing Bakshi’s name. If you’re a fan of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, for example (or, if you’re actually Robert Crumb), the first thing you think might be: He’s the a**hole who ruined Fritz the Cat. Maybe you’re a Tolkien junkie, and you immediately think of his animated version of The Lord of the Rings.
Maybe, like me, you immediately think of animator Ralph Bakshi as the man who took the ‘60s animated Spider-Man series on a very weird bender in its second and third seasons—what with the wall-crawler turning into a kind of Edgar Rice Burroughs figure by venturing into underground caves to fight ape-men and winged harpies, visiting Atlantis, or knocking emerald-faced zeppelin pilots out of Manhattan skies roiled by smoky clouds of Armageddon.
Now, though, I’m going to think of Ralph Bakshi first as the madman of invention who made this electrifying artifact that brings the “old” New York of the 1970s to life. The New York of prostitutes and pimps, the New York of sticky-floor porn theaters; the New York of the squeegee man and neon sex and racial slurs and careworn loners and comic primal screams. We can easily wrap our heads around the film’s unique mix of live action and animation once we discover that our main character, an arcade-dwelling young man named Michael Corleone (!)—introduced to us first as a shagdog, flesh-and-blood fella pulling back the plunger of a pinball machine—is a cartoonist.
Michael’s hobby helps us guess that the story will be at least somewhat autobiographical, with Michael acting as the Bakshi stand-in. We also grasp that, because Michael is the one character in the film who isn’t represented as an overly exaggerated caricature (his facial and bodily proportions drawn as “normal”), everyone and everything else depicted in the film will represent the broad strokes of his deep memories of some real events in his past or present. An alternate interpretation might be that the entire story comes to life simply as a kind of satirical fantasia Michael creates inside his mind—using the real people and places he knows—while idling away his time at the pinball machine.
(This second reading of the movie is made possible largely by the fact that many of the other characters turn up at the end, almost Oz-like, in their live action versions)
Heavy Traffic drops us into its hypnotic vibe at the very outset, as the transition to a frenetic montage of animated images featuring liquor-swilling black bums, sexual assaults, and armed robbery is accompanied by a kind of primitive, Beat-sounding narration: What makes you happy, what makes you happy/where do you go, where do you hide/Who do you see, who do you see/Who do you trust, who do you trust/Who do you screw, what kills the pain… And then we’re clued in to why Michael might seek escape in cartooning flights of fancy; his home life is something of a living hell. While his Italian father Angelo scraps out a living by working with the mob, he takes every opportunity he gets to cheat on Jewish wife Ida, who harangues him at every turn and laments that she “died the day she married a goy.” Their fights turn grotesquely violent, with Angelo punching her out and Ida trying to castrate him with a meat cleaver or stick his head in the oven to finally end her “23 years of suffering.”
Michael meets with some greaser friends on a rooftop, but they aren’t a lot of help; knowing that he’s (shamefully) still a virgin, they push him towards Rosalyn, a whore waiting for him on a stained mattress. Their would-be tryst ends with Michael accidentally knocking her over the ledge, his friends erupting into a merry jig at the thought of her death. We get a tiny reprieve from this deeply unsettling moment when we learn she’s been spared, dangling naked with her foot caught in a clothesline. The movie keeps us on our toes with these kinds of drastic reversals of tone; chatting up the harmonica blues-blowing Mo, Michael indulges a poetic yearning for freedom by trying to set a pigeon free. It refuses to leave—so he throws a board with a nail sticking out of it at the uncooperative bird. Taking some kind of pity on the “crazy Jew kid” is bartender Carole, who’s been secretly passing him free booze for the drawings he makes that amuse her; they take up with each other after she gets fired from her job. Carole gets the notion that Michael could make some money by selling his art, but a pitch of his “religious” story to a hospitalized publisher—which involves the postapocalyptic worship of a mud mountain and God “screwing” the last available white woman only to be assassinated by his son, who calls the Lord’s message a great big con—winds up killing him. Thus thwarted, the pair eventually decides to make a living by Carole becoming a prostitute and Michael clubbing her johns to death and stealing their money.
While Michael’s father, like his friends, has made it a personal mission to see that his son actually goes to bed with a woman soon, the one thing he won’t abide is him being intimate with a black woman. “Black” is not the term he uses, however (this movie isn’t shy about tossing the N-word around), and when Angelo discovers his son’s relationship with Carole, he puts a contract out on Michael’s life—hiring legless bar regular “Shorty” to put a bullet in his brain.
Yes, this is a cartoon—but it is daring and unpredictable and irreverent in the extreme, true to the nature of “underground” comics like those of R. Crumb, who also took a lot of heat for what readers perceived to be outrageously offensive sexual violence and racial caricatures (see the brilliant documentary Crumb and the discussion of “Ooga Booga,” for example). If you were to look at images from Heavy Traffic in isolation, it’d be easy to see how people could regard its realizations of black characters as profoundly offensive, and there’s no shortage of racist behavior from some characters in the story. But my impression was that the film—and I say this with some caution coming from the inevitable bias of White Man’s Privilege—is not racist at all.
The first thing to consider is that, as I pointed out at the beginning, every single character apart from Michael is exaggerated to the point of outrageous caricature. Now, maybe you could take this to be that Heavy Traffic is not just racist towards African-Americans, then, but condescending and offensive across the board—targeting blacks, Italians, Jews—in the same way that Dirty Harry is said to hate everyone, “especially spics”—but then you also have to take into account how the characters are depicted in the story. These aren’t the kinds of insulting and reductive stereotypes we’re used to seeing from the days of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best, slow-shuffling, eyes bulging with expressions of vacuous stupidity; these characters have agency. For some reason, the way some of the black characters are represented in Heavy Traffic brought to mind what one woman in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb documentary said about that artist’s depiction of stocky female characters who had overly large posteriors—a marked departure from the large-breasted, small-waisted proportions of traditional comics art: that these types of women were shown to have real power and authority. The soundtrack to Heavy Traffic is a glory, with a Sérgio Mendes and Brazil ’66 cover of “Scarborough Fair,” The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” the jazz standard “Take Five” from Dave Brubeck’s quartet, and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” spicing up a way-cool Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin score. The extraordinary colors of the film really pop on Shout Factory’s Blu-ray release—this is one case where dirt, specks, or other imperfections of the live action footage wind up adding to rather than detracting from the experience (even to the extent where they may not actually be an intentional aspect of the film’s texture).
And lest you think the film is merely a circus freakshow where every conceivable sin and oddity is exploited for its shock value—and believe me, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the bizarre incidents and images in the movie—you’re also in store for some moments of topical urgency and genuine poignancy. There’s a scene in Carole’s bar when nymphomaniac cross-dresser Snowflake is beaten to a pulp by the drunken goon who believes him to be a biologically-complete woman, only to discover otherwise when reaching under “her” dress; the sadistic attack scorches you with thoughts of modern-day hatreds that linger today. The moment when Michael’s mother comes across an old photo and realizes belatedly that she’s looking at a photo of herself is a genuine heart-tugger.
As I hinted at early on, by virtue of its autobiographical content and very distinctive style, Heavy Traffic offers the so-inclined viewer the opportunity to meditate on the nature of memory and personal storytelling, shedding a vibrant light on how we actually remember and re-create the past—not with crystal-clear, three-dimensional perfection, but as slashes and gashes and clashes of the boredom, impudence, horniness, despair, comedy, frustration, and violence in all the human interactions that fueled the creation of our identities.
Sorry I’d missed it for so long, but glad I got to see it for the first time in such a pristine presentation. Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic is a howling work of art, its time-capsule depravities still coursing through the veins of cinema history like—to borrow a poetic turn of phrase from Norman Mailer and an underground filmmaker of the Warhol era I once knew—adrenalin that devours the blood.