Inspired by the street life and the African-American culture to which animator Ralph Bakshi was exposed during his childhood and adolescence, the X-rated cartoon Heavy Traffic offers a statement of sorts. It’s personal and unique, but it’s also disjointed, excessive, loud, and vulgar, a phantasmagoria set in the gutter. Bakshi threads a semiautobiographical narrative through the picture, tracking the adventures of a 22-year-old cartoonist encountering the world of sex for the first time, while subplots touch on miscegenation, racism, and violence. Yet for much of its running time, Heavy Traffic is as freeform as a jazz solo, jumping and diving and grooving through a bizarre amalgam of brash sounds and provocative imagery. One gets the sense of Bakshi sawing open his head and pouring the contents onto the screen.
There’s something unquestionably thrilling about watching a gifted artist speak this directly and openly to his audience. Alas, there’s also something to be said for restraint and structure, two things this film almost completely lacks. Because it’s such an individualistic statement, Heavy Traffic can’t rightly be described as a mess; better to say that Bakshi felt compelled to make certain things accessible to viewers and did not feel so compelled to translate other things out of his own private language. In sum, make of Heavy Traffic what you will.
The core storyline follows Michael Corleone—yes, the same name as the protagonist of The Godfather (1971)—as he trudges through the brutality and grime of a New York City that seems to exist out of time. Some signifiers suggest the ’50s of Bakshi’s youth, while others seem pulled from the ’70s. Michael lives with his oppressive Jewish mother and his philandering Italian father, who constantly fight with weapons as well as words. (In one scene, Mom throws a cleaver at Dad’s crotch.) Through circumstance, Michael becomes involved with Carole, an African-American bartender in a dive bar, so Michael’s father goes mad over the thought of his son bedding a black woman. The father even tries to order a Mob hit on his own son. Meanwhile, Carole and Michael hatch a scheme to leave New York for California so he can pursue his dream of becoming an animator.
Dancing around this linear narrative are myriad running gags and visual tropes, including live-action shots of an actor playing Michael while he operates a pinball machine. (Close-ups of balls bouncing around inside the machines serve as a recurring metaphor representing, one assumes, the vagaries of fate.) If the preceding description makes Heavy Traffic sound straightforward, rest assured it is not. Bakshi takes most scenes into risqué territory by explicitly animating sex and violence. Heavy Traffic may well contain more cartoon penises than any other film, and other startling images include slow-motion gore (e.g., a bullet exploding a character’s skull), as well as various excretory functions. One scene features a drunken stud making out with a dancing girl until exclaiming, “This broad’s got a hard-on!” The stud reacts to his discovery by pummeling his transvestite playmate nearly to death. Other noteworthy moments include the requisite offensive religious scene, with a bloody Christ stepping off the cross, and a black-and-white cartoon-within-a-cartoon depicting a character beating people with his phallus, which is as large as his entire torso.
Clearly, Bakshi worked through some stuff while making Heavy Traffic, which he began developing well before his breakout hit, Fritz the Cat (1972), and then returned to after the success of Fritz the Cat gave him cachet.
Heavy Traffic: FREAKY