Monday, March 7, 2011

Heavy Traffic (1973)

Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Starring (the voices of) Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson, Frank Dekova
Rated X

“Son-of-a-bitch! This broad’s got a hard-on!”

Do you like cartoons? Sure you do. The problem is, the genre is sorely lacking the finer things, like boobs, gunfights, and antisocial behavior. The looming Disney colossus (sucking Pixar like a leech) dominates the animation landscape, and seemingly no one can topple this wholesome family Goliath.

But once upon a time, Ralph Bakshi delivered a few solid kicks to Mickey Mouse’s nads. Bursting with subversive humor, groundbreaking techniques, and antisocial shenanigans, Bakshi’s films are the perfect cure for the Disney blues. Heavy Traffic is his second film, after after the controversial smash-hit Fritz The Cat. Bakshi would later create the notorious Coonskin, an animated Lord of the Rings, and the ill-fated Cool World. After nine features, Heavy Traffic is still considered Bakshi's masterpiece.

Michael Corleone is a virginal 22-year-old loser, sharing a New York apartment with his Italian dad and Jewish mom. He’s a loner, with no job, few friends, and little hope of escaping his dismal surroundings. He keeps himself sane by drawing comics, fueled by the bizarre characters around him.

His luck improves when he starts kinda-sorta dating Carole, a vivacious black girl. Like Michael, she’s down on her luck and craving escape. Is Mike’s artistic talent the lovebirds’ ticket out of the concrete jungle? More importantly, can the two survive long enough to get out?

Heavy Traffic depicts New York as a seedy freakshow, infested with bums, whores, mobsters, and assorted slimeballs. There are no “normal” people, just weirdoes and scumbags. As in much of his work, Bakshi does not sneak around ethnic and social stereotypes—instead he inflates them to the point of caricature, exposing them for the jokes that they are. (This approach landed Bakshi in trouble over his film Coonskin, a blaxploitation riff on Song of the South.) Michael’s nagging, worrying Jewish mother carries a hatchet adorned with a Star of David. His buffoonish, dad oversees dock operations for the Mafia. Side characters include black bums, knife-wielding greasers, and a pallid drag queen named Snowflake. Every character is a (semi-affectionate) spin on a stereotype.

Which leads me to Carole, Michael’s sweetheart. She’s a living embodiment of the soul-sistah archetype: brash, sassy, vulgar, unabashedly sexual. She has the spit-fire tongue and voluptuous figure of a classic blaxploitation heroine. (Also a set of permanently high-beaming titties.) Stereotype or not, Carole is a total fox, the Venus de Milo of ass-cleavage. She has a mouth on her, and a brain in her head; it’s easy to see why Michael falls for her. Okay, yeah, I’m in love with a cartoon. What of it, jive-ass honkey muhfucka?

One common trait in Bakshi’s early work is his unflattering portrayal of the Mafia. Here, the Godfather is a corpulent tyrant, hissing his commands through mouthfuls of spaghetti. I mean, the kid’s name is Michael Corleone. If that isn’t a backhanded tribute to The Godfather, what is?

Heavy Traffic takes place in the same rotten NYC as Taxi Driver and Bad Lieutenant. The cartoon city is rife with violence. Not your usual anvil-to-the-head cartoon slapstick, but brutal real-world bloodshed, portrayed cartoon-style. Here, a gunshot results in a fatal pratfall, a splatter of brains is punctuated with a comedic rim-shot. Just in the film’s opening montage, we see more blood and gore, more tits and dicks than most live-action films show in their entire runtime. Throughout the remaining 77 minutes (most animated films are short, because animation is a pain in the ass), we’re treated to explicit and bizarre nudity, showers of profanity, and some of the most brutal skull-cracking cartoon violence ever seen outside Japan. The putrid cityscape is shown with a collision of live-action and cell animation, adding to the film’s already trippy aesthetic.

Yet for all of its ugliness, Heavy Traffic still possesses an anarchic charm and syrupy-sweet romanticism. It’s a tribute to the weird and gritty New York of olden times, at once comical and heartbreaking. Far out, funny, and sometimes very sad, Heavy Traffic is a must see for animation fans.

Still not convinced? Here’s a gratuitous panty-shot of Carole.

-Paulo Phibes

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