Review: Heavy Traffic

Ralph Bakshi was one of the most influential and original voices in animation in the sixties and seventies, and most of his films have gone on to develop large cult followings. Often blending live action with crude animation, the majority of his films were largely controversial, often earning X ratings from the MPAA.

The semi-autobiographical Heavy Traffic is Bakshi’s most personal film. It was successful with both mainstream audiences as well as critics, and many consider it to be his masterpiece.

Heavy Traffic opens in live action as a young artist, Michael Corleone, plays a game of pinball at a local arcade. He begins to philosophize on life as the film gradually segues into animation. We are in New York. It is presented as a filthy hell hole. Michael lives in a lower-class apartment with his parents and spends most of his time drawing in his room. While the majority of his friends are throwing their lives away out on the streets, Michael chooses the arts as an outlet through which he can escape his troubled home life. Michael’s mother is a practicing Jew, who suspects that her Mafioso husband is having an affair. Over the course of the film, she will make more than one attempt to kill her husband, Angelo. Meanwhile, Angelo is troubled by the fact that Michael is 24 and still a virgin. He sets out to hire a prostitute to forcefully deflower his son.

When Michael isn’t drawing, he roams the streets, carrying on conversations with the homeless and the local greasers. He befriends a black woman named Carole at a local bar, and instantly falls in love with her. Carole gives Michael free drinks in exchange for some of his drawings. Carole’s legless friend, Shorty, is concerned about Carole’s friendship with Michael – and more than a little jealous. After Carole is fired from her job, Michael offers to let her room with him at his house. After the racist Angelo protests against the idea, Michael and Carole decide to move out and make enough money to move to California. Michael attempts to sell one of his comics to an elderly executive, but the old man dies after hearing Michael’s unorthodox and incredibly blasphemous pitch.

Carole attempts to become a taxi dancer, before deciding on prostitution, with Michael acting as her pimp. In order to make quick cash, they begin to beat their clients to death and rob them of their cash. Meanwhile, Michael’s father approaches a man named the Godfather, and puts a hit contract out on his own son for dating a black woman.

This slice of life animation is unlike anything else that came before it. Bakshi tackles racial and homophobic stereotypes, the arts industry, sexual politics, and religion in this highly effective satire. A gritty sense of reality permeates the entire film, and there are several uncomfortable moments of misogyny sprinkled throughout. This is a film that would not and could not be made in today’s “politically correct” environment. It is a product of the extraordinarily liberal period of groundbreaking cinematic achievements in the seventies. Bakshi was taking risks along with many of the true artists of the time.

Life is nothing more than a game of pinball in the world of Heavy Traffic, and Bakshi pushes this metaphor in the two live action scenes which bookend the film. The film ends on an existential grace note, with the strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” playing over the credits.

Shout! Factory has released Heavy Traffic on Blu-ray. The transfer is gorgeous, allowing just enough natural film grain to satisfy cinephiles. The print is clean, with only a few specks of dirt here and there. The soundtrack is limited to the original mono sound mix, and the film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is a major improvement over the previous MGM DVD release, which offered nothing more than a pan and scan version of the film.

This release comes highly recommended.

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