by David Morgan-Brown
“It’s animated, but it’s not a cartoon. It’s funny, but it’s not a comedy. It’s real, it’s unreal.” So goes the fantastic trailer for this magnum opus by the king of adult animation, Ralph Bakshi. The ‘70s were a golden time for alternative, subversive, and usually offensive animation flicks not suitable for kids, long before the days of South Park or Adult Swim. Heavy Traffic is the crowning achievement of this particular genre, an outrageously funny mix of animation and real life, packed with a shocking amount of animated violence, sex, drug use, and a very loose take on racial, sexual, and social politics. Yet what excels this film above its contemporaries is how steeped it is in personal content, its debaucherous side contrasted with its startling poignancy, making it a triumph in the history of animation in general.
Bakshi had a hand as an animation director and overall director on many childhood favourite shows in the ‘60s, including Spider-Man. He made his feature film debut with Fritz the Cat, the film adaptation of the beat comic book, much to the annoyance of its creator, Robert Crumb. The film was a smash hit (as much as an X-rated animated film could be, the first of its kind) and Bakshi used this reasonable amount of fame to helm his personal project, Heavy Traffic.
The beginning of the ‘70s saw a grittier, dirtier, more underground portrayal of New York that contrasted highly with the love affair it had received throughout the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Despite coming from the pencil tips and the ink blots of its animators, Heavy Traffic’s New York feels like one of the more real depictions of the city that we’ve seen at the cinema. The hyperbolic and cartoonish characters and the squalid environments that surround them only accentuate how true-to-life this trippy, yet anguished vision of this city Bakshi has put to screen.
There isn’t a concrete story in Heavy Traffic, apart from focusing on Michael Corleone, a 22 year old unemployed virgin cartoonist, who isn’t getting anywhere in life until he gets together with his crush, Carole, and they decide to take drastic measures to get by in their lives. What there is around this vague story is an episodic array of wild and wacky non-adventures, sometimes visualised through different animation styles. My personal favourite of these may be the sci-fi fantasy comic strip Michael pitches to a dying distributor, which is so slap-in-the-face offensive, it kills him.
Bakshi is a keen cartoonist and utilises everything that is great about animation in this film. It presents to us a world that feels so real, but it’s displayed in an exaggerated, nightmarish, and visually malleable fashion. He uses his animation style to subvert and distort the stereotypes he grew up with in a hilarious manner. He mixes a myriad of different animation (and live action) techniques successfully together, creating a wondrous montage of a semi-autobiographical tale that is hilarious, provocative, poignant, funky, and visually impressive – as an animated flick, a film about New York, and a movie in general, this is an underrated masterpiece.