Today I watched Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic (1973)
Heavy Traffic follows Michael, a young man growing up in New York. His home life is marked by his Italian mobster father’s abuse of his Jewish mother, which drives Michael to take up cartoons as an escape. Michael understandably has trouble with relationships and thus has to deal with all manner of teasing for his virginity. He eventually does get a girlfriend in the form of a black bartender named Carole whom he traded comics for free drinks but has now left her job. After a particularly disturbing instance of abuse from his father, Michael decides to leave his home. But neither he nor Carole have any luck finding employment, Carole is confronted by racism and Michael’s cartoons are too out there and abstract for mainstream sensibilities. Can they survive in this rough and tumble city or will they too be eaten alive?
While Bakshi is yet to incorporate rotoscoping into his repertoire, he still handles this film with a wide range of visual styles. As the film is semi-autobiographical, Bakshi uses images of the familiar and real to ground the narrative, despite the surreal nature of this style. The improvisational tone is extremely rare in animation, well, in most film really, it is set by the collage of imagery and reinforced with ad-libbed dialogue. It all serves to express this idea of New York as a meeting ground of numerous cultures and races, though a very dark and conflicted one. There is quite a degree of cynicism here I think, as the film portrays this meeting of disparate people as a rather violent and fractured one, though the film is not without hope.
There is a sense of near overwhelming darkness in this film, the operative word here is ‘near’ though. For all the ugliness of New York that the film does not shy away from, it also showcases a beauty in the strangeness of cities and urban life. Ugliness and beauty are two things this film is full of, but mostly it just highlights how strange life is. It is an intentionally offbeat film, raw in it’s delivery of a warts and all portrait of humanity as encapsulated in that inspiring city of New York. 5/5