1970s, 2/4, Comedy, Ralph Bakshi, Review

Heavy Traffic

#4 in my ranking of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography.

This was the film that Ralph Bakshi wanted to make before Fritz the Cat, a film about an underground animator in New York who is actually human in design. There’s obviously some element of autobiography at play, but only to some limited degree. There are also some motifs that come into play that repeat from Fritz, mostly this desire to escape New York like it’s a prison. It’s also a slightly better film than Bakshi’s previous film, even if Bakshi’s worst impulses and general inability to tell a single, sustained story for 75 minutes are still on evident display.

Michael (Joseph Kaufmann) is a twenty-three year old animator living with his Italian father, Angelo (Frank de Kova) and Jewish mother, Ida (Terri Haven). Angelo (whose design looks a whole lot like Homer Simpson by some weird coincidence) is a low-level flunky in the Italian mob who spends his nights out and bragging to an attractive young blonde about his respect in the neighborhood. The situation leads to loud, extended fights between father and mother that demonstrates the uncomfortable line that Bakshi tries to toe, and often fails at. The violence between mother and father is really violent while there’s an emphasis on a certain level of realism while also using heavily stylized character designs. Hitting someone with a frying pan sends blood everywhere, but it doesn’t actually hurt them any worse than Wile E. Coyote is ever hurt. There’s an abundance of real images as backgrounds in an effort to more firmly root the story in a real New York, but violence is both supposed to mean something and not mean anything at the same time. It’s a microcosm of Bakshi’s general incoherence between his stylistic choices and the things he seems to be trying to say.

Much like Fritz, the film is more of a series of vignettes than a singular story, but the pieces hang together more comfortably here. The core of the film is a relationship between Michael, the perennial virgin, and the attractive black bartender Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson) that he gives drawings to for free drinks before he gets her fired by falling through the skylight of the bar. This all happens while a legless regular, Shorty, dotes on her unsuccessfully and a transvestite masochist picks up a burly construction worker who beats him up after finding out his secret. It’s interesting that the transvestite is designed in similar ways as a minstrel show character would be.

Carole ends up crashing in Michael’s room, much to the chagrin of Angelo who hates that she’s black. The scene that introduces Carole to Michael’s family is the sort of puerile comedy that Bakshi loved to revel in. Angelo brings a large woman home to take Michael’s virginity which leads to another knock out fight between father and mother while the woman aggressively goes after Michael as Carole comes out of the bathroom to Angelo’s anger. The scene ends with the woman going down on Michael while Ida climbs on top of the larger woman to try and stop her, and the bed collapses. I mean…it’s obviously supposed to be hilarious, but I found it mostly just uncomfortable.

Where the movie works best really is the relationship between Carole and Michael, however that doesn’t mean that it works all that well. For instance, she never brings up this major comical sequence even though her supposed boyfriend was doing such things right in front of her. In order to get work, Carole gets a job at a dancing club where Michael ends up acting as her pimp, and the relationship deteriorates because of the financial strain. And then Michael gets shot in the head because Angelo hates that Michael is dating a black girl so much he puts out a contract on him. I mean…this movie really isn’t all that good. It is an improvement on Fritz the Cat, though.

It all ends up being the thoughts of a real-life Michael playing a pinball machine. The use of the repeated visual motif of the pinball machine throughout the film points to Bakshi’s obviousness in making his point, mostly that being in New York is like getting knocked around in a pinball machine. Anyway, it ends up being a further obvious metaphor where Michael had been imagining an animated version of his life with people he knew or just saw (sort of like The Wizard of Oz, I suppose), and he sees the real life version of Carole leaving a bar. He pursues her, talks to her, and gets her to dance with him in a park. Aw…if we could only find love in this world…

Yeah, obvious message is obvious.

Obvious messages can be fine in fiction if packaged compellingly, though, and Heavy Traffic is simply just not that compelling. Bakshi seems to have had no idea how to tell a sustained story over the course of about 80 minutes. His vignettes step on each other’s toes, preventing any kind of narrative momentum from ever building, while he engages in his worst impulses in individual sequences that never really fit into anything else around it. Still, there’s still something here, something seemingly more personal to Bakshi himself since the story seems a bit more autobiographical than Fritz had been. That gives a greater focus on Michael’s actual story when it’s around that helps create a more solid skeleton on which to attach all of the other ideas he has, even if they don’t fit. I’m also disappointed that his art style hasn’t really advanced at all, still looking flat without shadows or even shading.

It’s an improvement on Fritz the Cat, but it’s still not good.

Rating: 2/4


5 thoughts on “Heavy Traffic”

  1. IF Bakshi has a point in his early work, it’s the living in New York sucks. But it’s everything he knows. It’s like his whole life experience is some south Bronx shithole and he’s determined to show it to you, not just warts and all but with extra warts.

    As usual, character matters me to a lot and I just don’t like anyone here or in Fritz the Cat. I want to like Carole but I find her art design and the cartoonish flairs off putting.

    I don’t enjoy the mix of animation and live action, it does not blend well and it jars in ways I don’t find enjoyable.

    I honestly think this has LESS to say than Fritz the Cat does.


    1. He really does make New York look awful.

      And then it dissolves to real footage of New York at the end, and it looks…decent.

      Well, he made what he knew. He just didn’t seem to know very much.


  2. This is an interesting description of the movie. It’s definitely interesting to see how Ralph Bakshi’s own experiences influenced this movie. It also seems like he was trying to make a statement about the mob and how it affects people in the city. It’s a shame that Bakshi wasn’t able to tell a more sustained story for the full run time, but it’s interesting to see the motifs from Fritz the Cat come into play. Did anyone else find the design of Angelo to be strangely reminiscent of Homer Simpson?


    1. I’ve never seen it commented about the visual connection between the character in Heavy Traffic and Homer Simpson, but the resemblance is just uncanny to the point where I don’t think it’s coincidence. I don’t find it hard to believe that Matt Groening saw Heavy Traffic, it influenced him to some degree along with Bakshi in general, and he built the visual design of Homer Simpson with an eye towards a reference for one of his influences.

      And yeah, I would be surprised if Bakshi’s antipathy towards Italians didn’t originate in a reaction to the mob in NYC, especially since he was suffused in black culture growing up and there was antagonism between the black and Italian cultures within the city. It’s just the design of the mob boss is…grotesque. I’m not Italian, but it feels like the sort of thing that an Italian would take offense at. It’s just interesting to note, is all, as far as I’m concerned.


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