Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1973)

2. Heavy Traffic

After the break-out commercial success of “Fritz the Cat,” Bakshi had the money to finance a deeply personal project, “Heavy Traffic.” An oddball, chaotic story of growing on the wild streets of New York in the 1970s, I suspect the film is highly autobiographical. While it touches on themes like crime, racism, sexism, spousal abuse, and religion, it shows the filmmaker moving away from satire towards a more character-oriented style.

The film is lightly plotted. It focuses on Michael Corleone, a 22-year old amateur cartoonist and a virgin, trying to make his own way. His parents, an Italian dock worker/would-be Mafioso and a Russian Jewish battleaxe, are literally trying to kill each other. His best friend whom he has a ambiguous relationship with is Carole, a black female bartender determined to make Michael a man. Other characters that wandered into the film are a legless bar bouncer romantically infatuated with Carole, a transvestite prostitute, a schizophrenic homeless black man, a gaggle of hookers, a trio of misogynistic greasers, an ancient comic strip executive, and the Godfather.

The film is highly experimental and frequently heavy-handed in its symbolism and humor. There’s live-action framing devices of Michael, played by Joseph Kaufmann, playing a pinball machine. (Because life in New York is chaotic!) Live action footage of the New York skyline and streets are used as backgrounds for the animated characters. We frequently cut back and forth between actual actors and animated figures. Pinball is used throughout as a blatant metaphor for the chaotic life of living in the city. Balls bouncing or spring levels being pulled are intercut with the frenzied sequences.

The character designs explain a lot of the film’s intentions. Michael and perhaps Carole are the only characters in the film that aren’t grotesque caricature. Huge noses, gangly limbs, ugly faces, and bug-eyes, New York as depicted here is a black hole full of monsters and mutants. Michael tries to let the insanity fuel his artwork but it soon starts to get to him. The big city is hell and it drives everyone crazy. How couldn’t it?

The film is also grotesquely violent. There’s a surprisingly amount of the red stuff here, often exaggerated to over-the-top levels. After accidentally pushing a girl off a roof that the guys had presented for Michael to screw, his trio of greaser acquaintances stab themselves to bloody pulps in a frenzy of laughter. After discovering he’s a man, a bar patron beats the cross-dresser black and blue. A scene featuring a mafia boss has his bodyguards, dressed in red Catholic monk robes, shoot him full of holes for some reason, even though he lives. A man is beaten to death with a lead pipe, drowning in his own blood. The film climaxes with somebody getting their head blown off. Maybe the hardest to swallow stuff involves the spousal abuse. At first, Michael’s parents homicidal tendencies are obviously played for laughs. As it goes on though, it becomes more uncomfortable. When Michael’s dad pistol whips his mom out onto a clothes line, his blow sending her spinning around in circles, it goes from funny to unpleasant. I’m not sure how intentional that discomfort is.

The film’s most memorable and successful moments is when it goes really nuts. Michael’s underground comix doodles take over the story a handful of times. Early on, he illustrates the sexual struggles of mom and dad literally, with boxing glove penis and woman becoming a giant breast. In my favorite scene of the entire film, Michael and Carole watch a street performer singing a highly off-key version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” This segues into a wiggly animated sequence set to the original song, illustrating the song’s lyrics in a wacky, perverse manner. I also love an out-of-place moment were Michael’s mom is presented with 1920s era photographs of her parents and family. She monologues ruefully about her past while reviewing each picture. The climax of the story has the film exploding into purely abstract footage, just colorful, oddball, violent images, bouncing around the screen set to discordant music. The confusion at the center of the tale is visually illustrated in this moment.

Michael’s virginity and horniness is another focus of the film. His father is promiscuous and frequently seen with a blue-eyed hooker. His attempts to sleep with the loose young lady his friends have had a few stabs at end in embarrassment and failure. (And is the film’s only non-ironic use of uncomfortable, sexist themes.) At one point, his father brings home a morbidly obese hooker whom he soundly rejects, despite her insistence. Once Carole finally accepts Michael’s romantic intentions, he can’t even complete the task, passing out instead. Despite the two ostensibly being in a relationship, we never see the two mingling. It’s not established if this is a sexual relationship or not much more then just a close friendship.

The only time the film’s outsider perspective really falters is during the scene when Michael pitches his cartoons to an elderly, near death newspaper comic businessman. What follows is a bizarre cartoon about a post-apocalyptic landscape, mutants, God impregnating the last real woman left on the planet, and a gun-wielding Jesus Christ. It’s bizarre but mostly pretentious. Possibly by design but I’m not sure. The fact that the cartoon literally blows the old man’s mind, just being too real for his fragile state, comes off as really self-serious and congratulating.

When the movie crosses over into primarily live action at the very end, not specifying how much of the film was a fantasy and how much actually happened, it’s a bit jarring. Even in live action, the characters act just as cartoonish and over-the-top as they did in animation, which doesn’t exactly work.

Music plays a big role in the film. A jazzy, laid-back cover of Simon and Garfunkel is a musical motif and plays throughout. The Isley Brother’s “Twist and Shout” is used ironically during one of the scenes of violence. The film’s original music is typical of the seventies era and quite listenable. It’s fair to say the use of music isn’t as dynamic as it was in “Fritz the Cat.”

That’s actually the main problem with “Heavy Traffic.” It’s not as funny, energetic, insightful, or exciting as the filmmaker’s first movie. No doubt, it’s creative and highly personal. Certainly, nobody but Ralph Bakshi could have made this. However, it’s a tad inscrutable and the loose storyline leaves you wondering what exactly the whole point was, a bit, besides just putting us in the main character’s mindset. Proceed with caution on this one, guys. It’s a one of a kind film and certainly has recommendable qualities but it’s also not the easiest flick to like. [Grade: B]

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