Heavy Traffic is the second film written and directed by Ralph Bakshi. It was released in 1973, exactly one year after his stunning debut Fritz the Cat. Like for the first one, the Haifa-born director used a mixed technique of animation and live action, and once again his target was an adult audience.
Bakshi’s made a brave choice (he was truly an independent director) because at the time animated films were exclusively aimed at young audiences, but the bet paid off because both his debut and Heavy Traffic had a remarkable success. And how has Heavy Traffic aged?
It aged well, in my opinion, but if you want to watch it be ready to witness a lot of psychedelic experimentation that couldn’t be more Seventies than that. Heavy Traffic’s Bakshi doesn’t exactly accompany his viewers by the hand, on the contrary he throws them into a dark New York full of negative characters, so much so that at first it’s easy to feel confused. In fact, we viewers find ourselves lost in the fantasies of the young Michael Corleone (played by the unlucky Joseph Kaufmann, who died at the age of 29 in a plane crash) who, during a pinball game, imagines fantastic stories about his father Angelo (Frank DeKova), a kind of proto-Homer Simpson, his mother Ida (Terri Haven), and the beautiful Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson), an African American waiter who Michael is in love with.
These stories are populated by mobsters, violent people, prostitutes, corrupt and violent cops and low-ranking criminals who move in a dirty, ugly, and unwelcoming New York. This is pure New Hollywood material, an artistic movement that began in the late 1960s and showed characters and places very different from those to which the great American film productions used to show until then (Easy Riders by Dennis Hopper was released in 1969).
And looking at what came after Bakshi, Heavy Traffic reminded me of another independent director that I adore, Jim Jarmusch. A dolly shot following someone as he walks on the sidewalk in a dirty neighborhood can be found in all of Jarmusch’s early films, and the use of the music is also very similar to the soundtrack idea of the first works by the Cuyahoga Falls director.
In Heavy Traffic, thanks to the use of animation, Bakshi manages to give each scene a different tone, always surreal, sometimes cynical (I’m thinking of the spaghetti eaten by the Godfather), sometimes funny, and often artistic (as in the scene referencing Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting, for example). Forget politically correctness, since by filling the movie with Italian Americans, Jews and African Americans, Bakshi chose not to have any restraint, there’s even a white person calling an African American “nigger” (Chris Rock explained to us all when and how this could be acceptable), and immerse yourself in this Seventies’ New York seen by a visionary and brilliant artist, you won’t regret it. Ciao!