Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 2: Heavy Traffic

by tigermanifesto

Bakshi Logo

Pinball Machine

At one point during the production of 1973 animated film Heavy Traffic, the movie’s producer Steve Krantz, got some unpleasant news. He learned that his director, Ralph Bakshi, was talking to other producers about another film, then called Harlem Nights, and his reaction was, shall we say, not relaxed. Krantz fired Bakshi from the movie, allegedly tapping the animator’s phone line, and tried to get someone else to finish what the “disloyal” director (who had been ripped off on Fritz the Cat) wouldn’t. One of the distinguished men they tried to hire was none other than Chuck Jones, who turned them down flat. The film’s financier, a man named Samuel Arkoff, demanded that Bakshi be rehired, and Krantz relented.

It’s an amusing story because it fits perfectly into the leitmotif of Heavy Traffic: a flashing penny arcade pinball machine. Outside of the tight group of animators and other creative staff, nothing was every cordial, with the different players whizzing around and colliding every which way. Heavy Traffic is widely considered Bakshi’s best work, or at least his definitive one. It lacks the sheer confusion of Fritz the Cat. It’s still a collage of narratives and styles chronicling life in New York City, but it doesn’t have the aimless road trips, the Nazi bikers, the evil terrorists, the sheer thematic and political aimlessness that gives Fritz its shotgun-like explosiveness. It’s his first film made leaner and more personal, yet still encapsulating a gigantic amount of information. Luckily, it’s much easier to write about because of this.

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Bakshi open the film with a live action segment showing his protagonist, underground comic artist Michael, playing pinball while the credits play. Eventually, we see the machine fade away, replaced by an image of an animated black man walking against a photographic background of New York City. Tattered posters, brick façades, and a slate sky completely dwarf this figure, who soldiers on to meet a friend by a fire in a barrel. After this, we see a man and a woman walking together, then rapidly cut to a drunk and a man in an aviator coat carrying a handgun staring down in front of a window. The couple moves past the gun-toting man, who levels the man and chases after the woman, his pants falling down and showing his genitals. We cut back to pinballs.

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There are two layers to this visual cleverness. The first is, of course, the idea of the film as taking place in a tightly contained space, one that is nevertheless densely populated and more than a little sleazy. Our New York is in the pinball machine. The second is that live-action Michael is the only one with any kind of control over the kerfuffle in the machine, and yet that control is hardly complete. As we’ll soon find out, Michael is something of a stand-in for Bakshi, albeit hardly a flattering one. He peers over the delirious activity in the pinball machine trying to keep the balls moving but hardly able to. We could certainly see in this a reflection of Bakshi’s own difficulties getting his films made, not to mention managing the storm of ideas that he seems to be trying to compress into each one. Just in the first few minutes we have robbery, assault, the deaths of a nameless store owner and a hapless cop, an accident with a taxi, and so on. It’s a chain reaction no one could have predicted, but all too common, Bakshi seems to be saying, in modern urban life.

Collage

And urban life is, more than any other issue, the central subject of Heavy Traffic. While we do have a protagonist or two, a set of side characters, and numerous other human faces, the real star of the story is New York itself. The city is a deeply unsympathetic character. Stitched out of a collage of photographs, animated cels, paintings, and stock footage, the city shambles like a Frankenstein monster, giving its residents a jittery and unbalanced kind of life. Bakshi notes in an interview that this collage technique extends further than the visual:

“Sound is a very important element in all films. So it’s various approaches to dialogue and sounds that are scripted, that are ad-libbed, that are real, and you put all of that together and collage it. The whole trick is not to pick a line that doesn’t fit what you really feel about it, no matter how good the line is.”

Bakshi’s approach to the problem of how to create a portrait of New York in an animated film is to use “every trick in the book,” shifting styles to accommodate the needs of every individual scene. So the bookend segments are in live action, lending the film a more authentic tether to the world the director and his animators are trying to represent. In a scene where Michael’s Mafioso father Angelo tries to intimidate striking dock workers, Angelo is shown in the usual cartoon style while the backgrounds are photographs and the workers are shown in a heavily-hashed style rarely seen elsewhere in the film. The contrast between the almost statuesque strikers and the cleaner, more elastic characters in the rest of the movie emphasizes their communal strength––and their lack of fear in the face of Angelo’s empty threats. The scene illustrates Bakshi’s point: Disney and Pixar-esque house styles are not the only or even the best way to put together a good animated film. Particularly when you don’t have a king’s ransom for a budget.

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Angelo stares down the striking workers at the mafia-controlled dock.

Hell Is Family

One of the consistent themes in Bakshi’s films is that traditional “solid” kinds of relationships are not reliable anchors in modern society. As Karl Marx notes in the Manifesto, under capitalism “all that is solid melts into air.” Deleuze and Guattari might emphasize that capitalism is an acid that dissolves all preexisting codes, reassigning them for its own purposes but constantly revolutionizing itself. The result is a precarious and unstable kind of life, exemplified by, well, every character in Heavy Traffic.

As an example: Michael has a difficult home life. His mother Ida is a devoutly Jewish woman who is violently unhappy with her husband’s philandering and lack of investment in her son. She dotes on Michael, feeding him impossibly huge breakfasts and enabling his chronic unemployment. While he draws his underground cartoons in his bedroom, his mother attempts to murder his father by shoving him in the oven and turning on the gas. They later have a violent confrontation when Angelo brings a prostitute home to take his son’s virginity “as a present.” She reveals that she keeps an axe with the Magen David printed on it for self-defence in one of the film’s most hilarious moments.

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Moreover, Angelo’s other traditional attachments, to his job for instance, are further problematized. His job with the mafia is nothing if not unreliable, particularly when he falls on the  racist godfather’s bad side for threatening to break the dock strike by bringing in black men as scabs. Michael certainly has no use for his family, though he’s happy to live in their home and eat their food as long as they leave him alone. What we seen, then, is that the story values the temporary and serendipitous relationships over blood bonds. Protagonists Carole and Michael have little in common other than a shared bitterness and desire to flee their awful situations. After she loses her only tie to the city, a job, she and Michael scheme to go out west and to procure the necessary capital by any means available, culminating in murder. But their friendship, as perverse and inauspicious as it turns out to be, is solid and real, reinforced by its presence in the live-action framing narrative.

The situation is even more bleak than I first indicated. The film’s climactic scene comes when Michael is shot and killed by a legless hitman. Carole has been seen rejecting the shooter’s advances before, which makes this partly a crime of passion. But, as always, money also sticks its nose in. Angelo, horrified that his son is keeping a black woman in his room, orders a hit on him, taking the racism of his boss the godfather and passing it along to his son. Family and work stab Angelo and his son Michael in the back, ultimately showing that being close to someone has nothing necessarily to do with real love.

Which is not to say that Heavy Traffic has a straightforwardly negative view of family. One of the sources of tragedy in the movie is Ida’s strong attachment to her Jewish heritage and family legacy. In one of the most sombre scenes in the film, she takes a moment from frivolous dancing in a club to contemplate her past. Images of deceased family members flash in and out of frame, until she is eventually confronted with a picture of herself as she was in her youth. The sheer distance between her idealized family history and the shattered reality of her “traditional” American family is unbearable. In the old country, things were far simpler at least where relations were concerned; the United States melts down all ties, and she and her photo slowly diminish into the busy city shown behind them.

Ida and a photo of herself.

Ida and her younger self against a bustling New York backdrop.

 

As for Angelo, his only solace in the film comes not from boss, wife, or son, but from a trans woman who hooks up with him in the back of an abandoned delivery truck. Where Fritz the Cat was a dark reflection on the often misogynist and abusive outcomes of so-called “free love,” here the focus is more on the evils of being trapped in relationships one did not choose. Instead, characters make do with what they can get. No character embodies this pragmatic ideal more than Snowflake, the aforementioned trans woman.

Snowflake

In my view, Snowflake, a transgender woman who appears in a few scenes, is much more than a comedic side character. She embodies more than anything the real desires and longings at the heart of Heavy Traffic. The emotional core, if you will. First introduced to us dressing up to go out on the town, she later appears at the bar Carole works at. Desperate for human contact of any kind, she starts flirting with a drunken construction worker. The man savagely beats her when he realizes that she’s “a queer,” and her reaction to this is both disturbing and telling.

She appears to be some kind of masochist, enjoying the transmisogynist abuse simply because it’s someone validating her with attention. It’s not flattering, and in a different context this would be the sign of a hateful film. I’m not sure that it’s the case here, though, since all the sympathetic characters treat her more or less as just another person. Carole’s boss even berates her for not protecting Snowflake from the construction worker, and the former shows some concern for her well-being. While Bakshi’s portrait of Snowflake as a lonely and needy soul who will take abuse with equanimity is ugly, it’s actually far less galling than, say, the casual transmisogyny you find in comedies that bring up the topic of trans women. She’s treated as a real person, is never misgendered, and is portrayed in a relatively positive light.

Snowflake in the bar.

Snowflake strutting in the bar.

But the central point is that her lack of attachments and willingness to live her own way are what puts her in the “sympathetic” category. She’s uninhibited and shameless, and in some ways that makes her more robust and durable than Michael, who is burdened by an almost demonic resentment that manifests in his nihilistic cartoons (two of which we see in the movie). Snowflake’s desire for community and value for even the most fleeting of alliances with other human beings puts her right at the centre of Heavy Traffic’s thematic appeal for me. She’s a victim of the ruthless world she lives in, just like everyone else, and her opportunism is reflective of this grim material situation.

End: Animation Unleashed

My retrospective piece on Fritz ended by noting that that movie’s transgression was historically important, carving a vital niche for animation at at time when the art form was in a state of disgrace. Heavy Traffic ultimately delivers on the promise of Bakshi’s talking-animal feature debut, stripping out the animals and giving us an animated film about real (fictional) human beings in a well-realized setting. It’s a great piece of animation and much more than just a historical artifact. Fritz gets leeway for being “first,” but Traffic earns its place in animation and film history through sheer quality. As the pinballs continue to spin and collide in unexpected ways, we find Bakshi’s focus narrowing even further on his next project, a film explicitly about race relations called Coonskin. And what a movie it is.

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