We's all niggers, boy! Ha ha! You an' me, just goddamn crazy niggers! We's all niggers boy. Most of us don't know it yet.
Back in April of 1972 a new animated film opened and I, as a kid just two months shy of turning seven, begged my mom to take me to see it. She kindly obliged, but when we arrived at the movie theater we were both shocked at being refused admittance because the cartoon flick in question was rated X. The film was of course Ralph Bakshi's FRITZ THE CAT and I was quite confused by not being admitted to a cartoon since in my experience cartoons had always been a thing designed for kids, but I came away from that experience with an understanding that films bearing that strange X rating must contain something it was necessary to protect my innocent young mind from, thereby igniting an interest in X-rated movies that burned fiercely within me until I finally saw one during my adolescence in the late 1970's. The funny thing is the first X-rated movie I ever saw was director Ralph Bakshi's followup to FRITZ THE CAT, 1973's HEAVY TRAFFIC, and while not in any way what I expected from an X flick (namely unmitigated pornography featuring hairy hippie types with dirty feet), I was not in the least bit disappointed and have found that the film sticks with me far more than any other film Bakshi has made.
HEAVY TRAFFIC is a surreal and over-the-top blend of live action and animation, but the world it depicts in both instances is a caricatured study of a decaying environment and its equally squalid denizens. It follows the day-to-day existence of several lowlives who act as grotesquely-delineated New York City mainstays from the pre-Giuliani era, those bad old days of a Times Square that oozed a fetid and potentially deadly allure, an urban existential limbo populated by whores, junkies, bums, Mafiosi, and living ethnic stereotypes run rampant. The film is chock-a-block with volatile niggers, spics, guinzos, kikes, gimps and damned near every other unflattering human you can name (although the Chinks are conspicuously missing in action), and at the center of the dysfunctional maelstrom is twenty-two-year-old Michael Corleone (no, not that Michael Corleone), a more or less jobless, virginal slacker who lives in a run-down tenement apartment with his mob-connected Italian father, Angie, and his long-suffering Jewish mother, Ida.
While stuck in the middle of his parents' failed and physically violent marriage, Michael spends most of his time at his drawing board, creating what were then known as "underground" comics, and when not being a disappointment in the eyes of his hyper-macho dad and serving as his mom's focus of maturity-stifling Jewish mothering, he wanders the streets of New York, encountering the myriad types previously described. There's not really a plot to speak of, but rather a series of events propelling Michael from Point A to Point B and so on.
During Michael's wanderings we meet such notables as Crazy Moe, a homeless black guy whose bent philosophy may be the closest thing the film has to an existential "voice," pathetic drag hustler Snowflake, the legless and very creepy barfly Shorty (who looks like an even tougher and more mutated version of Popeye transplanted to a depressing post-hippie metropolitan dystopia), and most importantly Carole, a tough, no-nonsense black bartender.
Carole is the object of Michael's initially unrequited affections and when she loses her job she moves in with Michael, after which the pair team up for a pathetic series of attempts at earning money that soon escalate to savage brutality.
But while Michael and Carole try to figure out what to do with their lives, Michael's dad commits a few errors in judgment and conduct that put him out of favor with the local Godfather, a situation that does nothing to soothe his already explosive nature, and his temper is pushed past the limit when he comes home with a fat Italian whore he intends to give to Michael to finally take care of his son's virginity problem, only to find his son shacked up with a mulignane.
A very drunk Angie takes a walk on the wild side with Snowflake (and friends).
Michael's dad then goes on quite a bender, finding solace in the understanding (and frankly predatory) arms of Snowflake — and also possibly several other homosexual hustlers who've set up base in an abandoned cargo truck — and hiring Shorty to kill his son after the Godfather refuses to sanction the hit because Angie's hatred of his nigger-loving son is personal and not business-related.
Y'see, Shorty has carried a seriously unrequited torch for Carole's fine black ass and her hooking up with Michael does not make the legless badass very happy at all, so it's only a matter of time until something very ugly transpires...
Clocking in at a brisk seventy-nine minutes, HEAVY TRAFFIC blew my fourteen-year-old mind when I saw it during a visit to my dad's, late night on WHT (remember that?), since up to that point about the most vivid depiction of New York City that I'd seen was SERPICO (also from 1973). That bygone era was rife with New York City-based films examining the human condition but at such a relatively innocent age I didn't know about that, and my existence in Westport, Connecticut was about as far removed from the horrors of the big city as a one hour ride on a Metro North train would allow, so I certainly was not prepared for the exaggerated truths contained in Bakshi's movie. Several things about it shook me to the core, for better and worse, and to this day I can't get some of HEAVY TRAFFIC's images out of my head. For example (SPOILER WARNING!!!):
- The sequence when Michael is kindly invited to lose his virginity on a rooftop mattress with the very willing assistance of a neighborhood cutie, while a trio of sleazy greasers egg him on.
This bit was especially squirm-inducing to my fourteen-year-old mind because it was certainly a situation to be desired (minus the greasers), but the setting rendered the potentiality quite sordid (who knows what kind of action both that mattress and the girl had previously seen?). But what's more disturbing than the concept of losing one's cherry while being observed by switchblade-wielding local louts is that Michael's over-eager rush toward the girl in question results in her being accidentally shoved off the roof, and after a brief stunned silence Michael turns to the greasers with a sleazy smirk on his face and observes, "She had it comin'," after which he and the greasers laugh at his perceived wit. I was stunned to see such nonchalance in the face of an innocent girl's apparent multiple-story plunge to a splattery end on the pavement, but almost immediately after the boys laugh themselves silly we see the nude and apparently unconscious and unharmed girl dangling by one foot from a clothesline, also to be seen again later in the film from another angle. Was I supposed to read it as the deserved fate of a "loose" girl who'd give herself to any random slob on a rooftop? I didn't know then and and I'm not all that sure about it now, but it still disturbed me when I saw it again recently.
- The exuberant dance, punch-up/slash-up engaged in by the greasers following the girl's plunge off the roof, musically accented by the Isley Brothers' original recording of "Twist & Shout."
The happiness and bloody violence expressed is indeed cartoonish, but it made me think of some weird ancient ritual performed by a bunch of modern savages whose only joy can be found in pain and degradation. This was also the first time I'd heard the original "Twist & Shout" rather than the Beatles cover, and it holds a lot more power for me when coupled with the idea of a group of friends merrily beating and slashing each other. The Coyote coming back unscathed after his latest crash to earth or run-in with dynamite this definitely was not.
- Snowflake was perhaps my earliest exposure to the late-1960's/early-1970's cinematic stereotype of the pathetic and grotesque gay drag hustler, and I really didn't know what to make of her at the time.
An offensive stereotype even then, Snowflake is depicted as trawling seedy bars for very rough trade and actually enjoying getting beaten when her date discovers she's actually a guy. I grew up with some kids who knew they were gay and were out, loud and proud about it from the time they were eight, so Snowflake's sad creepiness did not compute with what I knew of homosexuals. In the years since 1979 I have witnessed the real life version of Snowflake more times than I care to consider, and just as the question crossed my mind when I was a kid, I still ask myself whenever I see one of those lost boys, "What put you where you are, and what will become of you when you end up on the wrong end of the wrong bruiser?" I'd love for some of my current crop of gay friends to see this movie and give me their analysis of Snowflake, once they got over their justifiable offense and nausea.
- Shorty scares the living shit out of me for a number of reasons, especially after encountering several types just like him in the real world during my time at the barbecue joint.
Shorty's a creepy regular at Carole's bar whose lack of legs is never explained, but his half-a-man stature belies the palpable violence brewing a millimeter from his misshapen surface. This dude is the embodiment of every tough guy loser I've ever seen in seedy dives and his animalistic, uncomprehending need for the clearly not interested Carole is painful to watch because once he gets it through his head that he's been rejected, you just know somebody is going to pay for it in blood. Everything that self-admitted diamond in the rough Popeye stood for finds its polar opposite in Shorty, and that's something I'm loath to contemplate.
- The idea of the isolated loser finding solace in the movies of yesteryear is an old trope but it works really well here as Michael sits alone in a vast decaying moviehouse, watching 1940's comedies and musicals that cast the world in far more pleasing shades than the one he exists in (note that I don't say "lives").
The images Michael watches bear no relation to his reality and the heart sinks as the camera pulls away from him, seated in the balcony, to reveal a theater so empty and quiet save for the unspooling movie's soundtrack. I've experienced a similar feeling several times over the past three decades as I sometimes sat alone in assorted theaters, and every time I'm drawn back to the image of Michael's desolation.
- The New York City captured by Bakshi is a surreal and freakish jungle whose every inhabitant and vista appears to have been hewn from some bottomless source of both psychedelia and deep psychosis.
Looking back at it now, it's something of a miracle that I moved to New York City to find my so-called fame and fortune in the wake of seeing HEAVY TRAFFIC at such an impressionable age, but maybe some of its untamed interpretation of the pre-Giuliani NYC served as a lure to this Connecticut darkie...
- At the film's end we get to see a live action Michael and Carole, and their real life selves are refreshingly even less glamorous than their animated incarnations.
Y'see, the movie opens with live action Michael (Joseph Kaufmann) playing pinball, and as the game intensifies the animation kicks in, blended with well-used stock footage and live street locations. I may be wrong about this, but I think the main animated narrative is a feature-length fantasy experienced by Michael as he works the pinball machine to a futile conclusion (although a conclusion considerably less bleak and disturbing than that met by his animated avatar). Upon making his way out of the arcade and onto the street, Michael's wanderings bring him past the bar where Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson) worked and he sees his dream girl angrily cursing out an unseen patron. The two eventually meet in a park, briefly argue, and then end the film dancing together to the by-now-haunting strains of "Scarborough Fair" as rendered by Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66. It's a weird and disorienting finale, but somehow wholly appropriate.
Reminiscent of LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN in its hopelessness, HEAVY TRAFFIC will come as a sobering and rather depressing story for those whose animated tastes are informed by the works of Das Uber Disney and is not recommended if you need a feel-good break from the real world's endless cycle of misery and ennui. Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66's version of "Scarborough Fair" is heard several times throughout the film and serves as an ominous signature that underscores the film's menace and anguish. When I found the soundtrack album in a cutout bin for a buck about eighteen years ago, I took the LP back to my Manhattan apartment, smoked a fat joint and put the record on the turntable, listening to "Scarborough Fair" about six times as the other-than-nicotinal bliss took hold, and in those moments I felt very much connected to Bakshi's squalid vision.
These days the New York City seen on film in movies like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, SHAFT, MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER is long gone, tits-up dead and relegated to history. But as long as films like HEAVY TRAFFIC and its dark fairy tale of Manhattan remain, its time will never truly fade from memory. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.