The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Heavy Traffic

Ralph Bakshi was one of the most unique individuals working in cinema during the 1970s and 1980s. His debut film, Fritz the Cat, earned an X rating, making an early argument that animated features weren't necessarily just for kids. Bakshi made a version of The Lord of the Rings more than twenty years before Peter Jackson did, and he controversially attempted to satirize racism with 1975's Coonskin. By the '90s, the filmmaker was battling a major studio Paramount butchered his Cool World into an incoherent, if oddly fascinating, mess before largely disappearing. (He is said to have a new film in progress.) Bakshi's most acclaimed movie, however, is probably Heavy Traffic, released in 1973 with a X rating, and now on Blu-Ray from the fine folks at Shout! Factory.

Heavy Traffic is a very impressionistic movie, to say the least. It's nominally the tale of Michael Corleone, a half-Italian, half-Jewish New York cartoonist with a passion for pinball. The movie starts off in live action, with actor Joseph Kaufmann playing the character in an introductory segment. It then switches to animation, as we see vignettes from Michael's life, as well as some moments with the seedy people (drug addicts, hookers, etc.) who inhabit his neighborhood. Michael is a virgin who lives with his eternally-bickering parents and hangs out at a local pub, where he yearns for an African-American bartender named Carol. This doesn't sit well with his racist, mob-connected father, who orders a hit on Michael. After this scenario resolves itself, the movie switches back to live action to reveal that it's all basically a fantasy, or at least a story Michael created to play out his own inner demons.

The plot purposefully meanders, occasionally stopping to go down some weird alley, but whatever is happening onscreen almost always involves sex or violence. (Sometimes both.) These topics are preoccupations for both Michael and Bakshi. In one of the most disturbing scenes, Michael's father hires a repugnant prostitute to take his son's virginity; she ends up raping the young man. Despite graphic content, Heavy Traffic is not interested in mere shock value. The film looks at life in a tough NYC neighborhood during the '70s. Michael seems to have absorbed everything he sees around him, and those things infuse his work. It could reasonably be argued that Heavy Traffic is about the way one's surroundings influence the creative process.

Bakshi's animation style is clever. He often uses a still photograph of a location as the background, then has the characters drawn over top of it. This gives Heavy Traffic a very surreal feeling that suits the subject matter. The inhabitants of this New York neighborhood are colorfully animated as well both in terms of hue and personality. Perhaps best of all, you never really know what to expect from one minute to the next. Bakshi is fearless, so his film is unafraid to venture down dark, unexpected corridors. Heavy Traffic may be a bit dated in terms of its distinct '70s tone, but that doesn't make it any less fascinating. If you're a fan of the animation genre, this certainly qualifies as essential viewing.

For more information on this title, please visit the Shout! Factory website.

Heavy Traffic was originally rated X, but has since been re-rated R by the MPAA. It contains strong sexual content, violence, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 17 minutes.

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