Ralph Bakshi Vincent Canby - Essay

Vincent Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ralph Bakshi's mostly animated feature, "Heavy Traffic," is American graffiti of a very high and unusual order, a tale of a young New York City pilgrim named Michael, half-Italian, half-Jewish, ever innocent, and his progress through a metaphor that is nowhere near as dreary as it sounds: the pinball machine called Life. It is a liberating, arrogant sort of movie, crude, tough, vulgar, full of insult and wit and an awareness of the impermanence of all things….

Bakshi's "Heavy Traffic" is rated X, not because it's pornographic in any way but because it employs the small gestures and words of obscenity to make its rude statement about the quality of what might be dangerously described as the New York City Experience.

The opening of the film sets its moods as the screen goes from a live-action Michael, playing his pinball machine, to the animated world that lies just beyond reality. Michael, a would-be "underground" cartoonist, asks "What makes you happy? Where do you hide? Who do you trust?" And the voice carries over as two ancient jazz musicians in terrible repair meet while foraging through a garbage can….

With a poet's freedom (including the freedom from the fear he might be making an ass of himself), Bakshi conducts his misery-house tour of the quintessential modern metropolis, a New York City inhabited entirely by undesirables, junkies, whores, crooked cops, crooked union leaders, Mafia soldiers, craven dads, mad moms. The only two innocents are Michael and Carole, the pretty, no-nonsense black bartender who is also beloved by Shorty, the legless bouncer at her bar.

Bakshi's first feature, "Fritz The Cat," was criticized by purists for the liberties he took with a favorite underground comic strip. Now he has created his own world in "Heavy Traffic," which at its best moments is as nutty and bleak and beautiful as some scenes out of early Henry Miller, with whom...

(The entire section is 800 words.)