Excerpt from "Cartooning is Vulgarity: Finding Artistry in Bakshi's Heavy Traffic"
The Quarter(ly) graciously published my essay on Ralph Bakshi's 1973 film Heavy Traffic, which I find both a masterwork and a travesty simultaneously. Below are scattered excerpts.
When Walt Disney was asked how he felt about animation, he said eloquently, "Animation offers a medium of storytelling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world" (Zupanic). It can be argued that most animation during and after Disney's time has followed this principle. Because of this, animation as a medium has been unfairly labeled as children's stuff. When animation studios today, such as Disney, DreamWorks, and Illumination, seem to pump out cute family-friendly fare at an assembly line rate, it is hard to imagine animation being used crudely, to offend, or to challenge the status quo. While adult animation shows such as Family Guy, The Simpsons, or South Park do offer that edge today, before the rise of animated television, such themes in animation were unheard of. That was when Ralph Bakshi stepped up to the plate.
When underground animator Ralph Bakshi was asked how he viewed animation, he said firmly, "The art of cartooning is vulgarity. The only reason for cartooning to exist is to be on the edge. If you only take apart what they allow you to take apart, you're Disney. Cartooning is a low-class, for-the-public art, just like graffiti art and rap music. Vulgar but believable, that's the line I kept walking" (Busack).
The yin to Disney's yang. Bakshi spoke like a cynical grandfather who is largely misunderstood because he believed he was. Here is a man who, for better or worse, changed the face of animation during the '70s. A man whose works were a critic’s whipping boy, only to be later appreciated by legions of cult followers who kissed the ground he walked on. One of those converted obsessors (not surprisingly) is Quentin Tarantino, who admiringly wrote in the Bakshi retrospective Unfiltered, "This serious treatment of a very fearless satirical artist is long overdue" (Tarantino).
"Fearless" is certainly the right word. Not only does it describe Bakshi's attitude, it describes what can be best described as his magnum opus, Heavy Traffic (1973). Heavy Traffic is a vile, revolting, and problematic film that pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. It is shocking how an 80-minute animated film is more transgressive than Mean Streets (dir. Martin Scorsese) and more controversial than The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin), with all three being released in the same year. In other words, if one has a pulse, they will somehow be offended by this film. Yet through all the horribly racist caricatures, profanity-laded dialogue, and deeply upsetting imagery lies pure artistry in the animation techniques used. It proves that Bakshi was more than just a rebel in the animation world—he was also an innovator. This is why he is still talked about today rather than shunned by the public, as one could expect from releasing a film such as this. In short, whether we like it or not, Heavy Traffic is an important film due to how far it is willing to push the medium of animation to the limit.
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When on the subject of Heavy Traffic's characters and their portrayals, we must address the biggest elephant in the room: Snowflake, the nymphomaniac transvestite. Snowflake is possibly the most offensive representation in the entire film, bar none. Bakshi's transphobic depiction of Snowflake is downright hateful. He is introduced stuffing tissue paper down his bra and putting on a dress to hide his unshaven legs. At a bar, he receives a brutal beating by a drunk man after realizing Snowflake is not a woman. Instead of defending himself, Snowflake finds pleasure in pain and keeps aggressively pursuing the drunk man. This depiction was wrong then, and it is wrong now. However, it brings up a question: Has there ever been a trans character in a mainstream animated film before? Only one comes to mind, and that—unfortunately—is Heavy Traffic. Despite the atrocious depiction, Heavy Traffic might be considered a landmark for having a trans character in an animated film—once again showing Bakshi on the cutting edge in the animation world. It is a shame that the first-ever depiction had to be as exploitative as it is.
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To Bakshi, these characters are not just stereotyped gags played for a laugh. He fleshes them out and expects people to empathize with them, despite showing the downright horrendous actions they perform. Bakshi never seems to make anything clear with his characters. Are we supposed to laugh at these people and their actions or not? As they fight, insult, and even downright murder each other, are we supposed to take it seriously? Are we supposed to learn something? It makes an uncomfortable viewing experience that some might find brilliant, and some might find unsettling. However, despite how one feels, the film is an experience that cannot be equaled in any other animated film of its time.
As well as its themes, the animation style of Heavy Traffic is also unlike any other of its own and even today. On an aesthetic level, Heavy Traffic is a beautifully made movie with an eclectic sensibility and endless creative ideas. Bakshi's characters look like they stepped right off an R. Crumb comic, yet their movements are as exaggerated as in a Tex Avery short. These characters live in a seedy world made of watercolors, gritty neon lights, and live-action footage. Bakshi successfully crafts a world our character inhabits using different mediums that feels unified as a whole. Included in this world are two short segments where the film's style takes a drastic turn, keeping us on our toes while also offering new creative ideas in animated movies.
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It becomes ironic that, later in Bakshi's career, he would conform to safer mainstream animation with fantasy epics such as Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978). The tipping point of this mainstream phase was the doomed live-action/animation hybrid Roger Rabbit rip-off Cool World (1992), a film that bombed so drastically it caused Bakshi to take a 23-year hiatus from making another film.
Bakshi spent those 23 years making a made-for-TV live-action movie and doing small animation gigs for children's shows. As his cult reputation grew during this time, he went virtually silent. He would only appear at nerd/geek conventions where he would declare controversial statements such as "What’s extraordinary is what they’re saying on The Simpsons on television, is almost more than I did on Fritz the Cat, which I got yelled at and beat up about. And South Park! What is going on here? I got shot for less than this" ("Before 'The Simpsons'"). It is true that what is airing on South Park this week might be worse than the entirety of Heavy Traffic, but we cannot have one without the other. Without Bakshi, we would not have the adult-oriented animated shows of Seth MacFarlane, the social satire of Trey Stone & Matt Parker, or the surrealistic children's shows of John Kricfalusi or Steven Hillenburg. Bakshi seems appreciative, but his tone comes off as bitter. He still sticks to his guns and is motivated to make the next thing that will get people buzzing. His latest film, The Last Days of Coney Island (2015), proves that he has not lost his touch. It is as provocative and visceral as Heavy Traffic. It is drenched in grit, reliant on shock value, and deliberately rough around the edges.
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What do we do with Heavy Traffic today? No matter what, it accomplished what Bakshi set off to do: vulgarity. In the end, Heavy Traffic is more than just an animated movie; it is an extension of animation's greatest court jester.
"Before 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park,' There Was Ralph Bakshi." CNN, 21 Sept. 2011, cnn.com/2011/09/21/living/bakshi-on-todays-cartoons-comics.
Busack, Richard Von. "Monstrosious! Rudy Ray Moore and 'Coonskin' at Cinequest: The Black Hero of the 1970s on the Fringe." Metroactive Movies, 2003,
Tarantino, Quentin. Foreword. Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, by Jon Gibson & Chris McDonnell. Universe. 2008.
Zupanic, Jeffrey. "COSI Exhibit Explores World of Cartoons." The Alliance Review, 2 Aug. 2007.