director Ralph Bakshi
I have said before that I never quite fully appreciated animator Ralph Bakshi’s work, and I’ve known that among those who do, that Heavy Traffic and Coonskin (1975) were considered to be his best and most radical works. After watching Wizards (1977) recently, I thought I should take a stab at his most personal films. Sadly, Coonskin isn’t available from Netflix.
Heavy Traffic is quite the radical film. Using some live-action shots and some photographic elements used for scenery and background, Bakshi also employs a hyperbolic line of stereotypes and caricatures, tapping into some much older styles of animation and cartooning, while also inflecting the present of early 1970’s New York. Having made his splash with Fritz the Cat the year before, Bakshi continues to mine the vein of oversexualized lampoon that helped earn the film its X rating in its day. It’s all cultural Id, teeming, seething, consuming, reflecting the vibrant vibe and the oozy seediness of New York of those times.
The film’s soundtrack ranges from hippie-era tunes, late 1950’s jazz, classic rock’n’roll, Delta blues, and ping-ponging around to the cut-up rhythm of a pinball machine.
The story follows a cartoonist who bops around the neighborhood, naive but trying to play it slick with the local hoodlums, pimps, prostitutes, barmaids, drag queens and ethnic groups. It’s not unlike a Lou Reed song on acid.
I understand that Coonskin is even more steeped in caricature and stereotypes, though Heavy Traffic bears them too. From a historical standpoint, the animation and design reflects the caricatures and simplifications, much as early New York animation in the 1920’s and 1930’s did. It’s tapping into a style of depiction that isn’t very comfortable to watch, but is contrasted with the naturalized rhythms of the voice acting, which sound very improvisational and muddy. A sort of naturalism contrasting to straight-up cartoons.
It’s loose and trippy and weird. And while the animation is in its sort of limited style, the whole of the concept and execution weave together in a way that makes it all seem much more complete, perhaps than in some of his other films. It has a vibe of the Beats, while yet feeling very much of its time and place.
It feels radical and out-there, perverse, surprising. Certainly the most interesting of Bakshi’s films that I have seen. I’ll have to get my hands on Coonskin before too long.