Keeping it Real with Ralph Bakshi (Part II)

As part of Portsmouth University’s recent This Is The Week That Is festival, Dr Van Norris hailed filmmaker Ralph Bakshi as one of the great – yet underrated – satirists of our time. We present the second part of his argument.

Ralph Bakshi’s second film Heavy Traffic (1973) could only have appeared in the ‘New Hollywood’ period, such is its immediacy, its temporal setting, its defiance of convention and the autobiographical emphasis of the story. Respected New Yorker film critic, Vincent Canby, rightly noted the thematic, geographical and sociological similarities between Heavy Traffic and Scorsese’s highly lauded Mean Streets (1973), and he placed it in his top ten films of 1973. Looking at Heavy Traffic today, it does seem a worthy and appropriate companion piece, as a rant of blue-collar expression and defiance that explores and extends many of the same themes Scorsese addresses, albeit from a mixed heritage perspective as Bakshi discusses Italian and Jewish family conflicts.

Today it appears the more revolutionary film, going much further and in more explicit terms than Scorsese’s reframing of the gangster genre. Heavy Traffic still feels a fresh, somewhat startling film that isn’t compromised or burdened with the weight of time. Doubly astounding is its energy and sense of dissent and rage. It remains an onslaught of images; violent, aggressive and, through a contemporary lens, often extremely difficult to sit through when processing 1970s inner-city social attitudes. In seeking to approximate the tough environment where Bakshi grew up (“I was livin’ with it…it was a part of my life”), the speech patterns, the relationships, the atmosphere and sense of place are conjured through a constantly shifting, visceral aesthetic that few live action films of the time certainly got anywhere near approximating.

Bakshi’s films explored the possibilities of both live-action and animation by using variations of both mediums to inform the textual and sub-textual narratives underpinning each scene. He deployed silhouettes; rotoscoping; full, abstract and limited animation; traditional naturalist designs with deliberately abbreviated figures, he traced over still photography, used documentary footage, inserted live action backgrounds to animated foregrounds and sought to create a visual collage that subverted the expectations for not just animated features, but also live action cinema through an ever-changing visual terrain. This approach was complemented by an equally restless sonic schema that fused traditional narration techniques that deployed voice actor work alongside vox-pops and improvised dialogue alongside musical interludes, a variety of recording settings from open and loud, to more closely miked and less reverbed effects and voices.

Heavy Traffic is, like all of Bakshi’s early feature work, driven on by the creative fire of a young director released from constraints and more than capable of challenging the orthodoxies imposed on him from his time within a conservative animation industry. The film often eschews linearity in narrative by embracing the freedoms licensed to animation and refuting the Disney methods of storytelling and simple Classical Hollywood rules of immersion. It appears all the more radical today when one recalls that the other major American mainstream animated release in 1973 was Disney’s Robin Hood, which was at that point was the exemplar of a studio formally and thematically turning in on itself.

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Michael from Heavy Traffic (1973)

Heavy Traffic develops and extends from Fritz in that, like that first film, the jarring, picaresque narrative deliberately and defiantly rambles in and out of the psyche of the protagonist Michael and, as the Otto Messmer-inspired Maybelline sequence reveals, in and out of assessing American values and culture on a larger symbolic level. The philosophical and political nature of the film was outlined by Bakshi himself, when he noted in 1973 that the framing sequence at the beginning and end of the film are the key symbolic totems that underpin the entire film: “The two flippers at the bottom of the board are the only controlled element – that’s your influence over the universe.”

It essays the fragmented dreamscape of Michael, a struggling, aspiring young comic book artist (and clearly a Bakshi manqué), set into a detailed but highly subjectivised, unsanitised view of a pre-gentrified urban blue collar New York, of the type that backdropped not only Mean Streets but also Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). It is here that contemporary American blue collar life and culture are subjected to the bitterest commentary.

As part of this location, Bakshi chews over several obsessions within Heavy Traffic. The corrupt, isolated and decaying nature of social hierarchies and entertainment industries is a familiar trope from all of his first three films. The comic book company Michael auditions for is headed up by an ancient Jewish man dying in a bed, who is shown as patronising, confused and clearly disconnected by his age, wealth and social position. As Bakshi later commented, “the American Dream is realised in the freedom we have, not in the success we achieve. Success takes our lives. The struggle for success saps all our energies and when you get it what do you have? You have the pressure of remaining there and you have the crushed bodies of friends and family who were sacrificed along the way”. Nailing his contempt for the accession to capital that he saw as defining and constraining the creative industries, it is notable that, post-Easy Rider (1969), he is one of the few filmmakers, working in the hinterland between studio and independent American production, who so vigorously grasps the nettle of capitalism as inherently corrupting of the American project.

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Authority and institutions from Heavy Traffic (1973)

This apparently leftist expression is often contradicted in his films by his notable disdain for the Counterculture itself, which across Heavy Traffic, Coonskin and most notably Fritz the Cat, is held up by Bakshi as a contrivance, something of a liberal fantasy and a white middle-class indulgence forged from a period of self-absorption and decadence. To Bakshi this always appears as a lost opportunity that in truth meant little on the ground level of his native blue collar environment. This view could be seen to mirror many of the right wing critics of the 1960s/early 1970s, who also rejected this youth-driven political shift. But, in truth, this tone appears to belong more to a libertarian bent and is perhaps more in line with an American political tradition that many satirists feel most comfortable operating within. Bakshi belongs to no one political affiliation and this renders the commentary more potent as a result. For in Bakshi’s world no one escapes attack and in the mode of the true satirist; everyone takes their lumps.

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‘The neighbourhood’ from Heavy Traffic (1973)

Upon initial viewing, Heavy Traffic seems callous towards its human subjects. In itself this gesture appears as an indicator of intent. Here Bakshi avoids the self-consciously-staged anthropomorphism of Fritz the Cat and addresses (what he saw as) the inadequate nature of animated and live-action representation. He arranges a more humanised, but still slightly distorted cartoon-y, figurative schema here that functions as a kind of ‘documentary’ animation. This design choice enhances the intent. As Heavy Traffic highlights the traps that class and environment place on all aspects of the gender and race spectrum, being reinforced by figures that function more effectively than any fantasy creature.

For example, Snowflake is a cross-dressing gay character (a ‘first’ in mainstream feature animation), who postures as a seemingly crude stereotype, a hustling and preening figure who masochistically succumbs to bullying, abuse and humiliation. Snowflake’s trajectory may seem unkind (and even reductionist) from today’s perspective. Indeed as Bakshi presents coarse laughs generated by an almost sadistic sequence of crude slapstick, the director almost scuppers his own intent through serious comic misjudgement. But in truth, the sequence where the character is battered by an ape-like construction worker certainly appears as ambiguous and troubling and yet when placed in perspective of the overall film it actually retains a somewhat pathetic clarity. It is readily apparent that this violence is a tragic expression of fate. Here on the streets this act appears as an everyday expectation and as a release of some kind. Snowflake accepts brutality as a tragic inevitable, as inescapability from this milieu and responds not just as a relief but as a rare, welcome affirmation, an acknowledgement (however pitiless) and as a desirable point of contact. The hurt will come for us all, one way or the other, and this may well be as good as it gets for those cruelly cast at the bottom of the social chain.

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Snowflake from Heavy Traffic (1973)

Bakshi renders many of his characters as being difficult and lacking in empathy. Both male and female characters throughout are routinely punched, abused and defiled. Women, contained and curtailed, are rendered as passive objects by men who unthinkingly conform to rigid class rules defining masculinity and who are desperate to maintain power in their ignorance, seeking to find a thread of continuity in an ever-changing world. Family here is not cast as the ‘sanctity’ located in Disney features such as 101 Dalmations (1961) but more along the lines of the ongoing, self-perpetuating battlefields of Jackie Gleason’s tenement essays of The Honeymooners (CBS 1951-1955). If family (the father ‘Angelo’ of Italian descent and ‘Ida’ of Jewish heritage) is considered as an institution, then it is like all of Bakshi’s institutions and authorities i.e. flawed, fractured and unresolvable.

Michael adheres to what he feels are the rules of masculinity as disseminated from the numbskulls in his neighbourhood and through the machismo of the Clark Gable films he sees at his local cinema. By the film’s finale there is a sense that he seeks to challenge these inevitabilities as much as he does conform to them. As indeed does his black girlfriend, the bartender Carole (a fantasy figure conjured by Michael in the film but who comes to life in the live-action finale), as they both seek to break out of the snares that class imposes upon them.

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Carole and Michael from Heavy Traffic (1973)

The film’s ending is typically indefinite for the time. It infers possibilities, one being that the young may now, as they escape the dreams of the cartoon environment and move into the live-action real-space of the last few minutes of the film, have the power to self-realise and not only embrace maturity but also both community and progression. Michael has it in him to reject the criminal entrepreneurship offered by his father and the violent consequences it presents, to subvert a destiny of violence, abuse and limitation. It is a finale that seems to offer a range of possible interpretations. Given that the sourness of much of Bakshi’s worldview does leave you wondering whether emancipation is truly possible, Heavy Traffic’s conclusion could symbolise the brief flowering of youth, an optimistic moment in the sun where the senses come alive and options of escape are accessible – just before returning to the inexorability of street life.

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Inescapabilty in Heavy Traffic (1973)

For me on recent viewing of the film, what saves this nihilistic (and very much a young man’s) view of America is the sequence towards the finale of the film which offers a brief insight into Ida’s past as a young Jewish girl full of aspiration and unrealised potential. A key sequence that draws the film together is where Michael’s mother seeks to reclaim a sexuality continually denied by his abusive father and which leads into a nostalgic reverie. On one level, this is the type of sentimental regression that typifies many of Bakshi’s older characters, but here we have a truly touching sequence whereby the filmmaker reveals a less bitter aspect of his soul because we are shown his mother’s frustrations in clear terms. The character, as we have seen so far, has been played for broad, often highly uncomfortable ‘laughs’, relentlessly battered and mistreated throughout the film, which at first glance certainly plays into the accusations of misogyny that have plagued Bakshi throughout his career. But here this melts away to reveal a sensitive, thwarted woman contained by defeat and the animation form comes into its own, through a combination of movement, still images and stark framing, to potently reveal how the dreams of youth can fail to materialise.

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Ida’s tragedy from Heavy Traffic (1973)

This emotional montage is a beautifully constructed formal fusion imbued with a beauty, melancholy and subtlety that reminds that us that not only has Bakshi been in control of the film throughout, but also that this then sheds some considerable light back on the rest of the narrative, putting the blitzkrieg of comic violence into some necessary relief. It’s a bold gambit that not only pays off handsomely when watched on a large screen in one sitting with a crowd, but it also reinforces just how much of a handle Bakshi had on the material at that point, as he imbues this moment with a tenderness that few of his contemporaries could have pulled off with anything like the same power. This may be a satire on class, US society and the Counterculture but it is one fortified by a humanity, as well as functioning as a stark warning to his younger characters.

So why has Bakshi seemingly eluded both the canons of American satire and New Hollywood? Well it’s not an easy question to answer. His work now appears in retrospective like a typically 1970s post-Countercultural statement i.e. it responds to the sense of collapse that typified the period, in the face of a realisation that American politics, society, authority and idealism are corrupt and seemingly without reason. Bakshi’s individualism doesn’t really answer any questions in fullness and Heavy Traffic does seem at times both optimistic and reactionary. In some ways, it appears today as a somewhat quaint statement, subject to very specific temporal concerns.

There is also an odd cultural condition that seems to suggest that when a revolutionary and challenging project emerges it immediately has little to say about the future and becomes entirely cemented into the particular moment of its arrival. Thus the experiment dates almost immediately, being fixed in a specific point in history. There is some traction here in that the setting, political view and attitudes do locate the film so very firmly in a period that perhaps doesn’t translate that well today to contemporary audiences. This has the effect of casting Bakshi adrift in history somewhat and also cutting him off from a potential audience that may perhaps miss the complexities within his works.

The medium of choice I suspect is part of the issue here. In that, until only relatively recently, ‘serious’ critics rarely took notice of animation and often wrongly cast the medium as merely the province of children. To pursue this argument would require an entirely separate article one suspects, but it is worth saying here that Bakshi was seen as an exemplar within the animation field meaning that, regardless of the quality of his statements, he was never going to be taken as seriously by film critics and academics of the time, as bearing a similar status to live-action directors like Coppola and Scorsese. However since the 1990s, as American satirists like Mike Judge, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and John Kricfalusi have all confirmed, animation is not only a marker of the rising status of the image within today’s popular culture but has also been a useful, reliable medium through which to explore political and social attitudes with some intensity.

Add to this that Bakshi, always an outsider and never one to compromise, undoubtedly fell afoul of the 1980s cultural shifts around perceptions and labelling of gender, race and orientation that have now been commonly associated with the term ‘political correctness’. This has meant that many of the images and much of the language in his films nowadays seem unpalatable to contemporary tastes and indeed, although seeking to create within animation a sense of what he called ‘realistic representation’, much of Bakshi’s best work is often a difficult watch. Taste and restraint were rarely part of his armoury during this period either and, in truth, the director has never really fully accounted for the male power base that is inherent within many of the images he mobilises to tell his stories.

The critic Robert Sklar has said that, once the dust had settled, ‘New Hollywood’ was not as revolutionary as many believe and was, in truth, more a middle-class reaffirmation of Classical Hollywood mythology. This class distinction has possibly shaped the historical understandings of Bakshi and maybe this has impaired any consideration of his inclusion into the canon of satirical American filmmakers of this period. His class distance from many of the ‘New Hollywood’/‘Film Brat Generation’ is palpable. Many of those directors sought to in fact continue a refashioned Hollywood within an understood system, yet Bakshi always seemed perennially outside of that system – too angry and seemingly unable to make concessions. His animation expressed the voice of a working class culture, not in a distant or easy, palatable fashion, but in a direct and honest manner that often reflected, with little sentiment, a locale and a moment now long gone.
Yet, a glance at on-line social networking sources today sees that Bakshi has thankfully accessed a new audience of young people keen to celebrate one of the last real outsiders in American popular culture with anything meaningful to say. With various retrospectives across America this year alone (similar to the one we held at the University of Portsmouth) and a career in painting and teaching now in place. That he is gainfully employed piecing together his autobiographical magnum opus The Last Days of Coney Island (still to be completed for a belated 2016 release on the back of a Kickstarter appeal) means that there is still life left in this marginal voice and that hopefully that will be still be offering some much needed dissent against an increasingly homogenised popular culture.

  • Wubbsy

    I found the sequences involving Snowflake being beaten and tossed around like a rag doll -extremely- hard and painful to watch.