In 1999 an animated film whose very title is a not-so-subtle allusion to a big uncircumcised penis was released. At the time it held the world record not only for the greatest number of profanities in an animated movie, but in any movie ever. Its main characters were four third-grade children. This is, of course, the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. Incidentally, the film was rated R, even though one character spends the duration of the film trying to figure out what the clitoris is, and even though the clitoris later appears to him as mythological, philosophical vision telling him what to do with his life.
But, as boundary-pushing as this film was, the aesthetic that inspired it—and the many South Park-related and -inspired cultural phenomena that followed—may be said to have originated a quarter-century earlier, with Heavy Traffic, directed by Ralph Bakshi. A follow-up to Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic (1973), which recently screened at New York’s Museum of Art and Design as part of their Adults After Dark series featuring avant-garde and revolutionary animators, reminds viewers that leaving certain cartoons in the hands of children can be a very, very dangerous thing.
In Heavy Traffic, reality is altered from the moment an animated character walks across a black-and-white photograph of New York and the unsettling opening lines are narrated by Michael Corleone, the film’s 22-year-old protagonist: What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy? Where do you go? Where do you hide? The opening wastes no time in reminding viewers that Heavy Traffic—as was Fritz the Cat—is rated X. Fritz was a cartoon, an almost childish animated version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but already Heavy Traffic feels like a meditatively thorough, and even philosophical, movie. And then a woman’s breast pops out of her dress. And then another, and another, until one can’t help but ask if they even count as a nipple slips, since each one requires such careful planning and animation.
The dark and dirty portrait of life in New York City as shown in Heavy Traffic seems fitting for a story told by Ralph Bakshi, who was born just before World War II in Haifa. When his family moved to Brooklyn in 1939, Bakshi was drawn not only to comics and cartoons, but to the streets of New York. Often he would dig through garbage dumpsters to fish out comic books, and so it seems only logical that someone who, quite ironically, never saw a distinction between filth and cartoons, would go so far as to pioneer a new way of looking at the role and popular conception of animation itself. By nudging obscenity into the mainstream, Bakshi cleared the way for movies like South Park to be rated R instead of X.
Michael Corleone—whose name is only one of the film’s many allusions to The Godfather, including a mandolin waltz played over shots of the Lower East Side—is an unemployed, unappreciated, self-proclaimed “underground cartoonist,” living at home with his parents. Eventually Corleone’s mother cuts off his father’s penis after being beaten from one side of the street to the other with a butt of a gun, and Corleone moves in with a black bartender who has a former soldier with no legs for a stalker. Michael’s father, who is a low-level gangster, puts a hit out on his son for living with a “moulignon.” Michael and his ex-bartender girlfriend Carole begin posing as prostitute and pimp and robbing clients for money. Michael is shot in the head and as his skull splits the scene around him begins to morph and colors are warped, and the streets end up looking like a Dali canvas.
In fact, along the course of the film, the animation itself and the story become more and more surreal. Not only does Heavy Traffic clumsily weave photos of New York interrupted by live-action shots of someone playing pinball, and animation, but there are moments when the film, which at first seemed to follow the fairly simple law that in a cartoon a character can take severe beatings without dying, ceases to obey any form of logic or order at all. When Michael’s father goes to speak to his Godfather figure, the man’s spaghetti is clearly made of small naked men and women being slurped up to their death. Eventually the don is machine-gunned in the skull but seems to be fine, even with a substantial portion of his brain exposed. In one moment Carole is seen picking up a client inside of the diner from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
The result is a highly unnerving and unsettling work of animation—something that doesn’t necessarily fascinate, but that terrifies. The fast cuts between real life and a true medley of animation techniques, and the departure from reality itself, even as a cartoon, make the film difficult to watch.
And let’s not forget the sex. At a moment in history when the MPAA’s re-categorization of its entire system was still nascent, Heavy Traffic was rated X. The film, which would be pornographic if it didn’t aspire to something completely different, represents a peculiar turn in popular culture. The term popular itself is key, because although the film was rated so severely, by 1973 more and more theaters were willing to show explicit material. As a result, Bakshi was the only cartoonist other than Walt Disney to have had two consecutive, successful feature films.
Although Bakshi’s unique sense of narrative structure seems to be fraught with a distinct lack of awareness of narrative structure, the animator, who started working in a cartoon studio cleaning gels, was clearly onto something. His funding was pulled several times, he was fired from his own project, and his animators were reluctant—even afraid—to be so unrestricted in showing so much nudity. But he went forward. With Heavy Traffic and Fritz the Cat, despite having directed several benign and even endearing films and shows for adults and children alike, Bakshi’s great accomplishment seems to have been the proliferation of—and as a result, the partial desensitization to—obscenity.
A film like Heavy Traffic, and Bakshi himself, may be the godfather not only of programs like South Park, but of our contemporary notion of the obscene. While long haircuts, sexualized dancing on TV, and jokes about marijuana were once considered vulgar, Bakshi, more in Heavy Traffic than in Fritz the Cat, presented an entirely unabashed notion of obscenity. Domestic violence, blood-and-guts fight scenes, yard-long penises, and a rape scene in which a male character is forcefully given oral sex by a fat Sicilian prostitute with his mother not two feet away, all lower the proverbial bar into uncharted territory. Heavy Traffic is as filthy and as incoherent and as any well-planned telling of the famous joke known as “The Aristocrats,” but it is so unashamed that the raunchiness seems almost natural.
By directing two massively successful films of this nature, Bakshi not only made it possible for other similarly obscene works to become popular by giving the public a taste for comic vulgarity, but he gave shows like South Park something to aspire to. In a recent episode, “Raising the Bar,” the writers of South Park—after a moment in which reality-TV child star Honey Boo Boo and a character using a wheelchair wrestle in a pool of spaghetti—wistfully acknowledge that they might be responsible for making smut a bit too popular. Indeed they may have.
Although Heavy Traffic is now considerably less funny than its modern-day heirs, this may only be because in 1973 the sort of taboo-busting unrestrained humor Bakshi was after was only half-cooked. Thanks to Bakshi’s nearly-there attempt, which opened the door to all manner of obscenity, we are able to find anything that is as vulgar, incestuous, violent, nonsensical, morally abject, racist, and laden with every bodily fluid as The Aristocrats or South Park irresistibly funny. Or even funny at all.
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