Welcome to Tilt City. Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic comes blasting out of New York City’s collective id like one of the shiny metal pinballs frequently seen careening around the machine being played by the film’s own pinball wizard, an aspiring underground cartoonist improbably named Michael Corleone (Joseph Kaufman)—one of several jabs at Francis Ford Coppola’s first Godfather film. Pinball patently stands as Heavy Traffic’s operative metaphor for the random caprices of existence. Bookended by live-action scenes with Corleone in a penny arcade playing the game, the film’s animated portion is a nightmarish fantasia of equal-opportunity offensive racial stereotypes, casual and incredibly sanguinary violence, and all the flopping animated tits anybody could ever want.
Heavy Traffic impulsively shuffles between three registers of what you might cavalierly call reality: live-action scenes, animation that feigns Michael’s imagined reality (or at least one possible variation thereof), and animation-within-animation that brings some of Michael’s cartoons to obstreperous life. Adding to the vertiginous density of Bakshi’s imagery, still photographs, and even clips from other films often serve as an abstracted backdrop for the animation. Heavy Traffic’s skeletal storyline parodies The Godfather’s soapy saga of familial betrayal, but it’s really little more than a clothesline on which Bakshi can hang the freeform vignettes and obscene flights of fancy that clearly interest him more.
One standout segment illustrating some of Michael’s story ideas relates a post-apocalyptic fable about Mother Pile, a garbage heap literally fucked into sentience by a sex-starved survivor type. The legend continues with Wanda the Last, the sole remaining human female, who gets scooped up by the prima noctis prerogative of the Big Guy Upstairs. (Their relationship gives the term “second coming” a whole new spin). If only Bakshi’s later foray into fantasy, the woe-begotten Wizards, possessed even an ounce of this sequence’s black humor and unabashed irreverence. Elsewhere, Bakshi’s battering-ram subtle use of racial caricature—never more trenchant than in the bitter beleaguered battles between Michael’s Italian father and Jewish mother—paves the way for the relatively more nuanced handling of this brand of material in Coonskin.
“Nobody loses all the time,” avers Warren Oates’s sempiternal loser in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. After Michael sends his pinball machine straight to Tilt City, and subsequently kicks it to pieces, he’s caught at a crossroads: Either he can return to the mean streets and the dead end of his existence as it stands, or else he can take a chance and reach out to the real life version of Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson). That Heavy Traffic wants to offer at least a glimmer of hope amid the acid hangover of the early ’70s is clearly indicated in its final moments. While Michael and Carol together dance in slow motion, the soundtrack offers up Sérgio Mendes bopping his way through “Scarborough Fair,” an appositely cross-cultural take on a wistful Love Generation anthem.
Shout! Factory’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer of Heavy Traffic is framed at 1.66:1 (which isn’t quite the film’s 1.85:1 OAR), but it’s still a substantial improvement over MGM’s earlier pan-and-scan DVD, even if there’s a fair amount of wear visible to the elements, especially near the edge of the frame. Colors mostly pop and fine details don’t often get lost in the busy design work, though there are some contrast issues, most evident in the live-action nighttime scenes. The lossless Master Audio monaural track sounds a bit flat and somewhat tinny now and again, but it delivers the dialogue with sufficient legibility. The soundtrack brings the Sérgio Mendes, with his blowsy bossa nova cover of "Scarborough Fair" bookending the film.
Less than zero: There aren’t even chapter selections available on the menu page.
Ralph Bakshi’s surreal city symphony blasts onto Blu-ray looking better than ever. More’s the pity, then, that Shout! Factory wasn’t able to scrape together some cogent extras.