Thursday, August 29, 2013
The Wheels Come Off the Love Affair with the Automobile: 1973 and "Heavy Traffic"
While it may be easy to miss the serious side to "American Graffiti," the same cannot be said for "Heavy Traffic." After viewing Ralph Bakshi's largely animated release, I was disturbed. It was if the gates of hell were opened wide. Vincent Canby summarized the film as:
American graffiti of a very high and unusual order, a tale of a young New York City pilgrim named Michael, half-Italian, half- Jewish, ever innocent, and his progress tough a metaphor that is nowhere as dreary as it sounds: the pinball machine called Life. It is a liberating, arrogant sort of movie, crude, tough, vulgar, full of insult and wit, and an awareness of the impermanence of all things.
Like "American Graffiti, "Heavy Traffic was another low budget film. Conflicts between film's investors and Bakshi caused a final car chase scene to be dropped, and one wonders what closing statement is missing. Yet what remained included a scene featuring Chuck Berry's song "Maybelline" and Detroit "Iron" disemboweled and disintegrated. It is a picture of automotive chaos contained within a much larger chaotic view that is prophetic concerning what lays around the corner in terms of American life. Traditional moral values, relationships, standards, and material culture was in rapid flux, to be challenged by new forms that were largely unanticipated by even careful contemporary observers only a few years before.
While impermanence has always been a part of the American automobile industry and American life, the rapidity of that change after 1973 coupled with associated structural transitions was unprecedented. And although oil shocks I and II were major contributors to the dramatic rise of the Japanese industry and the decline of the Detroit Three, they were two causal factors, albeit important ones, among a host of other significant forces acting synergistically at the time. The categorization and explication of those forces are topics for a major scholarly monograph, and beyond the scope of a twenty minute introductory talk. But certainly one reason why the automobile industry went off the tracks was due to federal government policies that often were at odds with one another and the average American consumer. And that is where I will start my next study, although I plan to go much beyond that single topic.