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Sex, Death and Pragmatism

The business of surrealism: Bill Plympton's <i>Idiots and Angels</i>

The business of surrealism: Bill Plympton's Idiots and Angels

"It's number seven. The angel caressing the blonde."

On the phone with his publicist, selecting stills from his new film, Idiots and Angels, Bill Plympton is having a very businesslike conversation about some very surreal images. Two days before Angels' New York opening, Plympton was engaged in a whirl of activity in his studio, located in one of Chelsea's many generically ominous buildings. He has some help on the distribution and administrative ends, but most of the mechanics are still his to handle. He'd rather be drawing, but for the work that takes up so much time, the grimly utilitarian location fits.

Idiots and Angels is Plympton's fifth original animated feature, and easily his best received, the first full-length work of his nearly 30-year career to garner as much praise as his acclaimed shorts.

Critics and fans alike were prone to complain that his previous long-form works were exhausting to watch after a while, a criticism Plympton admits bothered him. It's no surprise Terry Gilliam, who's often weathered similar objections, is a longtime fan; he's lent his name for a "Terry Gilliam Presents" credit on Idiots and Angels, which is finally coming to theaters two years after its film-festival premiere.

The simple parable — an evil, smoke-blowing, woman-groping, generally no-good guy is forced to do good when angel wings sprout from his back — is Plympton's first dialogue-free feature. Visually rooted in late-1940s studio cinema (the lighting and cars are vintage noir) and gorgeously organized, it's a satisfying film that also discards the potentially exhausting motor-mouthed jags of Plympton's previous features.

The lack of dialogue also keeps costs down, which appealed to Plympton: no vocal syncing, no subtitles for foreign countries. After trying fruitlessly to get a distribution deal for two years, he's putting out Idiots and Angels himself so as not to miss the nomination window for the Oscars.

"I'm a member of the Academy and I know their impatience with computer animation and the same old crap over and over again," he says. "They want to strike a blow against corporate animation." Self-distribution requires that the artist devote a lot of his own time to things like print trafficking, organizing postcards and posters and beating the bushes for press coverage. Does it get tiresome?

"Sure does," he answers without hesitating. "This is stuff I'm not happy about doing. The bureaucratic stuff is just a lot of busy work that's just grinding me down. But if you want to be independent, then you have to learn these things."

Plympton's one-man-operation approach to animation has largely stayed the same since his 1987 breakthrough, Your Face, where a man's face contorts, doubles and assumes inexplicable shapes as a slowed-down singer warbles. The man looks like many of Plympton's prototypical males, beefy and red-faced; the difference between him and the protagonist of, say, Plympton's 1993 Taco Bell commercial is infinitesimal. Plympton's carnal interests are so basic, his visual signature so distinct, that "selling out" doesn't dilute his artistry — there's no real compromise. Take away the voice-over, and Your Face and Taco Bell have basically the same effect.

Plympton's shorts run the gamut from plotless, music-scored exercises in vaguely disconcerting surrealism, to the Looney Tunes–with-death escapades of Guard Dog, his most popular recurring character ("My Mickey Mouse," he says), whose urge for love and fanatical desire to protect his masters lead, as Plympton says, to "killing them or harming them very seriously." The relatively conventional setup — a simple premise with a gag spun out for five or six minutes' worth of variations — makes the films an ideal introduction to Plympton's work.

Guard Dog is very popular, which is important; Plympton's ability to please his audience is an important factor in his self-sufficiency, and so the frenetic canine has appeared four times, more than any of his characters.

Idiots and Angels is an uncharacteristically somber detour from the usual maniacal frenzy.

Long before the bottom fell out of the live-action independent-film world, leading to much film-festival-panel hand-wringing and dozens of think pieces about how best to sell oneself and cash in on all the tools social media has to offer, Plympton offered himself as part and parcel of the overall experience. He's always ready to speak with his films, offer advice to up-and-coming animators, and repeatedly emphasize the importance of keeping costs down and the gag quotient high. "I know there's a gospel that it's impossible to make money on short films," he says. "I disagree."

Plympton tried to be a live-action filmmaker in the '90s. He wanted to take the Tim Burton route from animation to real people, but his two fiction features were self-described bombs, so he retreated to his metier. He owns all the copyrights to his work, and with the key revenue streams of European TV, DVDs and theatrical compilations of shorts, he basically doesn't have to answer to anyone.

Plympton's professional pragmatism contrasts with his films' total lack of interest in workaday realities. If David Cronenberg's movies treat every surface as a potential orifice, Plympton's treat all surfaces as simple plastic to be stretched, melted and remolded, no explanation needed. Sex and violence are constants, but all the morbidity's oddly innocent, defanged of real menace or discomforting material. The sense is less of an exploding id than simply of cartoon logic taken to its ultimate limits.

It's telling that he cites Peter Jackson's Dead Alive as his ideal horror film: "The blood is everywhere, the humor is everywhere." Same difference.