Video Drone: Adventures in Plymptoons



Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which may be the reason Adventures in Plymptoons (Cinema Libre Studio), Alexia Anastasio's flattering new video documentary on cult animator Bill Plympton, suffers from some of the same problems as Plympton's feature-length animations. A master craftsman of surreal sight gags, Plympton shines brightly in his short films (39 to date) and his countless TV spots, while the features I've seen (Hair High, Idiots and Angels) are so vaguely plotted that they grow tedious after a while despite their wildly imaginative art. In the same way, Anastasio proceeds chronologically through Plympton's life and career, but her 85-minute video is strung together with more than a dozen chapter headings—"How to Win Attention," "How to Turn Down $1,000,000," "How to Make Feature Films," etc—that serve no other function but to grab your attention in case you might be wondering what's in the refrigerator or whether the clothes are ready to go into the dryer.

That's the breaks when you're a filmmaker, however. No one gives a damn about shorts, despite the fact that most of the great animators—from Dave Fleischer to Chuck Jones to Nick Park to Don Hertzfeldt—have done their best (sometimes their only) work in that format. Plympton got his start as a print cartoonist, creating, among other things, covers for Al Goldstein's legendary porn magazine Screw, and in a way he's never really progressed much farther than that. His grotesque visions are inimitable and unforgettable, but for him linear development consists mainly of one object mutating into another, not a story traveling from beginning to middle to end.

One thing's for sure: just about everyone loves Plympton. He never has trouble lining up stars to provide voices for his films (among them Paul Giamatti and Sarah Silverman), and the famous fans collected by Anastasio for the documentary include Ralph Bakshi, Ed Begley Jr., Jonathan Caouette, Keith Carradine, Terry Gilliam, Ron Jeremy, Lloyd Kaufman, Moby, Matthew Modine, Martha Plimpton (a distant relative), and "Weird Al" Yankovic. Unfortunately Anastasio doesn't seem to be pushing them very hard; in many cases they're allowed to get away with staged shtick (Jeremy comments on Plympton while a woman's head bobs up and down over his lap, and Begley holds forth under the mistaken impression that he's being interviewed about Bill Clinton).

Am I being too fussy? After all, it's just a documentary about a cartoonist. But Plympton's bloody ravaging and elastic distortions of the human form must come from a very dark place. On-screen he admits that sex is one of his favorite things, and Freud would have had a field day with the bullet-breasted babes in Plympton's movies. Another legendary cartoonist with a thick streak of sexual perversity is R. Crumb, and when Terry Zwigoff tackled him in the 1994 documentary Crumb, he managed to push past the hip laughs and deep into the psychic wounds that fed Crumb's art. Anastasio doesn't come close to achieving this sort of revelation, not least because she's dependent on her subject for the copious clips from his work. This must be what they mean when they say flattery will get you nowhere.

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