It’s not impossible to be a lazy, shrug-it-off filmmaker, just as it isn’t to be a lazy painter or novelist, or, more to the point, a lazy comic artist, drawing each picture merely once and then moving on. (You could be David Lynch and draw your whole comic strip—“The Angriest Dog in the World”—only once, and phone in weekly captions for nine years.)
But it is virtually by definition impossible to be a lazy animator, mustering and capturing one frame at a time—by hand!—seemingly for all eternity. It’s a vocation that requires extra-human obsession and stamina, and an anchorite’s lust for cruel solitude. We know this as viewers—it’s part of the mode’s freakish traction, the sense of watching a compulsive build a cathedral one spoonful of mortar at a time while we simultaneously enjoy the finished experience at our own zippy speed, happily uninvolved with the ridiculous, time-devouring labor that went into it. Within this school of lonesome maniacs—which I suppose can include the hordes of unsung digital wonkers working at Disney/Pixar, huddled over their keyboards and arranging pixels for tens of thousands of hours—Bill Plympton is something like the bullgoose obsessive, working completely by himself (on the visuals at least), and often crafting his films with nothing more than colored pencils. (That includes seven features, as many as one person has ever drawn alone.) Watching them, you’re on your own with the filmmaker at his drawing table. The assault of analog-ness is integral to the spectacle of Plymptoons, but of course they hardly feel laborious—it is their defining grace that they veer and whizz and splat and spew like a water balloon fight. It helps that Plympton is one of the best and most distinctive craftsperson-cartoonists since Maurice Sendak, Basil Wolverton, and Robert Crumb, and that his imagination runs toward the childishly anarchic, but there’s something particularly hypnotic and guileless about all those pencil lines, all that sketching, all those millions of desk hours aggregating, magically, into a few moments of abrupt, careening nonsense.
Fast, dirty, and always low-budget, Plympton’s films are not animated “on the ones,” like high-priced animations (meaning, one drawing per photographed frame). His films often shake and shudder on the threes or fours or more, giving the action an anxious vibrato. Even when they discover stability, the world of Plympton’s films is immediately recognizable as his, and his impulsive tropes are a substantial factor in its charm. Everything is mutable in Plymptopia, but nothing is quite as mutable as the human head, which suffers every affront imaginable by humankind, and dozens more besides. Bodies, pets, houses, cars, and appliances are as pliable as taffy. Cascades of disaster and often outrageous gore spill forth with ballistic speed—when they’re not caught in a shivery pregnant pause. (Plympton owns the comic timing that lets his pulsing lines seem to think about what’s going on—or what catastrophe will come next.) The landscape is pure generic American suburbia: blaring sun, treeless lawns, bland ranch houses, endless two-lane blacktop—all of it so flat that it’s drawn to curve with the Earth, aping an ultra-wide camera lens, a move that often extrapolates out to distort interiors so that living rooms and saloons have parabolic ceilings half a mile high. All the better in which to launch a rocket, or be launched by an explosion, or otherwise burst the limitations on perspective and scale because why not. Though he didn’t start animating seriously until the ’80s, the iconography in his films seems tied to the early ’60s, for the most part, if the time-stalled fashions, jukebox rockabilly, tail-finned cars, and boxy furniture are any indication; an early boomer, Plympton was a teenager in the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, and you can tell that for him those years will always be the classic America from which all other Americas, gorgeous or ugly, idiotic or snazzy, emanate. He came to New York by way of Portland, in the ’60s, to attend the School of Visual Arts, and spent years cartooning and advertising art. But after he began his filmmaking career, recognition didn’t take long: the seminal short Your Face (1987) was nominated for an Oscar, and then MTV became a veritable Plympton showcase, creating animation anthology programs for him, hiring him for all manner of commercials and station IDs, and turning his style and iconic figures into a low-bore national phenomenon.
The unassuming humans that inhabit this obstacle course are what we could call proto-Plympts, beginning with the stubby, baggy-suited, Nixon-hairline schlubs, usually viewed at a 45-degree angle, from the early shorts Your Face and 25 Ways to Quit Smoking (1989), variations of which occupy scores of other films (there have been maybe 100 or more shorts, if you fold in music videos, TV promos, and commercials). As an archetype, this squinty, casual nudnik feels as definitive a breed of Homo Americanus as Hank Ketchum’s weary Mr. Wilson, or Dave Berg’s pipe-smoking backyard barbecuers, a flabby average-everything nowhere man badly aged by white bread, cigarettes, and office work. But he’s routinely accompanied by bouffant bimbos in cat-eye glasses, freckle-cheeked brats, pompadoured meta-Elvises, and chiseled/voluptuous walking-talking-kissing-screwing Brenda-Starr-style ubercouples, whose efforts at coitus are, of course, disastrous. This is a cast of characters with a good case of arrested development, caught in the nearly-popped-cork high-pressure systems of midcentury adolescence, and Plympton is unashamed of it—as he is also defiantly proud of his approach to sex, which is nothing if not the knowing expression of an unreformed hormonal teenage Frankenstein who may not actually have ever had sex at all.
Still, that Plympton’s style puts his drawing, the process and struggle of it, front and center is central, mustering the pure pleasure of craftsmanship. Craft is a cultural factor that tends to get neglected and derided today, particularly in the art world, and often enough in comics and cartooning (where it often seems having the drafting chops of an eight-year-old is a badge of honor), but its pleasures remain deathless. It’s worth inviting the novelist John Barth to make the point, in a famous essay decades ago, proclaiming that he prefers “the kind of art not many people can do: the kind that requires expertise and artistry as well as bright aesthetic ideas and/or inspiration.” He gives a nod to the Pop Art so hot in the day, “but I was on the whole more impressed by the jugglers and acrobats at Baltimore’s old Hippodrome, where I used to go every time they changed shows; not artists, perhaps, but genuine virtuosi, doing things anyone can dream up and discuss but almost no one can do.”
If you’ve ever watched a trained draughtsman or illustrator do their thing on YouTube, drawing a hand or a tree or a street scene, you know the feeling: the awe in the face of casual superhuman skill, creating as you watch something brand new that indexes/represents recognizable reality somehow and yet seethes with its maker’s point of view, personality, desires, and fears. Animation, in virtually any form, ramps up the effect exponentially. Plympton began professionally as a newspaper cartoonist in 1975, for the long-lamented Soho Weekly News, and then everywhere, and it’s as if in many ways he never left newsprint—his movies seem to be drawn as we watch, or to draw themselves, spontaneously but with a certainty of craft that’s dazzling regardless of their content.
Many viewers still cannot let go of their ardent preference for Plympton’s splenetic early shorts, including One of Those Days (1988), How to Kiss (1989), The Wise Man (1990), Push Comes to Shove (1991), Nose Hair (1994), and How to Make Love to a Woman (1995), with their minimal use of language, free-for-all Ernie-Kovacs-blackout-skit structures, and the startling juxtaposition of stillness and speed. It’s not surprising—the films are eye glue, airy but potent with menace, calm but calamitous. Plympton’s bustling filmography, though, never sat still, and the filmmaker’s ambitions rambled in all directions. He’s experimented with musicals, narration, visual and tonal texture, different drafting mediums, live action (including mock-doc comedy features with no animation at all), and length—the aforementioned seven animated features are each stranger and more languorous than the last. The Tune (1992) is a hokey-yet-lysergic musical as innocent as a Buster Keaton comedy, while I Married a Strange Person! (1997) explodes with hard-R scandal-gags, including one in which a talk-show comic rips his own limbs off to get laughs, and another that features a barely softcore marital consummation sequence in which the wife is objectified into a hundred absurd dream identities (including, finally, a huge pair of expanding, house-bursting breasts), surrounded by household objects frantically mimicking intercourse. Mutant Aliens (2001)—which never even found release in the U.S.—is a hermetic yarn in which an astronaut lands on a distant moon inhabited by giant-body-part aliens (he falls in love with, and lustily screws, the Giant Nose Queen, not long before he’s captured and tortured by a Giant Tongue). Hair High (2004) returns to Plympton’s Grease-retro musical terrain, while Idiots and Angels (2008) is a noirish fable about a lowlife reluctantly sprouting angelic wings that edges into the Mitteleuropan shadowiness of early Borowcyzk before it goes utterly Lynchian. Cheatin’ (2014), though a conventional romantic comedy, goes even more painterly and atmospheric, while the action-movie satire Revengeance (2016), made with animator Jim Lujan, opts for a far rougher, faster drawing style that evokes Russian animator Igor Kovalyov and David Lynch’s DumbLand.
Plympton’s features have never enjoyed the success and ubiquity of his shorts—it may well be that his gag reflexes, so to speak, are best savored at 45 rpm, and that his ironic corniness doesn’t allow for the empathy viewers commonly crave during the haul of a trad feature. (He can never resist a cheesy musical number, either, between sometimes awkward passages of soundtrack silence.) But it may be that what many people remember from his films—the lavishly, enthusiastically drawn attention paid to dismemberment on the one hand and crazed sexual fantasy on the other—also plays less traumatically, less sociopolitically, if offered in pop-song bites, not full-length narrative meals. Plympton’s decidedly incorrect low humor dares to express an adolescent’s feverish breast-&-butt obsessions and exuberant stereotypes in a field of self-jesting irreverence where nothing, not even the pencil lines, are stable. He makes Freudian jokes out of everything—cartoon mammaries and phalluses everywhere—exploding their ostensible sexual significance and turning desire itself, as it bubbles under stress within the teenage boy’s skull that Plympton knows all too well, into absurdity.
At the very least, it’s yet another factor of Plympton’s stuck-in-time affect, reaching back to when certain schoolboys would doodle naked women during math class. (Which was also a moment in time when “underground” comics routinely trafficked in frankly exploitative sexuality, à la Crumb, Jean-Claude Forest, Richard Corben, Vaughn Bode, etc.) No one can be blamed for being put off by Plympton’s crude sexual worldview, but it’s worth pondering how our culture extolls and rewards a vast array of ways to stay immature and not grow up—huge portions of our entertainment complex depends upon us staying essentially childlike—while fervently condemning others.
Plympton makes no apologies for bad taste or lingering sophomorism because his deft and unpredictably handcrafted fringe world is all his, warts and giggles and stray erections and all, and it makes no bones about its own silliness. For the die-hard converts to Plympton—converts to what may be contemporary film’s most purely personal oeuvre, spilling onto paper and film straight out of the man’s brainpan, no mediation required or allowed—the snap and shudder of his handiwork is more than enough.
A selection of Plympton’s films is playing now on the Criterion Channel. Watch the series trailer below: