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"Idiots & Angels" is Dark Brilliance from Bill Plympton

Angel learns to flySometimes, artistic restrictions are the best things that can happen to an artist. Whether self-imposed or caused by external circumstances, restrictions can often push an artist to plumb new depths of creativity and discover new and exciting methods of expression. The collected work of animator Bill Plympton has never suffered from a lack of creativity, but in many of his feature films, that same creativity often seemed to overwhelm narrative cohesion. Many of them feel more like short films barely connected together by thin narrative threads. However, with his latest movie, Idiots & Angels, Plympton established two arbitrary restrictions at the outset: no dialogue and a dark, muted color palette. The result is Plympton’s best feature-length film yet. While the film is still full of the vividly surreal imagery that he is best known for, it is backed by a much stronger sense of narrative cohesion that holds the whole thing together. It is also one of Plympton’s more somber movies, tempering its humorous moments with explorations into the darker corners of the human psyche.

Idiots & Angels centers on a selfish, world-class jerk whose name is revealed as Angel only in the end credits. He is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of turning someone’s car into a giant Molotov cocktail over a stolen parking spot — a scene we are treated to early in the film that is played for dark Looney Tunes laughs. He seems to spend most of his free time at Bart’s Bar, a dingy watering hole owned by the pudgy and repulsive Bart, whose beautiful blonde wife serves as the cleaning woman and the object of Angel’s poorly concealed lust. One morning, Angel wakes up to discover stubby wings sprouting from his back which regenerate despite his efforts to get rid of them. Even worse, while the wings grant him the ability to fly, they also compel him to do good deeds, returning a purse that he steals on the wing and forcing him to pursue a thief who robbed the bar. Soon, Angel’s wings get the attention of a greedy doctor and Bart, who have designs of their own for the wings.

Like a dirty boa constrictorIt wouldn’t be a Bill Plympton film without the weird visuals that fully exploit the strength of animation as a medium, and Idiots & Angels does not disappoint in that regard. The wings growing out of Angel’s back are strange enough, but the really outlandish stuff is reserved for several fantasy sequences that Plympton uses for character development in place of dialogue. In so doing, Plympton is still able to use his trademark meandering, seemingly improvised pacing without letting these digressions derail the narrative as they sometimes do in his other films. Angel’s carnal lusts for Bart’s wife are expressed as he fantasizes of twisting his body around hers like some filthy-minded, sped-up boa constrictor, while her dreams of freedom find expression in a pastoral sequence where she seems to make love to a gigantic butterfly in mid-flight. As the film progresses, it’s not entirely clear where the fantasies (or nightmares) end and the bizarre Plympton-world reality begins. In one scene, Angel’s anxieties about his wings manifest as he sees bird imagery all around him while people point and laugh. The scene is not as clearly delineated as fantasy, and is quite unsettling as a result.

Muted color palette reinforcing moodThe unsettling atmosphere is reinforced by the dark, almost sinister color palette. Largely draining the film of color was the second creative restriction which really lets the film take flight, since its more somber tone perfectly matches the darker, uglier sensibilities of the story. There is a suitable grimy, gray layer over everything on-screen, with dark shadows and thick, viscous cigarette smoke completing the heavily noir-influenced atmosphere. While Angel is clearly an extremely unsympathetic character, he is also living an unsettlingly familiar life of quiet desperation, as are all the others in the movie. The fantasies all the characters engage in throughout the movie all have an underlying theme of escape and freedom (or, in the case of Bart, stripping those things from others for his own selfish benefit). The only color that is allowed into the world of Idiots & Angels has to come from the television set.

Like his other films, Idiots & Angels is essentially a one-man show, with every frame of the film drawn and animated by Plympton himself using pencils on paper. While his earlier films relied on a painstaking process of cutting out the paper originals and transferring them to cels for photography, Idiots & Angels was colored and composited using computers, directed a team of able assistants led by co-producer Biljana Labovic. The results are terrific, keeping Plympton’s scratchy, hand-made pencil work on screen while allowing for extremely subtle gradations of color. The latter point is especially important to keep the dark color palette from becoming monotonous. The computers also allow for more sophisticated visual effects than have been seen in Plympton’s work in the past. Several shots simulate a multi-plane camera effect, giving them a great sense of depth and space. The effect is especially effective in shots that deliberately distort the background sets, such as one scene late in the movie when Bart’s Bar is twisted into an elongated tunnel, placing Bart, Angel, and his wife squarely in the foreground. For the most part, the effects are very well used, even though there are some moments when they are a little distracting (such as one where a shower of jewelry rains down the screen).

Definitely not a Miyazaki fantasy flightIf nothing else, it’s quite refreshing to see such a satisfying animated movie made for $150,000, when many Hollywood animation studios spend more than 300 times that amount to produce far less creative or compelling works. In recent days, the power of the computer as a filmmaking tool has made it easier for solo filmmakers or very small teams to animate entire feature films cheaply. Jun Awazu didn’t need much help to animate Negadon: The Monster from Mars. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (also screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) was a one-woman show rendered entirely on personal computer hardware. Still, even though Idiots & Angels may be his most technically sophisticated film yet, it’s good to see that the technology is deployed in service of Plympton’s idiosyncratic style rather than overwhelming it. It’s also nice to see that he has not lost his touch for the bizarre, and that he continues to be a one-man argument for keeping the art of 2-D hand-drawn animation alive.

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