A 2008 article for the Wall Street Journal revealed that, of the six feature films Bill Plympton has released, only two have made a profit. The article also states that, to save money, Plympton’s films often skimp on dialogue, thereby sparing him the task of hiring – and paying – actors. From afar, this seems like the typical story of an independent voice being crushed by Hollywood mega-studios, closed-minded theatre chains, and audiences increasingly interested in – or, if you prefer, distracted by – blockbusters.
Yet this constant commercial isolation has transformed Plympton into a kind of sixty-something starving artist whose resistance to change has guaranteed him deep critical adulation and a loyal following. An idol of the festival circuit, Plympton has preserved his independence as a filmmaker by shirking the money-trumps-identity attitudes of other animators, many of whom have abandoned the worn drawing boards and finger-curling pencils of animation past for keyboards and computer screens. (In a now famous story, when Disney offered him a lucrative job, though one in which every idea thought up under their contract became the company’s property, he turned them down.) And while Plympton himself has expressed no ill will towards films like The Incredibles and WALL-E, even going so far as to express his admiration for Pixar, there is an undeniable awareness that, should more and more aspiring filmmakers follow in the footsteps of current Hollywood animators, Plympton might just become the last of his kind.
We shouldn’t despair, however. Plympton, who works in an unassuming office in Manhattan, has managed to keep himself and his studio afloat over these many years through his shorts films, two of which have even garnered him Oscar nominations. His most recent collection, entitled Bill Plympton’s Dog Days, is a lone disc that spans five years of surreal, quirky work and includes original trailers, advertisements, television specials, and even three music videos, the breadth of which – Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say,” Weird Al Yankovic’s “Don’t Download This Song,” and Parson Brown’s “Mexican Standoff” – serves as a clear indication of Plympton’s influence and adaptability.
It’s the seven short films, though, that are the great testament to Plympton the animator, as short films should be. They even follow his advice to other aspiring animators, as detailed in the same Journal article: “Make them short—under six minutes; make them cheap; and make them funny.”
Oh, to be a dog! A life of perpetual lounging, of car rides and boxed treats, of backyards and swimming pools. A life in which you expect next to nothing, and nothing more than the tone of your owner’s voice can elicit utter joy. Dogs are, wrote Milan Kundera, “our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.” But if you’re a pooch in Bill Plympton’s world, it is a life of constant threats, of anxieties and disappointments, of surreal dangers and desperate attempts at gaining acceptance and approval. The life of a dog is a four-pawed, slack-tongued, knee-high hell.
The first three shorts featured on Dog Days are Plympton’s dog films, which comprise an official trilogy. Each tells the story of a nameless, breed-ambiguous dog who undertakes a small mission to prove his worth to the humans around him. In Guard Dog, he leads his owner through a park where each small and picturesque part of nature becomes, in the dog’s eyes, a player in his master’s gruesome end: A girl jumping rope leads to his decapitation; a squirrel transforms him into a gasoline-powered rocket; and a butterfly’s fluttering wings chop him to bits. In Guide Dog, Plympton’s pooch employs pantomime and a pathetically cute face to convince a shadowy figure to let him guide three successive people, all of whom eventually fall victim to tragic – and darkly funny – fates. In Hot Dog, he hops onto a moving fire truck as it makes its way to a burning house and becomes a self-appointed savior-to-be, successfully rescuing a woman who hangs from the roof. In his glory, however, he attempts to put out a secondary fire on a nearby tree, thereby reducing his moment of pride into a deluge of pure slapstick.
In all three films, Plympton’s yapping, bounding dog attempts to secure a proper place in human society, only to be sorely disappointed when, for instance, a blind man is carried off by a flock of birds, or when a river of gasoline makes its way through his digestive system and out onto a fire. While this is happening, Plympton’s human characters are voiceless—the most said by any of them is the occasional wordless harrumph. They are nothing but bizarrely shaped antidotes to the dog’s hyperkinetic personality, almost as though Plympton were swopping behaviors while keeping the exteriors intact—an experiment to see what human emotions resemble when enacted by a barrel-bodied canine.
Plympton, though, does not limit himself to personifications via dogs; this review could easily have begun, “Oh, to be a ceiling fan,” followed by a nice literary quote. The Fan and the Flower, which happens to be the longest of Plympton’s collected shorts at seven minutes and ten seconds, is the story of an unusual love affair between the two title objects, both of which are stuck in the home of an old woman.
At first, the fan is alone, its body dangling from the ceiling of an empty and forgotten room. As the short begins, we see him craning towards a lonely and inadequate window, contorting himself to imitate a bird hovering just outside, then returning to its original shape and sighing. Soon, the old woman arrives with a potted, two-leafed plant, which she sets on a small table across the room.
What follows are the fan’s attempts to woo his newfound companion, mostly through fancy lighting patterns and a cool breeze. (In one moment, the fan casts heart-shapes against the wall while, in the background, we’re offered the Latin-lounge-jazz orchestrations of Pink Martini’s “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love.”) At first the flower resists, but his persistence causes her to reconsider. As it turns out, she too loves him, too.
As the short nears its end, the old woman grows increasingly frail and forgetful; consequently, both fan and flower are neglected, leading the fan to look down and realize that the love of his life is withering away. From this we are offered a heartbreaking – and simultaneously heartwarming – act of love on the fan’s part, one which allows Plympton to deliver the film’s beautiful closing images.
Of the seven films featured on Dog Days, The Fan and the Flower is by far the most emotionally overpowering. And yet, paradoxically, it’s the least arty: the short is done in black lines, white space, and silhouettes; there are no backgrounds, no blue skies or green lawns—only the old woman’s home, her fan, and her flower. In a sense, it’s reminiscent of La Jetée, in which the protagonist’s dreary life, which is depicted using snapshots as in a slideshow, is interrupted by the appearance of a young woman – his eventual beloved – who awakens his spirit and offers us the movie’s lone moment of live action when she symbolically opens her eyes. She breaks through his stuttered mindset and, much like Plympton’s flower, whose shapeshifting petals provide the short film its only color, erases his despair.
“For so long,” says Bill Plympton, “people would criticize me as being old-fashioned and never using – experimenting – with computer animation. I was always doing traditional animation, and they said, ‘You gotta get on the computer bandwagon.’ They said I’m way behind the times, and everyone’s doing CG. So, what the hell, I took a shot.” His “shot” produced Shuteye Hotel, a short that combines modern-day computer animation with decades-old stop-motion and Plympton’s traditional hand-drawn style. The result is a dark and deeply twisted Hitchcockian thriller, as Plympton intended, but also a baffling and incongruous addition to the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
The title location is an irregularly shaped tower looming over a flat, lifeless landscape. Designed to resemble the Bates Motel, the Shut Eye bends at odd angles as it rises. Its main hallway, a corkscrewing staircase, is lit by single, unconnected bulbs that lead to a suite at the top, where new lodgers are sent for the night. These same lodgers are quickly dispatched by an unseen attacker, and always in a gruesome fashion: their heads are removed; blood spatters the walls, the floor, even the window; and there is an ominous sound. Unfortunately, there are no suspects, so the police decide to investigate by having one of their own spend the night.
When the antagonist is finally revealed, it’s not who – or what – we expect, though it fits nicely into Plympton’s unusual selectivity. “I loved taking seemingly innocent, innocuous objects and making them evil,” he tells us in the director’s commentary, citing the various dangers of nature in Guard Dog as proof. And, of course, he’s correct. The men and women (and animals) of his shorts, when victimized, are done so not by the usual perpetrators – muggers, bank robbers, politicians – but by unsuspected little things around them.
In a sense, Shuteye Hotel is Plympton’s little jab at the predictability of the horror genre. Growing up, I remember watching episodes of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” and knowing who the fiend under the sheet or behind the cut-out eyes of a portrait was long before the end of the episode, not because I figured out the mystery, but because the show was poorly written and followed the same pattern from adventure to adventure. Similarly, more grown-up fare, no matter how old, can be just as easily solved, if not more so. Here, Plympton finds what could be the most unexpected villain of all, a little thing we all encounter on a daily basis, though one with deadly jaws and a taste for human heads.
According to the director’s commentary, when Bill Plympton first discussed the idea of Santa, The Fascist Years with his family thirty years ago, they thought it was a “stupid idea.” So it remained unmade, kept in what Plympton refers to as his Rejected Idea File, until last year, when he found himself alone over Thanksgiving and saw potential in the premise.
Drawn in the fashion of an old cinema newsreel, complete with the scratches and pops of overused celluloid, and set during the Great Depression, Santa, the Fascist Years tells the story of Saint Nick gone awry. “The economy was in the toilet,” says the Winchell-style narrator, voiced herein by actor Matthew Modine. “Nobody wanted Santa’s stupid, boring old toys. Christmas sucked.” Santa, sensing the widespread discontentment and seeing the world moving irreversibly closer to war, changes the direction of his workshop. The lone chimney on top is replaced by a half-dozen billowing smokestacks, and soon the elves are producing tanks, planes, and weaponry. “For the first time,” the narrator says, “they took pride in their work at the North Pole.”
This, however, is not good enough for Santa Claus, and he soon becomes obsessed with the ill gains of war. His jolly disposition disappears, replaced by an “iron fist”; his homespun lifestyle becomes soulless and vile, what we would today deem “tabloid fodder”; and he begins conquering large parts of the world, first for resources, then for power, and finally to establish and enforce an all-year Christmas. He dispenses his army of armed snowmen, elves, and nutcrackers to fight for more land, strikes deals with Adolf Hitler, and has his workshop assembling and gift-wrapping bombs.
The end result is, of course, inevitable, though Plympton takes pleasure in blending together incongruous pieces of history – in this case, Harry Truman, blitzkriegs, and a spiderhole – to create a wicked little story about a round, red-suited man with a secret past. Once again, Plympton is casting a personification of human traits onto a figure who is never depicted as anything other than loyal, compassionate, clear-headed, and foible-free. Santa Claus the symbol is never gloomy or pessimistic without just cause, and, much like man’s best friend, he asks nothing of us other than to be good and believe.
The most scathing of Plympton’s shorts is Spiral, which launches a wickedly dark attack on filmmakers who see good cinema as nothing more than a few lifeless, abstract shapes on a lined background. Opening with a blue dot that moves in circumvolute patterns, then makes way for a brown square and orange triangle that shift together into geometric shapes, we are quickly lulled into a feeling somewhere between calm and boredom before, shockingly, a gun is fired. A small portion of the dot disappears, and blood drips down from the wound.
To continue with this synopsis would ruin the short. Needless to say, Plympton’s message – about art and cinema, about the will of the audience contrasted with the freedoms of the director – is clear. And for someone who has himself suffered under the misguided artistry of numerous filmmakers, both famous and aspiring alike, Plympton’s humor is much appreciated.
Spiral is the last short film included on Dog Days, and appropriately so. It reminds those of us on the right side of the screen that Plympton is first and foremost a storyteller, that he will never forsake our trust as an audience so that he may explore some facet of his own artistic arrogance. Truly, Plympton is one of the least conceited filmmakers working today. You would have to be, I suppose, when you make films as wonderfully and redeeming strange as these.