Maybe the earliest animated film is J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), a chalkboard animation pair of comedy Irish caricatures. The faces in question come to life, grow hair, waggle their eyebrows and grimace. You could draw a straight line from Blackton’s work to Bill Plympton’s 1987 short Your Face (featured in the collection Plymptoons (Amazon). That was centered on the facial contortions of a big manly balladeer. The lyrical model for the tune warbled in slow-motion would be something like the succulent vibrato of Perry Como’s 1961’s “A Portrait of My Love.” The singer in Your Face has a head malfunction: it swells, implodes, floats away like a balloon filled with pure fatuousness; it shrinks to bean size and sticks itself it its own ear. Plympton got an Oscar nomination for demonstrating Daumier-worthy levels of gift with caricature.
Plympton’s favorite subject is the beef-fed Caucasian face of the 1950s, with rosy-red cheeks and hefty jowls. Pompadours shine with pomade. His heads have zygomatic bones so prominent that they stick out like the face guard on a football helmet. In Plympton’s time as a strip-cartoonist, no one—not even the renowned editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times—surpassed him in drawing that famous salesman of the 1950s dream, Ronald Reagan.
Plympton’s Cheatin’—by the best of the four or five of the seven Plympton features that I’ve seen–shows the cartoonist moving on from the influence of Daumier into Picasso. What he used to do with faces, he now does with figures, abstracting them to Plastic Man arms and s-curves. Rather than sustained hilarity, Plympton seeks suggestiveness, impact and surprise. Cheatin’ ‘s subject is the badly troubled romance of two types. One is a lug of a gas station jockey named Jake. The sloping forehead, truculent eyes and a huge baboon nose suggest Jake as a man of few words (in truth, there is no dialogue in this film). His honey is the sweet but snooty Ella, who traipses around in a straw hat with two long trailing ribbons. She has acres of face and a tiny cherry-like mouth, pursed into a tight butterfly shape like the funhouse-mirror picture of Marilyn Monroe by Weegee.
The two meet cute during the course of a bizarre carnival bumper-car accident, and are coupled at once. Plympton gives us a bug-on-the-ceiling eye view of the newlyweds, who in their fever have trashed their home. This includes a broken clock with the dial out on a spring, and a boot sizzling away in an untended frying pan. In the corner of this tableau of chaos and discarded clothes, we see the lovers’ entwined feet and ankles.
Jake is hulking with muscle, yet his waist is as long and supple as an anaconda. Thus he attracts the unwanted attention of bored female customers. One snubbed woman decides to fake some evidence of Ella’s infidelity. It’s stupid evidence, but Jake falls for it. Heartbroken, weeping tears the size of Idaho spuds, he starts scoring with his customers in Room 4 of the E-Z Motel. Ella tries to hire a hit man to kill her straying husband. When that backfires, she discovers a better plan for vengeance: a super-scientific one devised by the carnival mountebank El Merto.
Cheatin’ reflects classic doomed romance through musical quotes from La Traviata and Orpheus in the Underworld . The Plympton landscape is sparse, maybe southwestern (as when Ella, abandoned and lolling on her vast bed, sees saguaros sprouting up from its desert dryness). It’s perhaps set in the ‘50s–when else could you pump 20 gallons of gas for $8? But the Parisian café soundtrack takes its emptiness to Central European zones of oddness—the open spaces are forlorn, like the westerns German directors made.
Plympton is a genuine indie director of many years standing. He’s nearly alone in a realm of so-called indies who work for sock-puppet versions of the studios. He once loved hit-and-run jackassery in which the topic was right up front—like the seconds-long switcheroo gag about the Nudist’s Nightmare (from 1997’s Sex & Violence , part of Bill’s Dirty Shorts ), in which the dreamer appeared clothed in a crowd of naked folk. He’s far more expressive now, in these later years. Critics reach for odious comparisons—mentioning that Uncle Walt wouldn’t have cared for the buttocks-thrusting sex. In Plympton, the position goes past gratuitous to ridiculous, showing us the preposterous bitty twitch of the studly grease monkey’s cherry-tomato sized buttocks. This epic ebb and flow of male-female energy is more like Russ Meyer (only without the havoc-wreaking breasts).
What’s Walt to Plympton or Plympton to Walt? Plympton is disinterested in Disney’s mania for beautiful smoothness, motion and mimesis. What makes things move in Plympton is an oscillation of scribbly backdrops, to show the change of light as his characters move. In Cheatin’ , Plympton even gets rid of his own signature visual throb of backdrops. He clears the walls for pure stillness, giving a vision to Ella’s loneliness. When the backdrops go almost blank, this blankness reflects Ella’s own self—she literally transforms herself into one new woman, and then many, many of them, the better to get her straying husband back.
It’s a strange act of romantic suicide, plaintive rather than funny. “Positively the same dame!,” says William Demarest in the last line of The Lady Eve , since he isn’t fooled by a confidence trick not far from the one that stupefies Jake. It’s a bit melancholy: Ella can become all of the women in the world, but she ends up with the same big fool.
Bill Plympton will make intro/Q&A appearances at the Roxie (Fri/17, 9:30 pm), the Rialto Elmwood (Sat/18, 7 pm) and the Rialto Sebastopol (Sun/19, 3 pm) on opening weekend. For more on Cheatin’, visit cheatinmovie.com, and for more by and about Bill Plympton, visit www.plymptoons.com.
Richard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and cinematical.com. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.