Even in a town known for incubating distinctive animation talents, Portland-born Bill Plympton is special. Not only is he one of the most iconic animators currently working—his work is recognizable from the first penciled squiggle—he is probably the most fiercely independent filmmaker alive. Oh sure, he does the occasional odd job to pay the bills: Madonna music videos, for example, and anarchic early MTV commercials. But then, so did John Cassavetes. In his personal work, including six animated features and multitudes of shorts, Plympton's grotesque, beautiful, joyously tasteless and puerile vision runs completely unchecked.
And he still draws every single frame himself. In pencil. What this means is that Plympton is not beholden even to the world. He creates his own, populated by blank-faced functionaries and bloated dogs with nonfunctional bodies, craggy-browed misanthropes and women cantilevered by impossible curves. The essence of his films' humor is contained in the grotesquery of the drawings themselves: the football hero's giant square body; the visible dental work of a screaming man; the various medically impossible indignities to which Plympton subjects the human form.
Like much of the best humor, Plympton's broad and expressive caricatures of humanity embody an almost moral vision. Characters' flaws and virtues are embodied in their very physical forms. But more than this, humanity is rendered both vulnerable and indestructible, profane and stoic. In Plympton's classic short "Your Face," a gin-blossomed W.C. Fields of a man has his face erased, imploded, grown from its eyes, reduced to molecules and twisted like a wet dishrag. His face is violated by his own face, from the side. Its features are made to turn on his skull as if on a conveyor belt. And yet he reconstitutes just as quickly as he is destroyed. In much of Plympton's animation, especially in his shorts and in the sublime, dialogue-free and categorically misanthropic feature Idiots and Angels, the body is a modular thing, constantly invaded from without and betrayed from within. Its dignity is in withstanding these rude shocks; the comedy is that it can.
Anyway, they're giving Bill Plympton a day here in Portland. It's May 26. If you can't make it down to see the Adventures in Plymptoons! documentary making the rounds at McMenamins movie theaters, I advise you to get very drunk and celebrate the holiday on YouTube.
SEE IT: Bill Plympton Day! is Saturday, May 26. Adventures in Plymptoons! screens at the Bagdad Theater at 3 and 7 pm, preceded by a community event outside the theater at 2 pm.