Bill Plympton is a filmmaker whose career has taken on a sort of mythic renown. Everybody recognizes the name of the massively influential animator, and everyone knows they’ve seen his work somewhere, but frequently they can’t name a title. They just know his iconic style. Whether from his works on MTV’s Liquid Television in the early 90s, or in a Kanye music video (2005’s Heard ‘Em Say), Plympton’s subject matter is endlessly eclectic, his visions balancing somewhere on the precipice alternatingly overlooking oblivion and Middle America.
His new film, Cheatin’, is another artistic success (if not a commercial one) in his long and storied career.
I was lucky enough to meet him in person at a special screening of Cheatin’ this past Sunday at the Darkside Cinema.
He explained that the film is inspired by his own experience, describing his relationship with a young woman years ago. They were in love and decided to cohabitate, but soon after discovered life isn’t all champagne and Saturday morning cartoons.
“A funny thing happened; we wanted to kill each other, but we still wanted to have sex with each other,” he explained to a rapt audience of fans before the screening.
This dichotomy is what inspired Cheatin’, which without dialogue tells the wild tale of a couple that falls in love and can’t keep their hands off each other. When the fella, Jake, discovers what he believes to be proof of infidelity, he embarks on a crusade of cheating. But when his wife discovers the shenanigans, she takes the rather unexpected strategy of using a carnival soul switching machine to step into the bodies of her husband’s extra-curricular mates and “cheat” along with him.
Look, I told you he had an iconic style.
If you were expecting a straightforward narrative that goes places you’d expect, you should probably go watch Frozen again. This film actually will challenge and enthrall you, which can be a surprising change of pace from the bulk of animated fare in the States.
Plympton lamented this in his post screening Q&A. “In Europe and Japan they get it,” speaking of distributors willing to take a risk on cartoons with adult themes. He noted that stateside he couldn’t get a major production house to fund one of his nutty “Plymptoons.”
Cheatin’ is beautifully rendered, from over 40,000 hand drawings Plympton did himself. To save money, there’s no real dialogue, but this creates a rich and textured soundscape that communicates everything one needs to know through grunts, cries and laughter. The soundtrack, including classic opera tunes as well as a beautiful score by composer Nicole Renaud, is one of the most satisfying parts of the layer cake that the film becomes. At a certain point, the film even takes on the character of a musical, which is a hard thing to do in a story largely devoid of words.
Another element that stands out are his transitions, for which he’s become famous. Scenes melt and splash into each other, and the cinematic nature of things dissolving on screen becomes its own driving force. It’s hard to keep both feet planted on the ground while watching Cheatin’ and when he brings us back to a recognizable setting, it’s almost hard not to readjust in one’s seat to get ready for the next volley.
Ultimately the experience is eye-opening, lyrical and of all things, life-affirming, which is one of the most surprising turns Plympton takes the viewer on. Listening to him describe the inspiration, and looking at his art, one could easily jump to the conclusion that he’s got a bleak view of mankind. But therein lies the treat of Cheatin’; behind what cynicism there is about monogamy, is the heart of a lover.
I asked him about this seeming paradox within the film, and he smiled broadly before answering.
“What can I say? I love a happy ending.”
Cheatin’ is available for streaming rental on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/plymptoons/
by Ygal Kaufman