“The look of the film is very Eastern European – something like what Jan Svankmayer might make, or David Lynch if he made animation – very dark and surreal.”–Bill Plympton, Idiots and Angels Director’s Statement
DIRECTED BY: Bill Plympton
PLOT: A loathsome man spends his days in a dingy, depressing bar where he lusts after the blonde barmaid, who is also the bartender/owner’s wife. One day he discovers he is growing wings on his back; initially, he’s thrilled to be able to fly, but comes to hate them when they develop a mind of their own and force him to do charitable acts. Other, equally venal, men plot to steal the wings to use them for their own selfish purposes.
- Bill Plympton has been nominated for Oscars twice for his animated short films.
- Plympton made Idiots and Angels independently with a small team of four assistant artists for an estimated $125,000.
- Per Plympton, the film consists of 30,000 drawings.
- Per Plympton, the film was rejected by thirty distributors. The animator is self-distributing the movie.
- Idiots and Angels won the Best Film award at the Fantasporto festival in 2009 (previous Fantasporto winners that were Certified Weird are Toto the Hero and Pan’s Labyrinth).
- Idiots and Angels is “presented by” Terry Gilliam.
- The amazing soundtrack, featuring Pink Martini, Nicole Renaud, Tom Waits and others is not available for purchase at this time—and due to licensing issues probably never will be.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The obvious choice would have something to do with wings: maybe a manacled butterfly, or a fat stripper showing off her wingspan to a crowd of leering males, or an angel mooning a passing airliner. More shocking and unforgettable, however, is the moment near the film’s climax when a full-grown man, wrapped in a placenta, emerges from another man’s navel.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Plympton sets his pitch-black parable about a wicked man who grows angel wings in a dialogue-free barroom Purgatory. Fantastic daydreams mix with increasingly surreal realities to paint a wordless portrait of the eternal, internal struggle between good and evil. A hip, hypnotic art-pop soundtrack helps sweep the viewer away into Idiots and Angels‘ weird world of bitter cocktails and unexplained appendages.
Scene from Idiots and Angels
COMMENTS: The unnamed antihero of Idiots and Angels (the official plot synopsis calls him “Angel”) is a truly loathsome man, as we gather from his literally inflammatory treatment of a motorist who steals what he believes should be his personal parking spot in front of Bart’s Bar. Dressed in a three-piece suit, briefcase in tow and cigarette affixed to lip, Angel spends his entire workday in the bar, every day, drinking cocktails, abusing the clientele, and savoring lustful fantasies about the shapely barmaid. He’s the kind of guy who is only genuinely happy when savoring the feel of the butterfly guts he’s just squished between his fingers.
When Angel awakens one day to find he’s grown a pair of wings, his initial thoughts are only of the embarrassment he’ll suffer for being a freak. He soon considers an unforeseen upside: unseen, he can glide down from above and snatch women’s purses, or swoop down on unsuspecting ladies sunbathing in the nude in their fenced-in backyards. His elation turns to grief, however, when he finds that not only do the wings frustrate his attempts to use them for evil purposes, they actually force him into duty as an unwilling Good Samaritan. He soon finds himself going to extraordinarily painful lengths to rid himself of the unwanted wings; but other men, just as evil as Angel but with an ingenious plan to force the feathery limbs to their wills, have their eyes on the appendages as well.
A strange story demands to be told strangely, and animator Bill Plympton delivers the oddness as always with his highly stylized artwork. It’s squiggly and full of penciled-in crosshatching, rendered this time out in dampened shades of grey and brown. This nearly monochromatic palette creates a noirish effect, particularly in the scenes in the dank bar where most of the action takes place (there are numerous moments when Plympton plays with light/shadow effects, as when a driver shoots bullet holes in the roof of his car, causing shafts of light to appear). The cartoon reality of Idiots and Angels is fluid, moving according to its own associative logic; Angel’s morning ritual sees water rinsed off his face turn into milk pouring on his cereal, and a spoon inserted into his mouth morphs into a car key in the ignition. At one point the road Angel drives every morning to the bar is depicted as an endlessly spinning treadmill; the trees lining the avenue cast shadows that look like bars on a moving cell. The absurd physical visual gags we expect from Plympton are out in full force, but there is also an unexpectedly sincere emotional component. At one point, Angel sheds a single tear but, unwilling to experience tenderness, he gathers it up with a finger and stuffs it back into its duct.
These visual metaphors are crucial because the story is told without any dialogue, a neat abstracting trick that helps the cartoon parable take on a dreamlike, universal aspect. Pantomime scenes convey the players’ essential characters. When a butterfly appears in the dank saloon, the regulars each have a revealing daydream that tells us what we need to know about their personalities. The owner cooks up an idea for opening a “Butterfly Bar” where patrons flock to see his captive lepidopteron; the aging, overweight floozy playing solitaire at the corner table imagines an act where an audience of mustachioed men in tuxedos shower her with jewelry when she spreads her own wings on stage; the lonely barmaid has a pastoral fantasy where a giant butterfly carries her away into the sky, incidentally making aerial love to her along the way. Characters even take on different aspects depending on whose eyes we see them through. When we first see the barmaid dancing to salsa music in an objective third person view, she’s expressing an innocent joy in rhythm and movement; when the angle changes to show the view from Angel’s barstool perspective, she suddenly looks like an exotic dancer, and her broomstick becomes a stripper’s pole she’s humping. Silent movies at least used intertitles to convey slight amounts of dialogue and narration; Plympton sets the bar even higher here with no words at all (except for bar marquees and newspaper headlines). The fact that we can follow the story easily—despite all the impossible events and surreal digressions—marks Idiots and Angels as a masterpiece of non-verbal storytelling, one that stacks up favorably against the works of Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati.
With no dialogue to speak of, music becomes paramount, and Plympton assembles an impressively moody, melodic soundtrack. The main theme is ethereally doubled by a warbling whistle and a musical saw, with a French accordion providing rhythmic accompaniment. The background sound textures range from Hawaiian swing to classical guitar; most of the selections have a consistent cocktail lounge/Playboy-Club-after-hours feel to them that befits the film’s smoky, retro-barroom ambiance. Avant-garde accordionist/singer Nicole Renaud‘s otherworldly soprano performance in “Le Gris” is a stratospheric accompaniment to Angel’s first flight. Back on Earth, an abstract sexual assault is scored to Tom Waits’ grungy “Kommienezuspadt”; the husky troubadour’s whiskey-soaked ballad “Flowers Grave” also supplies an emotional highlight. In a pleasingly coincidental parallel to 2010’s Black Swan, the theme from “Swan Lake” backs a climactic scene where a character spouts wings. Sound designer Greg Sextro deserves a shout out for integrating the musical snatches, foley effects, and the sparse grunts and gasps that pass for voice acting here into a flowing, effective river of sound that serves as the perfect complement to Plympton’s constantly morphing visuals.
The concept of a man dead-set on battling his inner angel is at the same time funny and moving, and what may be most impressive in Idiots and Angels is how confidently the film manages its complex, contradictory tone. It’s dark without slipping into nihilism, and hopeful without turning sappy; it manages to be sweet and sour, cynical and romantic, satirical and Gothic all at once, and the dichotomies all merge together and harmonize beautifully. The movie’s flowing images, atmospheric music, oneiric lack of dialogue, and bits of free-floating weirdness (Angel’s bird-based hallucinations, bars patronized entirely by burn victims in full-body casts) all add up to something unlike any other animated product out there. But Idiots and Angels gives us even more than that: the movie has a brain and a heart, which together make a soul. It’s a weird one, sure; but we can see our own humanity, in all its grotesqueness and nobility, reflected in Idiots and Angels. After all, we’re all part idiot, part angel.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In this bleak environment – it looks and feels like a David Lynch hangover – the ridiculous mutant wings appear as a symbol of divine intervention, or of a belief in mankind’s better nature. “–Greg Quill, The Toronto Star (contemporaneous)
“…the expected Plymptonesque comedy soon gives way to more uncharacteristic, serious-minded gothic horror, romanticisms, and surreal drama, and this would be great if not for the fact that the morality is simplistic and the plot points belabored.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: Idiots and Angels Official Movie Website – clips, stills, a downloadable press kit with and miscellanea
IMDB LINK: Idiots and Angels (2008)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Idiots and Angels Filmmaker Interview – 10 minute videotaped interview with Pympton made for the American Film Institute
Cartoonist Bill Plympton Talks About Idiots and Angels and Finding Success on His Own Terms – This interview with San Francisco Weekly is very short but one of the few available print publications wherein Plympton discusses the film
Ani-Cam at Bill Plympton Studio – While production was ongoing a webcam (dubbed the “ani-cam”) captured Plympton making his pencil sketches for Idiots and Angels live; it’s now available archived
DVD INFO: Unfortunately, the self-distributed DVD (buy) contains no features other than the film itself.