Bill Plympton x 2
Above: Pooch freakout from Guide Dog (Image copyright © Bill Plympton; used with permission)
I’m the last person you’d want critiquing your cartoons. I love 30s Max Fleischer and Warners of the 40s and 50s. (One hesitates to admit an affinity for Courageous Cat.) Beyond that, I’m lost. I’ve never made it through a classic Disney animated feature without nodding off. The television stuff of my youth (most of it Hanna-Barbera dross) failed to impress beyond the sixth grade. Thanks to those drugs Gilliam mentions, I have seen all of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (the benefits of LSD) and Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (the power of the magic eight ball). But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.
As it says on the box, Dog Days is “a collection of short films 2004-2008,” including Plympton’s Dog trilogy — Guard Dog, Guide Dog and Hot Dog — a trio which took hold of me the same way those Fleischer and Warners cartoons once did. They’re dangerous and twisted, and loaded with mischievous black humor. In Guard Dog, the pet weathers a series of paranoid delusions about his owner’s demise at the hands of kamikaze squirrels and other sundry disasters. Employed to assist the blind in Guide Dog, he sends one cane-tapper into cardiac arrest and whips out a high voltage defibrillator from thin air to revive him. Plympton talks about their popularity (Guard Dog was nominated for an Oscar) in his supplementary DVD commentary, speculating on why people are attracted to this loud, crazy hound. I think it’s because he exemplifies our innocent, bumbling inner loon.
Plympton’s simplicity is evident from the outset. The colors are warm and pastel, the illustrations direct and unembellished. He says he uses color pencils on bond paper (rest easy, traditionalists: there’s no CGI here), the visuals minimal and focused. Not that he resists experimentation: Hot Dog is deliberately sketchy for a type of modernism. But the technique is never underlined; a considerate storyteller, Plympton places the needs of the script first.
The remainder of the DVD collection is a broad assortment of cartoons, commercials, music videos and more, with illustrations branching off into a variety of styles for scenarios of varying quality. Shuteye Hotel is noirish horror, and a confirmation of Charles Addams’s influence; Santa Claus’s affiliation with Hitler (!) is the plot of Santa: The Fascist Years, strikingly done to resemble a 1940s newsreel; narrated by Paul Giamatti, The Fan and the Flower is a bittersweet fable from a script by Dan O’Shannon, its minimalism recalling Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree; the Bakshi-esque opening credits for Madonna’s Who’s That Girl tower over the live-action feature (Plympton was one of its three animators). There’s also Art or Something Like It, a video interview that would seem to answer any questions you could possibly have about the man and his art.
Along with Dog Days, Microcinema International has released Guns of the Clackamas (1995) for the first time on DVD. A relatively obscure live action feature directed by Plympton from a screenplay co-written with P.C. Vey, it’s advertised as “Spinal Tap meets Blazing Saddles only funnier!” Those allusions seem slightly generous, if not misleading. For this mockumentary inspired by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap and Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, Plympton tells the story of a western movie, its stars who die during production and the efforts to continue filming around the dead bodies. Sustaining this material for eighty minutes is dicey. There is an audience, however, far more capable or willing than I to suspend disbelief for the mockumentary form. (Color me clueless.) Had Guns of the Clackamas been broken down into fifteen-minute chapters as a serial, I might’ve been more responsive and felt less drained.