Last night the 32nd Annual Portland International Film Festival brought the sturm and drang of Idiots and Angels (2008), the latest animated feature by Portland son Bill Plympton, to the Whitsell auditorium. Plympton was on hand to introduce the picture and fielded questions afterward. This screening was a thrill for me because I've been a fan of his fantastically bizarre animated films since being exposed to one of them at an animation series back in the 1980s (a decade Plympton referred to as the "second golden age of animation" last night). Since then he's created dozens of shorts and a number of animated features including Hair High (2004). His latest feature film, Idiots and Angels, is a dark comedy about a man's battle for his soul.
In the picture, a malevolent brute's life is turned upside down when he discovers wings growing on his back. Despite his best (and nauseating) efforts to remove them they continue to grow causing him no end of grief and embarrassment. Worse yet for our antihero, the wings force him to commit acts that are against his nature--that is, for good not ill. By the end of the picture the reluctant angel may learn that with great power comes great responsibility, but not before he's physically and emotionally put through the proverbial ringer--and it's one hell of a ringer.
Visually and dramatically the piece is dominated by darkness and sparse details. The shadowy characters exist in a universe of ghostly grays, browns and greenish-yellows. And surprisingly, the picture benefits from the absence of any dialogue.
"Music becomes the dialogue," Plympton said.
It's true, the music of Tom Waits, Pink Martini, 3 Leg Torso, and others provide cues to the emotional highs and lows, the outlandish twists and turns of the film; the storytelling becomes stronger without dialogue hindering the dramatic action. I'll bet many reviews of the moody film will include the overused term "noir-ish," but the music combines with acute angles, shafts of light, high contrast images, and use of close-up and also conjures images from silent-era expressionism in this fan's cinematic imagination. Plympton mentioned the work of David Lynch for comparison but, I wonder if any silent films also form part of his influences here (I wish I'd thought to ask him last night).
Idiots and Angels is a tale as deep and soulful as any we're likely to enjoy from the filmmaker. However, it's an unfettered imagination that makes Plympton so much fun to watch; no one seems to revel as much in manipulating the physical form or playing with our expectations.
After the picture, the affable Plympton told the audience that Idiots and Angels differed from much of his other work which is "full of sex and violence." When this elicited laughter from some, Plympton looked surprised. This picture is more meaningful, perhaps even spiritual, he assured us. I suppose what constitutes a lot of violence and sex in a seventy-eight minute picture is debatable. Regardless, it's darkly funny and a wild ride.
Idiots and Angels shows again tonight February 19th at 6:45 p.m. at the Regal Broadway Cinemas in Portland. For more information see the official PIFF website.