Saturday, October 18, 2008

Winged Idiots and Wordless Angels

Idiots and Angels (2008) screens tonight at 10:30pm, Tuesday (10/21) at 6:30pm, and Wednesday (10/22) at 7pm. Director Bill Plympton will be present for the Tuesday and Wednesday screenings.

Veteran animator Bill Plympton's latest uses a clichéd noir setting and a catalogue of hard-boiled genre characters to tell the rather unique story of a pathologically unfriendly man named Angel who unexpectedly grows a pair of heavenly wings. Unlike his last feature, Hair High (2004), which used the voices of Sarah Silverman, Dermot Mulrony and others, Idiots and Angels is completely wordless (if you don't include the Tom Waits waltz that's included towards the end of the film).

The question on fans' minds will be whether Plympton can sustain the same level of interest at seventy-eight minutes as in his similarly styled shorts. There's something kind of overwhelming yet cleverly executed about Idiots and Angels that doesn't exhaust the viewer. Call it a sort of formalism, but the imagination the film displays always leaves some room for further reflection. It's a counter-intuitive animated film, in which images can be contemplated and don't have to be immediately understood.

Consequently, there isn't anything very animated about it in the general sense. It takes place mostly in dreary settings -- grimy bars, small bathrooms, doctor offices -- where the only thing a spectator is tempted to contemplate is the flurry of wobbly pencil sketches (it's especially impressive to see on the big screen). Also, Plympton would rather show us the characters react to each other blankly -- a technique that finds its closest equivalent in the films of Aki Kaurismäki.

The point of view is always an unexpected one -- whether it's from a butterly flying around or inside the mouth of a protagonist as he downs a whisky shot -- and keeps us from fully settling in. It's uncomfortable at first but makes sense when you realize that Plympton may be using these inventive digressions as a way of distancing himself from the moral world of these characters.

The title refers to idiots and angels, plural, though there is really only a single person in the film who safely fits into the angel profile. This is a direct indication of Plympton's generosity towards the material. All of his characters are idiots and angels; he never shows a world that is better, with characters that are nicer or more virtuous in their deeds.

Finally, when someone violently appropriates Angel's wings, we realize he may have done the same in a like scenario. Does the film offer a catharsis, a sense of growth in these characters that we end up feeling a pang of regret for Angel? The wings try to guide him but Angel's journey remains ambiguous.

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