Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Demons and Dummies

Last month I was waiting for a friend outside of a restaurant on West 4th Street on a Friday night.

Waiting for a table was one of those couples -probably not a romantic couple, more like the type that religiously watched Seinfeld then moved to New York and now try to be just like Jerry and Elaine but without the millionaire scriptwriters. On the sidewalks and subways of New York, unfortunately, there is no "mute" button.

Wannabe Jerry was talking about the TriBeCa Film Festival and how he really, really, really wanted to see this one movie. What was it called? It's a cartoon. (Elaine didn't like the sounds of that- really who can blame her?) No, really, it looks good... Demons and Dummies, its called.

Last night I had the fortune to screen Demons and Dummies, or as we'll be calling it Idiots and Angels.

Bill Plympton, the author, dropped a comparison of the film to opera. I reflexively roll my eyes whenever I hear this analogy. For one, its inaccurate. Secondly, its code language for "art as vegetables that have to be eaten before dessert is served".

In this case, there's something legitimate in the comparison. Opera isn't simply distinguished by being sung all the way through -that's secondary (in fact, the performance location of an opera house is more important in defining the art form than the amount of singing). In the world of Wagner and Mozart and Puccini time behaves in a matter distinct from other places. A "real time" moment becomes a ten minute aria, a single thought plays out for an hour long act.

There is "real time" and there's "opera time". Opera time, to me, is close to "baseball time". Baseball centers on the moment of conflict between pitcher and batter. This moment can take anywhere from ten seconds to ten minutes with enough throws to first, foul balls, and steps away from the batter's box.

We are accustomed to seeing "gross-out" humor from Bill. Simple actions like eating with a fork become amplified and dissected centimeter by centimeter. Amplified and dissected in much the same way in takes Erda seven minutes to enter and tell Wotan to forget about the ring in Das Reingold.

Idiots and Angels avoids the grotesquerie that we've come to expect from Plympton. Many of those moments previously glorified- the hair plucking from the skin as it peels from the bone- are half-shown: silhouettes or obscured framings. Which leaves us with long (real time) meditations on what, exactly?

Bill says much of this film came from the disappointment at his last film's lack of commercial success. Here he just did what he wanted.

Wannabe Jerry and Elaine wouldn't trek up to Tanglewood for the latest offerings in American opera. They wouldn't even go to the Metropolitan for the dusting off of a Zefferelli Turandot. It's not the content that keeps them away (Dead Man Walking was a great opera that had pallid box office compared to the film) or the spectacle.

When we step into the opera house it's a time outside of time (Kairos and not Chronos). To Americans time is money and cash is king- the film asks us to ignore crown and currency.

Also note: I like how Bill's guys always wear ties. Bill never wears a tie. I think it's his fantasy to someday wear a tie.

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