With all the upheaval in recent years, it seems like there is only one constant across the film industry: producing an independent animated feature is a Sisyphean task. And there is no better illustration of that than legendary countercultural animation veteran Bill Plympton. After a difficult decade in the 2010s struggling to adapt to the digital revolution & the rapidly shifting cultural and aesthetic landscape of animation, Plympton now returns with the crowdfunded Slide, a characteristically wacky western that was initially promised for a 2022 release but has been pushed back again and again, and now finds itself at IFFR — while still unfinished!
Yes, the biggest problem with Slide is that the film is incomplete: every sequence is hampered by still elements and subpar animation shoddily papering over numerous conspicuously unfinished sequences, and on the whole feels closer to an animatic than a feature film. It also wears this storied production history on its sleeve: even granting the discount production standards, Slide fails as a complete aesthetic package. Sequences are clearly scraped together from footage made in different parts/eras of the production process, dashing hopes of spatial and editorial coherence. Plympton does not help his case with the convoluted narrative of Slide, an Old West parody with squeaky musical numbers that pits Hollywood against small-town misfits and a mysterious slide-guitar-toting man-with-no-name, drawing ambiguously (accidentally?) on High Plains Drifter. The overwrought screenplay — which bears the hallmarks of heavy last-minute revision — coupled with the underwrought visual continuity, are enough to capsize this endeavor completely.
If you squint, you can make out the vision Plympton was going for, and enjoy the film in its current state. It’s not like I Married a Strange Person had the most fluid animation in the world, but the rough-hewn pencil art style here percolated through animation software feels unnecessarily laborious (though certainly distinctive). And it doesn’t congeal well with the quick digital editing solutions used to cut corners; the use of layers and vector paths to move unanimated elements of still images is particularly jarring.
Slide feels bizarrely anachronistic, and not just by virtue of its crude comedic stylings and very 2021 environmentalist trappings (its presumptive discursive urgency reminiscent of Don’t Look Up and debates about the Anthropocene). Plympton’s art began in the post-Crumb countercultural cartoonist world of the ‘60s and ’70s alongside similarly iconoclastic figures like B Kliban. His first forays into animation were adjacent to the ‘80s through ‘90s “alternative” cultural nexus, and in the 2000s he found himself at home alongside figures like Adam Elliot in that decade’s art animation wave. But Slide and the director’s 2016’s Revengeance feel bizarrely inorganic and detached from the culture at large. Even the parodic register struck by these two films feels like an awkward holdover from the past. Watching them feels a bit like reading the new Doonesbury from the Trump era.
It’s easy to be pessimistic. Among the rise (and perhaps now fall) of monolithic studio CGI family blockbusters, the increasing globalization of animation production and consumption, the emergence of streaming as a critical node in animation funding and distribution, and the growing gulf between animation and the classic cartoonist style that Plympton roots his practice in, it seems like the already thorny path of the independent animator has become that much more treacherous. With regard to Slide, it may have been better off produced and released in a serialized form. Some of the surreal/musical sequences here are a cut above the rest, and really illustrate that more refined, completed, quantized iterations of the film might have been a better and more organic way to produce the project. One can only hope this is not the end for Plympton, who is and always will be a legend, and he finds the energy to turn things around. The great irony of DIY icons like Plympton is that it was them, not the purveyors of mass-produced mainstream gunk, that really needed the hermetically gatekept environment of the pre-Internet media environment to thrive, because as it turns out, many cultural gatekeepers had more wisdom than the raw democratic mudslinging we’re left with now. Nowhere is that more evident than the wonderful yet woefully underseen Plymptoons Youtube channel featuring some of the man’s best work.
Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 2.