Apr 16, 2015

Museum of the Moving Image's "Plymptoons"

On Saturday, February 28, 2015, I observed a curated exhibition of moving images housed in the Video Screening Amphitheater of Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in Queens. The program, entitled “Plymptoons: Short Films by Bill Plympton,” was organized by the museum's Chief Curator, David Schwartz, and opened at the museum on January 7. Although the description for the exhibit on MOMI's site, movingimage.us, states that the program was intended to run only until February 12, an unknown delay elsewhere appears to have necessitated “Plymptoons” to continue running for several more weeks beyond that date.

The program consisted of nine short works by independent New York animator Bill Plympton, as well as a trailer for Plympton's feature film Cheatin' (2014). The shorts included (in the order in which they were projected): Your Face (1987), 25 Ways to Quit Smoking (1989), How to Kiss (1988), Push Comes to Shove (1991), The Fan and the Flower (2005), Guard Dog (2004), Guide Dog (2006), Hot Dog (2008), Santa, The Fascist Years (2008), and The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (2010). End to end, the ten selections run a total of fifty-five minutes. These movies were displayed via a digital projector (installed on the ceiling) directly on to one of the walls of the amphitheater, which is painted a uniform white. It would appear that “Plymptoons” was intended to complement both MOMI's “See It Big! Animation” screening series (which ran November 28 – December 28, 2014, and included a showing of Cheatin') and their temporary exhibit “What's Up Doc? The Animation of Chuck Jones,” which ran from July 19, 2014 until January 19 of this year.

It is, of course, a gesture of faith and respect by Schwartz to Plympton's work that he still found it worthy of projecting on its own, particularly in the demanding and unusual space of MOMI's Video Screening Amphitheater. Unlike the museum's two cinema-style screening rooms, the Amphitheater is located in a sort of transition space, in the stairwell between the building's first and second floors. “Plymptoons” is not advertised on the television screens in the museum's lobby, nor is it found on the pamphlets detailing special events for the day handed out at the admissions counter. Visitors to the museum are likely to only discover the projection as they make their way upstairs from the lobby to the permanent exhibit, their attention already on the objects they have planned to see or the screening they will attend downstairs later. A number of further design elements of the space discourage the visitor's interest in viewing whatever is being projected there. For one thing, the images are projected on to a wall behind the visitor as they make their way up the stairs, requiring the sound alone to capture interest and encourage visitors to turn around and watch (visitors on their way down the stairs, meanwhile, are likely already on their way out of the museum, and not inclined to stop). The classic amphitheater seating, with wide benches and no seat backs, is slightly uncomfortable if the viewer stays for any prolonged period of time, as I did. Finally, the room's diffuse light and ambient noise (particularly evident on a busy Saturday afternoon) make for unideal, frequently interrupted viewing conditions.

For this screening space to have any use whatsoever, it must be programmed with material that both leaps out to quickly capture the visitor's interest, and allows for a short attention span. Playing a rotating program of shorts, then, makes quite a bit of sense: the time a visitor might spend in the amphitheater may be brief, but they will likely still see at least one or two complete works. Plympton's shorts in particular hold up well in this environment: they are often vignette-based (e.g. 25 Ways to Quit Smoking) or built on the most loose, simple plots. They require almost no narrative or thematic context in order to appreciate the animator's striking visual imagery – a quick glance seems enough to at least briefly hold a visitor's attention.

From my observations, almost every visitor making their way up or down the stairs at least looked at the screen while making their way through the amphitheater (not a guarantee, especially if headed up the stairs). Roughly half of those visitors actually stopped to sit and watch the program for any amount of time, and out of those, the vast majority stayed for an average of about two shorts before moving on toward the lobby or the permanent exhibitions. The most frequent response was amusement: most all of the shorts were humorous and elicited audible laughter from whomever happened to be in the room at the time. This was backed up by the only “review” I could find online of the exhibit (several arts listing sites, such as illustrationnyc.com, nyc-arts.org, and nyluxury.com, simply reprinted MOMI's description of the program without further commentary) came from a personal blog of a twenty-something artist who simply said, “I laughed out loud at some of these hilarious and witty hand drawn cartoons!”* The most dampened response in-theater came from The Fan and the Flower, the most narrative piece in the entire program, with a story that depended heavily on Paul Giamatti's narration. Unfortunately, the narration was all but inaudible thanks a noisy crowd coming out of a screening downstairs that coincided with that projection. 

Considering the location of the amphitheater, Schwartz must have been aware that the intended audience for the program overlapped with the entire audience of the museum itself (since any visitor could and in fact must pass through if seeing the exhibitions), which seems to include a wide range of families and students, New York residents and tourists, young and old alike. To that end, Plympton's occasionally mature sensibility must have posed a challenge for programming, as many visitors likely have an inherent perception of animation as a medium for children. Indeed, one couple sat their two children down at the beginning of How to Kiss only to quickly pull them up and out of the amphitheater after one of the short's more off-color jokes. That tension in “Plymptoons” reflects a balancing act that MOMI, and Schwartz, often have to handle with their programming. Given the museum's strong educational mission (clearly visible on their web site), they generally try to attract a fairly broad user base, often young and not necessarily literate in cinematic history. At the same time, they pride themselves on demonstrating a deeper appreciation of cinematic art under-represented in the mainstream, which may involve works and artists that push thematic boundaries.

Indeed, judging by the brief, paragraph-long description on the back wall of the amphitheater that describes the “Plymptoons” program (which only a handful of visitors I observed actually stopped to read), a major part of Schwartz's argument was to position Plympton as an alternative to the Hollywood animation most visitors would be familiar with. Emphasizing the animator's “handmade approach” in direct contrast to computer animation that has “become the norm,” this text defines Plympton's work by its outsider, independent status, placed in front of MOMI visitors as much for what it is as what it is not. So much is evident from just a quick look at one of Plympton's shorts, which seems likely all that Schwartz was planning most museum visitors would give to “Plymptoons.” Sitting and watching the entire hour-long program, there is not much else to be gleaned from the specific works chosen, or at least from the manner in which they are framed against each other. The roughly chronological arrangement allows the visitor to see some of Plympton's experimentation in style and technique, but the exclusion of any feature-long work (mentioned in passing on the exhibit's sign, and alluded to by the trailer for Cheatin') leaves the program lacking as an actual retrospective of Plympton's career or examination of his process. It seems likely that Schwartz overwhelmingly chose these specific shorts because of their bite-size length rather than any coherent thematic narrative that arrives in juxtaposing them. In fact, watching through the entire program becomes a slightly tiring and repetitive experience, particularly in the Guard Dog/Guide Dog/Hot Dog stretch, with three shorts in a row displaying the same main character in only slightly changed circumstances.

However, considering Schwartz's goals were likely simply to construct a program that would be flexible (allowing visitors to come and go at any time and have roughly the same experience), entertaining, and serve as a brief introduction to Bill Plympton's name and work, “Plymptoons” certainly succeeded at that. While it may not provide any complex analysis of Plympton's animation or provoke those already familiar with his work and humor to see it in a new context, the program meets the unique challenges of MOMI's amphitheater admirably. It's a delightful diversion, amid the museum's exhibits on design, craft, and the filmmaking process, to have a chance to see a bit of finished work from an engaging director who is likely unknown to many of the museum's patrons.

*Mary Lane, “A Visit to the Museum of the Moving Image,” New York Cliché (blog), February 25, 2015, http://newyorkcliche.com/2015/02/23/museum-of-the-image/.

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