J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Slamdance on the Road: Cheatin’

Those who write about film ignore the scrappy Slamdance Film Festival at their mortal peril. Sure, it takes place during another big film event that is fun to cover, but Slamdance has had its share of breakout hits as well. Filmmakers who launched their careers there include small cult figures like Christopher Nolan (Following) and Oren Peli (that’s right, Paranormal Activity). Bill Plympton was already an established name with a sizable following when he brought his latest hand-drawn animated feature to this year’s Slamdance, but he seemed to dig the laid back-just folks vibe. Given its freshness and subsequent success on the festival circuit (including Fantasia), Plympton’s Cheatin’ (trailer here) is a fitting alumnus film to help celebrate Slamdance’s twentieth anniversary with a special Slamdance On The Road screening in Salt Lake City.

Jake and Ella have animated bodies that put Jessica Rabbit to shame. When they first meet, the romantic sparks immediately start to fly. Before long, they are a passionate and committed couple. Unfortunately, the lust they inspire in others will lead to trouble. When Jake spurns the advances of a temptress-floozy, she returns with fraudulent evidence of Ella’s supposed infidelity. Devastated by the phony revelation, Jake embarks on a binge of cheap assignations, openly inviting Ella’s suspicions. However, she discovers a way to thwart his vengeful libido with the help of a seedy magician and his fantastical invention.

Although Cheatin’ ventures into genre territory during the third act, it is really grounded in universal themes, like love and sex and how they work with and against each other. Stylistically, it is Plympton’s most ambitious film yet, strikingly incorporating elements of watercolor. Almost completely free of dialogue, he tells the story entirely through visual means, like a far trippier version of The Artist.

The resulting vibe is quite distinctive. The early scenes have a Continental flavor, evoking Toulouse-Lautrec and Chekhovian heroines, while the middle section has the Americana feel of Hopper paintings, Our Town, and James Cain (Jake’s lonely looking filling station is a perfect example). Of course, Plympton’s still incorporates plenty of surreal flights of fancy, as his fans would hope, but the fundamental romanticism keeps it comparatively restrained.

Cheatin’ looks terrific—even elegant at times. Plympton’s frequent musical collaborator Nicole Renaud also really helps set the mood with her lush magpie score, freely repurposing bits and pieces borrowed from classic opera and tango. Fully Oscar qualified, it could be a dark horse contender. Recommended for adult animation fans, Cheatin’ screens this coming Wednesday (9/10) at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake, as part of Slamdance On The Road.

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