What happens when a cutting-edge artist no longer considers himself cutting edge? That’s one question raised by “Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People,” but it’s far from the only one. In addition to being a stop-motion animated documentary about Brazilian cartoonist Angeli, it’s also a psychedelic road movie in which a roving pack of tiny, bloodthirsty Elton Johns set their sights on a punk-rock vigilante trying to reach his creator: Angeli himself. That’s nothing if not a unique premise, but writer-director Cesar Cabral’s animated whatsit proves more compelling as a concept than as an actual movie.
“Bob Spit” is most notable for its formal approach, which intermingles animated interviews of Angeli with a bizarre, at times surreal narrative featuring characters from his comic strips. The interview segments are intentionally barebones, background noise and all, creating an effect that feels both lived-in and a little off-putting. It’s not quite the uncanny valley, but it does take some getting used to. This warts-and-all approach — you sometimes see the boom mic in the corner of the screen, and at one point filming stops because nearby construction sounds prove too distracting — ultimately befits Angeli’s anarchic style.
After being introduced to him, we then meet two of his cartoon creations: the Kowalsi twins, who exist only in Angeli’s mind and are trying to reach him by sending a kind of psychic distress signal. They live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water is scarce and violence is common, a place that would lack any semblance of order were it not for the film’s namesake: a green, shotgun-wielding vigilante with a mohawk, septum piercing and devil-may-care attitude. The twins know Bob from his comic books, which exist in their corner of this imagined world as holy scripture — a misconception Bob himself doesn’t share. (If that isn’t meta enough, Bob eventually begins reading a comic about himself that depicts exactly what’s happening to him at that very moment.)
Angeli first gained renown for the political cartoons he made in the midst of his country’s military dictatorship and has maintained his punk-rock sensibility in the decades that followed. That continues here, even as he finds himself at a watershed moment — with the bulk of his career behind him, the artist ruminates on what’s already passed and what’s to come. “We Do Not Like People” allows him ample space to do so, the result being a film that’s not only about the creative process in general but, in its own way, the aging process as well.
As for the connection between creator and creation, Angeli is unequivocal: “I believe I am Bob Spit,” he says early on, albeit with a more clearly defined moral code. That caveat proves helpful, given some of Bob’s more unseemly activities. The film jumps back and forth between the narrative and the interview, with Angeli commenting on what Bob Spit in particular and his work in general mean to him as he enters a transitional phase of his life, one that feels far less certain than those preceding it.
The deep focus on Angeli himself runs the risk of making this a fans-only affair, though animation enthusiasts will likely appreciate it as much as Angeli diehards. To its benefit, it’s exceedingly difficult to think of any one-sentence summary of “Bob Spit” that would come close to applying to any other film. (Rithy Panh’s “The Missing Picture” was formally similar but completely different thematically.) That unfortunately doesn’t stop it from often feeling overly navel-gazey, and only a certain kind of viewer will find themself hooked by the meta-narrative — especially given how much time Bob spends pantsless, a sequence that reveals his septum isn’t the only body part he’s taken the liberty of piercing.
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