Stick Figures Getting Sick: Don Hertzfeldt’s "It’s Such a Beautiful Day"

A delightful minimalist-maximalist animation from the Academy Award-nominated director.
Michael Pattison

“There’s a line in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: we never know when we’re going to die and because of that we are, at any given moment, immortal. So at this moment it feels pretty good, being where I’ve always longed to be, perched on the farthest edge of the western world. There’s a wild sunset brewing up over the Pacific. The water is glowing turquoise, the sky is turning crazy pink, the lights of the Santa Monica Ferris wheel are starting to pulse and spin in the twilight. Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around for ever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.”

—Geoff Dyer, London Review of Books

“As wars will be fought, and great loves found.”

—Narrator, It’s Such a Beautiful Day

Psycholinguists call the opening gag of It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), Don Hertzfeldt’s delightful hour-long feature, a blend. Bill, a black-on-white stick figure whose only distinctive feature is his top hat, is on his way to the bus stop when he sees someone he recognizes but whose name he doesn’t remember. As our protagonist and his non-companion near one another in a slow-motion body-crash, the film’s narrator (Hertzfeldt) tells of Bill’s internal drama: thinking of things to say—“what’s up” and “how’s it going”—he inevitably overdoes it. Both phrases come out at once.

Though the stakes are verbal, the gag is visual. While the gag is fulfilled, it’s delivered by switching modes of address. Hertzfeldt spells it out without spelling it out: HOW’S UP! appears onscreen, but the narrator doesn’t say it. The joke wouldn’t work if Hertzfeldt simply verbalized the resulting foul-up, but by literally illustrating the line visually, he atomizes his prongs of attack: keeping text, image and sound separate, the writer-director asks us to participate in completing the gag with him.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day compiles three of Hertzfeldt’s previous prize-winning shorts into one neat narrative: Everything Will Be Okay (2007), I Am So Proud of You (2008) and the 2011 miniature from which this project takes its name. The animator’s approach is minimalist-maximalist, operating through the kind of distinctive pencil line drawings that become overpriced greetings cards with adorable-acerbic fronts and blank insides. As Nick Bradshaw wrote when the film was released, It’s Such a Beautiful Day’s “aesthetic baseline remains Hertzfeldt’s pencil line drawings, here contained in fuzzy blob-shaped matte-screen apertures that both induce a sense of human isolation and facilitate point-counterpoint visual gags.” These are moving images: pictorial scenarios play out over time, and their timing is everything. Hertzfeldt’s comic strategies pit simple bathos against Sisyphean logic. Bill, a Bloomian hero, is a conduit for self-deprecating, meaning-of-life hyperbole on the one hand and a playful, life-is-meaningless causality on the other. The non-sequitur as rule of thumb.

There are some hilarious rug-pulls here. One peripheral character dies after contracting polio, yellow fever… and then spontaneously combusting. Others are cut ferociously and repeatedly in half by a train, which charges right-to-left across screen as a kind of comic deus ex machina. In such moments as these, Hertzfeldt hooks into the tragic-farcical tension that underpins a great deal of comedy. With his anecdotal parameters established, he is able to caricaturize Bill’s misery with parenthetic asides: vignettes tell of a clerical error that led to the misplaced burial of Bill’s dead mother, between a coffin full of rocks and a sick woman’s golden retriever, some fifty yards from her pre-chosen plot. Even a sweet, charming dream sequence featuring a soccer-playing seal turns inevitably into a belly-laugh disaster.

It’s a cruel world. Invoking the kind of futile rage of Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993), Bill smashes a bus stop sign against the ground in a fit of fiery fury. Hertzfeldt’s delicate, wobbly lines emphasize the cartoonish qualities of violence—and vice versa (watching the scene, I was reminded of an appalling sequence involving a golf club and a man’s head in the third season of The Sopranos). Hertzfeldt’s brevity-wit credentials are second to none. In a 2008 New York Times article, published ten years after he graduated from the UC Santa Barbara, the Texas-based animator remarked: “You could make a cartoon in crayons about a red square that falls in unrequited love with a blue circle, and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if you know how to tell a story.”

Bill withers. It’s not quite clear what exactly is afflicting Hertzfeldt’s protagonist, but we eventually learn that he’s on prescription meds and has suffered hair loss (hence the hat). Later, he’s overcome with some kind of mental-physical lapse, a stroke-like condition that impairs his movement and cognition (“That hand is dropping everything”). As Bill’s life seemingly moves into its premature final stages, however, Hertzfeldt’s aesthetic expands, introducing color, optical distortions, real-world imagery captured through an analogue lens. As Bill’s faculties degenerate, the film’s digressional whimsy sweeps into something more broken, jumbled: Hertzfeldt approximates the textures of memory, of a world whose foundations (language precedes thought) have been thoroughly upended.

Emotions are kaleidoscopic. In the latter stages of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt matches Bill’s cognitive implosion—an apparent retreat into the imaginary—by demonstrating animation’s spatially and psychically liberating capabilities, superimposing his stickman into wildly fluctuating environments whose color range seems truly transcendent. Bradshaw again: “Hertzfeldt reaches for the stars, and takes his protagonist with him.” Appropriately, the narrator’s mode of address matures, too: in contrast to the simple, past-tense linearity of the opening narration, Hertzfeldt switches things up. Bill imagines: “He will father hundreds of thousands of children, whose own exponential offspring he’ll slowly lose track of through the years, whose millions of beautiful lives will eventually be swept again from the earth.”

One human’s death and humanity’s destruction: the banal and the profound: tragedy and folly. It’s here that Hertzfeldt earns the right to frame his action against musical passages from, among other sources, Wagner’s Das Rheingold (like Malick in The World). Juxtaposed against so many potential futures, the present moment seems perishable and trivial indeed. If such truisms are horrifying, however, they can also be oddly, paradoxically reassuring. The fragility of Hertzfeldt’s final, future-tense address is moving because, in a strange sense, nothing boasts the emotional exactitude, the rhetorical finality, of a futile what-if.

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