The Cosmic Squiggle: Don Hertzfeldt’s "It’s Such a Beautiful Day"

Animator Don Hertzfeldt traces a line through a darkly comic valley of existential dread.
Kurt Shulenberger

One of animation’s purest qualities is the correlation between effort and result, so pure that even attempts to obscure the former allow the latter to be recognized and appreciated. It should perhaps be no surprise that one of the finest writer/animators of the last fifteen years, Don Hertzfeldt, has built an increasingly impressive body of work from stick figures and “crude” ink-and-paper drawings, a celebration of the material and physical challenges of hand-made animation. His first feature, It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), is currently in limited release and affirms Hertzfeldt as a true virtuoso, constructing an emotional narrative of existential meditation from swaths of banal occurrences, nightmarish hallucinations and devastatingly funny memories.

Those familiar with Hertzfeldt’s previous work like film festival darling Billy’s Balloon (1998) and the Oscar-nominated Rejected (2000) will recognize certain central themes at the core of his work—dark absurdity, relentless Zen-like repetition, sterile depictions of gore—as well as the consistent style of Hertzfeldt-designed characters, with spindly twig-like appendages, beady eyes, and a portly tear-drop torso. It’s Such a Beautiful Day differs from past films, however, in that it is the first to feature a recited narration, dryly delivered by the filmmaker himself, that takes an active part in the story of socially awkward and physically sick Bill, a figure visually indistinguishable from other Hertzfeldt players with the exception of a fedora impossibly balanced on his bulbous head.

While Billy’s Balloon relies on its lack of dialogue to focus viewers on a surreal story of balloons staging a violent coup against the toddlers that clutch them, It’s Such a Beautiful Day tackles the emptiness of adulthood and inevitability of life’s regrets with droning verbal observation, an aural cadence of dread looming over Bill as his personal life and health begin to crumble around him, shown through varying degrees of phantasmagoria. Spoken lines about never picking fruit from the front of a stand at crotch height contain the same non-emotion as the “stupid, awkward moment of death” Bill ruminates on while lying on an imagined (or not) death bed, a swishing of the random and profound that is leap years away from the base counter-programmed violence of Ah, l’amour (1995), a caustic mash-note to failed boy/girl relationships.

The finesse of animation in Hertzfeldt’s stable of warbled, unassuming characters has become a hallmark for his admirers and a source of shock for those confronted with their disarming gestures and expressions of humanism for the first time. The visual immediacy of stick figures drawn on white paper, usually associated with the quick and careless nature of a doodle due to their assumed lack of detail and childish unsophistication, grants Hertzfeldt the power to flash an audience with moments of somber reality while they are at their most vulnerable as “informed” viewers. In one shot, Bill tiredly takes off his fedora and rubs a weary “hand” over his head, an instant bracingly mature with its clarity of body language, the effort and result coalescing into a fleeting snatch of beauty if only for its confident simplicity.

These moments are made even more raw in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, as the director’s inking process has been jettisoned altogether for rough pencil lines, as if the cartoon was drawn in a fit of creativity too fast for the normal mechanizations of animated production to keep up. In reality, the feature is a compilation of three shorter works done in this style called “The Bill Trilogy” that has taken more than six years to complete.

This is not to say that there are no technically dazzling sequences in Beautiful Day. Building upon in-camera effects used in his previous short The Meaning of Life (2005), Hertzfeldt conjures the intimately familiar by deliberately scaling outside of its illustrated lexicon through still photographs animated in stop motion and incorporating other harsh trickles of the cinematic apparatus—rotoscoping, multiple exposures, frayed irises cut from construction paper, sunlight, a few curious bursts of live action (one an homage to La jetée).

These bold punctuations, many made possible by Hertzfeldt’s heroic insistence on using a traditional film camera and animation stand, move beyond the palpable deterioration of the paper—a prominent theme in Rejected—and reinforce the film’s purposely over-reaching utterances on mortality, space and time, spoken by friends and loved ones of Bill who assuredly don’t fully understand the words  they are regurgitating. This motif of theory-exhaustion is also used in the ambitious The Meaning of Life, which deals with no less than an evolutionary temporal cross-section of the universe, but the lasting mysteries of It’s Such a Beautiful Day are hilariously domestic vignettes bursting from a black void about Bill’s calculations of the time one’s life is spent dropping keys onto a table, or a jet engine encroaching on a walk in a park with an ex-girlfriend (an example of the masterful sound design also pervasive in Hertzfeldt’s work).

The film could have devolved into another variation of Godard’s galaxy in a coffee cup, but It’s Such a Beautiful Day retains the biting humor and fecund observation of the everyday that allows it to stretch as far into the domestic/cosmic as it can without lapsing into degradation, or parody, or a parody of that degradation. A tableau with Bill and a man with a leaf blower that occurs about halfway through the picture can then become a small miracle, one of the few wordless sequences, a short film within a film where Hertzfeldt’s rough shapes form a comical apex of society, technology and personal isolation, indicative of the complex humor constantly swaddling the billions of everyday tragedies playing out in a modern world. This convergence signals a more restrained Hertzfeldt, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day is exemplary of a new narrative direction for the filmmaker, who is willing to linger in quiet discomfort without arriving at the chaotic, bloody pantomime that usually permeates his work.

The ending of the film is not really an ending, nor the beginning of something else, but rather an inferred commentary on what it means for a film to end, and why films should end. Is a “happy” ending really what will deliver a final satisfaction, when the lights go up and we amble out of our own voids to continue being crude sketches of ourselves?

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