One of the best films of this barely embryonic century is a 62-minute stick figure animation. And you’ve probably never seen it.
Bear with me.
Don Hertzfeldt, perhaps best known for his hilarious, bewildering, Oscar-nominated short film Rejected (the point of which was lost on the companies who attempted to recreate his style after he rejected commercial offers), has all but spawned an entire strain of animation unto himself. A major influence on the early days of Adult Swim shows as well as what feels like ninety per cent of what we now know to be ‘the internet’, Hertzfeldt’s work is something of a delineation of Monty Python-esque surrealism crossed with an Edward Gorey aesthetic.
But with 2005’s The Meaning of Life, Hertzfeldt work began to assume a more galactic sensibility. Life—clearly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001—takes the existing experimental streak in his work and amplifies it as he had never before. What results is the obvious stepping stone to his masterpiece; three short films made between 2006 and 2011 which, when combined, form the stunning feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
Day opens with the utterly mundane; in fact, it’s almost devoted to it, in many ways. Centred on Bill, a character from a Hertzfeldt webcomic, the film follows his plain yet tumultuous life. Diagnosed with a mysterious illness the true nature of which we never learn, the early scenes’ juxtapose silly anecdotes—crotch-level fruit, failed street greetings—with soaring operatics in the score. At its outset, we know that Life intends to be a grandiose story told in the most intimate possible way.
One of the film’s most impressive aspects is its visual style. While seemingly simplistic at first, soon Hertzfeldt’s experimentalism creeps in. Filmed with an antique 1940s 35mm animation camera, images appear in a kind of ‘split-screen’ style spliced with experimental effects with texture, real photos and effects that give the sense of a scrappier Douglas Trumbull, or a Terrence Malick who was trapped indoors throughout his childhood. We observe Bill eating crackers out of a box while a blood-letting headbutt in a boxing match loops in slow-motion; all the while a calendar bearing a manatee stares innocently in the corner.
It’s difficult to explain the narrative at work. When spelled out, it almost seems boring. But there’s something about Hertzfeldt’s manipulation of ambient sound, scuzzy atmospherics, music and his own deadpan narration that creates an atmosphere; the words he speaks as he describes Bill’s life, leaping around in time like one Billy Pilgrim, recall that very character and his genius creator, Kurt Vonnegut. This is what the blackly comic tragedy of Slaughterhouse Five or Cat’s Cradle might look like when distilled from the warped, brilliant brain of a Gen X animator.
I could quote whole passages of narration at you. But all you need to know is how Hertzfeldt drags you into Bill’s world and immerses you in the beauty and horror of his situation. Aural and visual atmospherics disorient before, in total quiet, the simple removal of a hat breaks your heart. Bill’s family history and childhood memories explore the way adult trauma refract memories of youth. In one pseudo-flashback, Bill sits on a beach as a child and stares out at the permanence of waves as the narrator intones, “Bill looks out at the water and thinks of all the wonderful things he will do with his life.”
Divided into three chapters, Everything Will Be OK and I Am So Proud of You eventually bleed into the final passage in Bill’s life, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, the third short and the title of the combined trilogy. Bill’s deterioration has been progressive and finite; his life stitched together for the viewer chiefly through a lengthy series of disjointed anecdotes, flitting about through his history.
Anyone with first or second-hand experience with any kind of illness, be it mental, temporary or degenerative, will be crushed by this film. It’s pure, deep, rumbling catharsis for its entire running time. But its ending is not a sad one; there’s optimism to It’s Such a Beautiful Day that slices through the darkness, a transcendentalism that floods the viewer with emotion.
The film has never shown here as a completed whole to my knowledge; the third short played at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, and the preceding two shorts have played in some capacity. When Vimeo announced its On Demand service, I was elated to discover that It’s Such a Beautiful Day was available to watch in full for just two dollars, or buy for just six—amounts which are but a fraction of what Hertzfeldt deserves for such a towering, delicate cinematic achievement.
There’s something representative about Bill, a fundamental humanity that swallows you whole by the end. It’s a film to be watched in complete darkness late at night, perhaps alone, perhaps with someone you love; a film that smears the inevitability, terror, and beauty of freedom and death in your face, and makes you laugh right back at it through tears, as your head spirals away into space.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.
You can watch It’s Such A Beautiful Day on Vimeo On Demand.