Thursday, January 2, 2020

Forever, or never


Very probably the apex of all independent animation, Don Hertzfeldt's greatest work is one of the greatest things ever.

Written and directed by Don Hertzfeldt

Spoiler alert: moderatish but mostly inapplicable

I could say, "Don Hertzfeldt needs no introduction," but I don't know if that's totally true.  I think perhaps he does.  At the least, people need to be reminded of his existence more often, as his absence from way too many of the recent "best films of the decade" discussions certainly suggests.  (That these discussions have often been eye-rollingly, even unethically premature is another issue, which I may talk about at greater length when I do mine, in the year 2020, now that the last decade is actually over.)  Anyway: Hertzfeldt's closest brush with genuine celebrity and widespread acclaim—that is, beyond film critics and, specifically, ones with an interest in experimental animation—came in 2015, with his Oscar-nominated short film, "The World of Tomorrow," which is how I became aware of his work, and developed a deep need to see more.  In particular, it led me back to 2012, the year Hertzfeldt finally assembled his only feature, It's Such a Beautiful Day—itself technically a trilogy of short subjects, "Everything Will Be OK," "I Am So Proud of You," and "It's Such a Beautiful Day," released individually in 2006, 2008, and 2011 respectively,  presumably due to the economic realities of the project, given that I cannot remotely imagine watching the three segments of the finished 62-minute film separately.  They are in every possible respect integral to one another, each successive segment building seamlessly upon the last until, in combination, they arrive at a climax so emotionally and philosophically devastating that it exists right at the limit of cinematic technology's capability of generating feelings in a viewer.  And yet, for all that, this flattening piece of cinematic art was made out of hardly anything more than its creator's imagination and the medium's most simple and primitive tools.

So, if Hertzfeldt does need an introduction, "simple and primitive tools" is a fair encapsulation of his career before It's Such a Beautiful Day, which amounts to a decade spent dicking around with do-it-yourself experimental animation, most of which is good, and most of which does not genuinely rise above the level of gag cartoons that are interesting mainly because they're occasionally very funny and because they've been done at an almost implausibly low level of handicraft implementation, the mainstay of his aesthetic being minimalistic line drawings, usually humanoid stick figures, animated across a multitude of white paper sheets, occasionally splashed with very limited color, and only any more sophisticated in their technique than, say, Winsor McCay's pre-celluloid curios because Hertzfeldt, working in the 21st century, had access to synchronized sound recording.  (And even then, he tends to do the voices himself, too—though he is not, necessarily, a tremendously talented voice actor.)

Take, for instance, his most famous pre-Beautiful Day cartoon, "Rejected," which purports to represent a compendium of commercials, ostensibly rejected by various respectable enterprises. (It purports, also, to represent Hertzfeldt's "decaying mental state," or something along those lines.)  "Rejected" digs into the physical form of his throwback technology in fascinating ways, incorporating the paper itself, and its wrinkles and tears, into the animation.  On the other hand, "Rejected" is kind of dumb, and it is quite off-puttingly smug.  Indeed, most of his experimental shorts are riddled with its kind of Adult Swimmish surrealism.  Only one, "The Meaning of Life," would remotely prepare one for the maturity and terrifying rigor of It's Such a Beautiful Day, and it's no coincidence that it's the best.

Yet they did obviously prepare Hertzfeldt to make Beautiful Day, which he did using largely the same aesthetic, particularly in regards to more black stick figures rendered upon white paper.  (Technically, they are humanoid line drawings with torsos made out of rounded triangles.  It's briefer to describe them as "stick figures," however, and the very minimal impression of his characters as bodied figures taking up actual space probably makes this a distinction without too much difference, even if it's a distinction worth mentioning at least once.)  In fact, Beautiful Day's humans, almost impossibly, might be slightly more minimalistic still: the big change to the stick figures is the reduction of their eyes from big ugly bulbous orbs to tiny little barely-moving dots, which can blink, and allude to which direction their owners are looking, and not much else.  Yet it is almost unsettling, in what it says about human cognition, that in the almost imperceptible movements of these tiny little dots, a viewer can generate a whole other entity's worth of meaning and import, and in doing so invest it with so much of themselves.

This is particularly true for Beautiful Day's central stick figure, Bill, who is distinguished from the rest of the stick figures by a hat which he wears at all times, even when he's in a hospital bed, which means that the immediate response to any given visual from Beautiful Day for a certain subset of viewer is "oh yes, this is the one where video game critic Yahtzee Croshaw gets brain cancer."  Or maybe that was just me.  In any event, Bill is indeed very ill, and whether it's "brain cancer" or something else—it doesn't really matter, and his precise diagnosis or diagnoses are never described—we arrive upon Bill at a very special time in his life, that is, as he begins to slowly die, with his mind deteriorating at a steady clip throughout, and his memories and ability to process sensory information going along with it.

We are always held, however, at a slight remove: with very few exceptions (particularly the voice of a female nurse), there is almost no recorded dialogue whatsoever in Beautiful Day, and Bill's story is related mostly by way of an absurdly calm and detached narrator who pretends not to ever notice any irony in any of the often-ironic statements he's been assigned to read.  (This narrator, of course, is Hertzfeldt himself, and his narrator is, even if I'm contradicting myself, absolutely great voice acting.) On the occasion that "dialogue" is presented, it's in the form of little balloonless captions attached to the stick figures by a line, or, more usually, through the narrator's quotation or paraphrase.  It's through this narrator that we learn about Bill's illness and his circumstances—for example, his girlfriend is his ex-girlfriend by the time the story opens, but still around, strongly implying that she broke it off because his illness made a real relationship impossible, but she still cares—along with Bill's personal and medical history, which winds up going as deep into a pre-Bill past as it does into the innermost thoughts of Bill and others in the present.  The story, however, has no other obvious structure, and ambles almost stream-of-consciousness style through the quotidian details of a life not especially vibrantly-lived, which is itself the explicitly stated if not tediously insisted-upon thesis of the thing: life as an accumulation of details, almost none of which are remotely interesting beyond their owner's memory of them, yet which are nonetheless beautiful, fleeting things that irrevocably slip away, into first degradation and then into nothingness.

Inflected with death and with dark, weird humor, these details become, each and every one, of monumental importance, in no small part because very few if any of them are truly random, since most wind up echoed thematically or visually, or both, throughout the eternity that Beautiful Day considers.  But all of them are filtered through a fugue state that is, at first, only a little distinct from life as it's ordinarily lived, with Hertzfeldt breaking up events and memories into hazily-bordered boxes that pop out of, and back into, black screen.  (The modal pixel of the movie is, surely, an inactive one.) It winds up not always having the same effect: sometimes it's overwhelmingly, unpleasantly chaotic, particularly when Bill's illness is at its most acute; sometimes it simply demands you focus on something to the exclusion of other information, which might be just as important or interesting—but hey, that is life.  (And, in a sense, it always has the same purpose: providing every detail of life with equal weight, whether it's "interesting" or "important" or not.)  But this is also where some aggressive sound design and even more aggressive mixed media and in-camera special effects come in, italicizing certain breakthrough moments with bursts of surrealist energy and, on occasion, even stretches of live action footage, particularly in the heartbreaking sequence where Bill becomes completely unstuck from time.

But where Beautiful Day cracks you all the way wide open is in its final ten minutes, where the narrator, at last, actually reacts to the horror he's been blandly describing, somehow shocked by the horrible end of the story he's been telling, apparently unaware that this was its inevitable finale.  Whether we're meant to take it as Bill's hallucination, or a metanarrative gambit so bold it deliberately breaks whatever reality the film possessed, Beautiful Day absolutely refuses to abide death; and, with its refusal, its painfully-intimate tale telescopes into a cosmic epic of ridiculous proportions in an exploration of what it would really mean to have life without death.  The uncanny thing about Beautiful Day is that it has gotten progressively funnier as it has gotten sadder and closer to its end.  Now it's laugh-out-loud hilarious in its absurdity at the same time that it's shatteringly upsetting—I have never laughed and cried so much simultaneously—as it acknowledges that even if the narrator can't believe that Bill will die, everything else, from a rotting bird corpse on the sidewalk to the universe itself, certainly shall.  It may just take a little longer.  But eventually, there will come a moment when the darkness conquers everything, and a hundred billion years of life will seem to have passed like the blink of an eye, and will only be dimly remembered, if there were anyone around to blink, or to remember, which there will not be. It is why every moment of light we have is so utterly pointless.  But also why every moment of light is a miracle.

The unstoppable heat death of the universe is, of course, an unhealthy thing to contemplate, as are dreams of immortality.  But Beautiful Day has the decency, and the insight, to understand that these thoughts are inescapable, and it never mocks the natural human unwillingness to accept the end of things, even as it gently chides its viewer and reminds them that endlessness might be even more absurd.  Hertzfeldt's masterpiece of death arrived at the end of what I think of as a small movement of experimental animation, which had spent the previous decade grappling with the sheer unfairness of the limitations of human existence, and wished (however impotently) for a better deal.  It started in 2001 with Linklater's Waking Life and it continued in 2004, across the Pacific, with Yuasa's Mindgame.  (If they somehow were not in conversation with each other, they still feel so of a piece thematically, and so dependent on their own idiosyncratic aesthetics as works of animation, that I can't help but think of them as working in tandem.)  It's Such a Beautiful Day is the most terrifyingly raw of all of them, and the best.  It is the only one I somewhat dread watching, enough that I've only seen it twice, precisely because it hits me so agonizingly in my own personal weak spots.  (First, the hopeless contemplation of the limits of conscious life's ability to persevere in the universe; second, the hopeless contemplation of my own consciousness's ability to persevere in the universe.)  It's simply too much.  It's a question without any good answer, since to ask "why do we die and what do we do about it?" is essentially the same thing as asking, "why do we exist?"  The real answer to the first question is probably "nothing," and therefore the answer to the second is "no reason."  But one might as well make the best of it.  It's all we've got.

Score: 10/10

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