Years ago I was with my family at Thanksgiving when my nephew told me he wanted me to see some stuff he’d found on the internet. We went upstairs, away from the rest of the relatives, and he showed me a series of cartoons that were incredibly creepy and hysterically funny, all of them by a guy named Don Hertzfeldt. I’ve never forgotten that day.
Hertzfeldt’s early work may have looked crude, but it was actually way more lively and interesting than most of the animation you see in theatres. The big studios spend millions on feature length cartoons with incredible technical polish and zero soul. Hertzfeldt creates his work himself, with his own hands. His simple line drawings are combined with found images that are often blurred and distorted. For his soundtracks he relies on ambient noise and a fair amount of shrieking. But the end result isn’t just funny, it’s disturbing and moving.
The early shorts are all about brutal, absurd situations where people often get hurt really badly. But in recent years Hertzfeldt has added other dimensions to his work. His most recent release, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The crazy horror is still there, but now underlying it is a weird cosmic beauty. With all the terrible trauma we see on the screen, the film has a strange serenity to it. The universe may be a terrifying place, but Hertzfeldt accepts it as it is. And he seems to be saying that we should treasure the stray moments of happiness as they slip through our fingers.
You might think a film that was basically made by one guy would be a thin, minimal affair. But no. Hertzfeldt’s hand-made images vibrate with a crazy, implacable life. Flames leap across the screen. Seagull cries float on the breeze. Windows open up out of the darkness, flicker with distant memories and then close again. Along with the director’s deadpan narration, layers of sound create a dense, sometimes unnerving texture that can be overwhelming. A symphony orchestra plays while noise piles up on top of it, growing louder and louder until you just want it all to stop. And he also layers images over each other, in this case suggesting the way memories pile up in layers, rubbing against one another, slowly growing blurred and faded.
Memory is key in It’s Such a Beautiful Day. The film follows a man named Bill as he slowly falls apart, suffering from some unspecified disease. As his mind and body deteriorate, his memory fades. First he has trouble remembering recent events, and soon he can’t recognize people he’s known for years. Pictures from the past surface without warning, some that come from Bill’s distant memories, and others that conjure up frightening relatives who lived long before his time. The fear, pain and loneliness that haunt Bill aren’t new. They’ve been around forever, handed down from generation to generation.
This probably all sounds horribly depressing. Yeah. It is. Up to a point. But there’s that strange serenity I mentioned earlier. A sense of acceptance. It’s as if Hertzfeldt has stepped back far enough from our everyday struggles to take in the whole universe. Our suffering doesn’t seem so important in the vast, cosmic scheme of things. Bill’s final visions are of an eternal, shimmering, infinite universe in which he’s just a mote drifting through space.
Hertzfedlt may be an awful cynic, but there’s more to this movie than pain and loneliness. As Bill goes through his terrible downward spiral, he comes across reminders that people can care for each other, that tenderness exists. Love may be fleeting, but it is real. And finding the beauty in the world may just be a matter of opening your eyes to it.