I can't say I'm an expert on animation, though I've seen my fair share of animated films. On viewing, I look for how the animation style matches with the story, and how I am meant to interpret one through the other. I had only a vague awareness of Don Hertzfeldt when I saw It's Such a Beautiful Day, but now I am going to seek out his work. It is beautiful, funny, sad, and imparts the kind of wisdom on life and love that is at once simple and profound.
It's Such a Beautiful Day is a compilation of three short films (Everything Will Be Okay, I'm So Proud of You and It's Such a Beautiful Day), centring on the character of Bill. A narrator tells of Bill's everyday life, his trials and tribulations, loves and losses. It's black and white stick figure animation, which might sound mundane, but thanks to both the almost poetic words and the vivid simplicity of the imagery, it is anything but. In many ways, it feels like a comic, with multiple windows offering different moments, and the film frequently includes real footage in juxtaposition. These moments move the audience out of quiet contemplation into larger ideas of the nature of existence.
In reducing the animated image to just the stick figures, Hertzfeldt is perhaps questioning the nature of animation: how much of what is done takes away from conveying the story? If it is this kind of story, the story of the human condition through the life of a single person, is it not better to strip away all artifice? By making Bill a stick figure, he is the everyman (or woman, I don't think it needs to have a gender bias). It is in the smaller moments, both funny and sad, that the film is at its best (though it is always amazing). It's the kind of film that worms its way into your heart, and I heard more than one audience member shedding some tears.
As the story unfolded, first as a kind of day-in-the-life tale, then slowly opening up to the greater questions of existence, the images take on greater meaning, and I found myself glued to the screen, watching every image as it imparted its wisdom through its simplicity. Not that it is always so simple: frequently the film enters surrealism, with a mangle of images and words that don't make empirical sense. But then again, neither does life, and Hertzfeldt places these moments (usually when mixing animation and real images) as alerts to the audience, to understand how the human mind can often go to strange and dark places.
A quick bit of research has told me that Hertzfeldt is still old-school about his films, many of which he draws, shoots, edits, scores, and narrates himself. Certainly, he isn't the only animator to put this kind of effort into his work. But it is this kind of work that makes me lament the current glut of CGI animation. Once Hertzfeldt's mastery is seen, you wonder why (with the except of Studio Ghibli) you could ever watch anything else.
Photo credit: c) 2012 Don Hertzfeldt.
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