It's Such a Beautiful Day
The story of a stick-figure man named Bill, who struggles with his failing memory and absurdist visions, among other symptoms of an unknown illness.
1 hour 2 minutes
August 24, 2012
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Writers: Don Hertzfeldt
Starring: Don Hertzfeldt & Sara Cushman
Genre: Black Comedy, Drama
A talent like Don Hertzfeldt is an incredibly rare breed. He works tirelessly in almost complete solitude developing remarkably unique tidbits of traditional hand-drawn animation in ways that no big-name studio would ever touch. In the year 2000, shortly after graduating with a film degree, Hertzfeldt came into some ounce of mainstream fame and prominence with his absurdly hilarious Oscar-nominated short film Rejected, which stood as emblematic of his defiant screed against being categorized in any identifiable way, feeling that would rob him of his essence and value. Since making a name for himself with Rejected, Hertzfeldt went to produce many other animated pieces that would be ceaselessly bootlegged and uploaded to the internet, where they would gain something of a cult following. In my assessment, this is one artistic voice who really deserves a broader audience–especially after seeing his “Bill Trilogy”. You’ll see what I mean. I hope.
Violence/Scary Images: There’s a scene in which the main character watches a boxing match on TV, which depicts a man getting his head graphically and bloodily split open. This scene is then replayed several times. References are made to death and murder, including people getting run over by trains (non-graphic), and getting objects thrown at them, or bludgeoned (again, non-graphic). A mentally and physically disabled child is said to have been suffocated by another person. Three animated horse carcasses are shown. All violence is animated and although some of it is graphic, it isn’t visually detailed.
Language/Crude Humor: Some mild profanities such as “hell,” “damn,” and “g**damn.”
Sexual Content: Brief reference to masturbation. A few other references to people’s crotches are made.In one dream sequence, the crotch bulges to look ridiculously bloated and rather large (however it isn’t anatomically correct at all). A very brief mention of Asian porn in a magazine. A very brief mention that Bill’s testicle has an ache in it.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters take prescription medication, but there are incidents of misuse or missing doses.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Might strike some viewers as depressing.
Positive Content: Respect for the sanctity of life itself, no matter how broken or wretched it may be, is central to the drama. The importance of family, even a broken family, is acknowledged and validated.
Whenever I hear people, including my fellow professional artists, spout the tired cliché of saying that the purpose of art is “self-expression”, I tend to cringe a bit. I had such an experience this past weekend while participating in a panel discussion at a local high school. We were asked to describe art in our own words, and I was a bit disappointed in hearing the same trite utterances from the two other artists on the panel extolling the principle of self-expression in giving their answer. I can’t say that I really blame them. They, like I, are the youthful products of a generation dominated by hyphenated words all beginning with “self” – self-expression, self-realization, self-enlightenment, self-improvement, self-worth, self-entitlement, self-advancement, self-embracement, self-etcetera. Egoism has been very much in vogue for quite some time and permeates the public forum in virtually every dimension from journalism to academia.
I’ve heard it said many times that thinking and focusing on yourself is thinking small. I cannot agree more. I find that the most productive way one can build their own relevance is by being committed to something greater than the self; something that lasts beyond the self and transcends the individual. The reasoning is just as practical and prudent as it is morally and spiritually directed. As valuable as the individual is, there is no denying that individuals are fundamentally transient entities. They are here one day and gone the next, most of them not even being recognized or known outside of a small rung of close loved ones if that. If that single infinitesimally small container of being is dedicating all direction and purpose to only its own tiny speck of occupation in the span of reality, it can hardly be said in the grand scheme of things that it ever has any real significance at all. Would such a being be little more than “a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more” – if that?
To regard the self as the raison d’être is probably the most pointless, ill-conceived, and wasteful choice of an aim in life for one very obvious and inescapable reason: we’re all going to die sooner or later, and we’re going to be dead much longer than we’ll ever be alive. If all we did with ourselves was simply commit to pure self-interest (which is known among psychologists as a form of sociopathy), we would have essentially wasted ourselves on nothing. At the very least, we would have wasted ourselves on what would do nothing in the long run but return to dust. By contrast, those who are dedicated to something greater than themselves, something transcendent, something beyond and above menial self-interest and gratification, are those who make for themselves and for others a great accomplishment of genuine value and lasting worth that carries on for many, many lifetimes.
Of course, the first step in making something genuinely worthwhile out of this transient and temporary gift of life is realizing that there is something “greater than the self”. In an era of continuous encouragement for self-indulgence, where the only holy trinity acknowledged is Me, Myself, and I, that can be a difficult thing to comprehend. Thankfully, there are those gifted souls who are exceptionally skilled at giving us what some have called “signals of transcendence” to guide our senses out of our own navels. Many artists are the ones who ponder and explore these transcendent glimmers of hope beyond the self in the use of imagination, narrative, and archetype–tools for pointing us to the metaphysical that are recognized the world over regardless of the needless barriers that the self-indulgent like to erect in service to their delusions of grandeur.
What if I were to tell you, dear reader, that some young talent managed to recently do this with a triptych of animated shorts that is but an hour long in total and stars crudely drawn poorly animated stick figures? Sounds absurd, right? Well, it kind of is, and that’s sort of the point–or at least part of the point. Don Hertzfeldt is not a name that is as well-regarded among the more artsy-fartsy singular voices in the filmmaking field like Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, or some other guy named “Anderson” that I’m probably forgetting, but in my judgment, he really should be. No other filmmaker–animator or otherwise–economizes on the medium of cinema as impressively as Hertzfeldt. I’ve never seen anyone of any narrative practice who manages to do so much with so little.
Armed with a 50-year-old 35mm camera, some pencils, a lot of paper, and his own voice, Hertzfeldt would seem at first to be good for nothing more than developing disposable absurdist comedy that one might find in the margins of a 5th grader’s math notebook circa 1997. Based on his earlier work, such as the riotously funny 2000 short Rejected, it can be said that he kind of came out the gates presenting himself in such a way. If one looks a little closer, beneath all the seeming artifice of nihilistic drudgery there is a bold and poignant vision.
That vision is undoubtedly best seen in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, a feature-length presentation of three shorts centered on Bill, a silent stick-figure man suffering from an array of unidentifiable cognitive disorders. To explain the plot beyond that would be a crime, and it would be dang near impossible. Every single selection for where the film goes is so specific and deliberate that nearly any moment explained could count as a spoiler. What’s more, the calculated approach manages to deliver a sharply disorienting flurry of images and sounds that could cause one to lose footing with the real state of affairs in much the same way that Bill does on a regular basis. It’s planned madness of the most definite sort.
Even his use of music this time around carries a distinction, unlike his previous works. In Rejected, the refinement and class of Beethoven’s 9th being juxtaposed with the deliberate crudity of Hertzfeldt’s artwork was done for comedic effect. Here, similarly, high-class musical selections are found but without a hint of irony to it. Hertzfeldt is being deathly serious and even reverent in his handling of the character of Bill and all that entails.
While it would be an impossible crime to detail the story of Bill’s life, giving note of what questions and concerns his tale explores is at least feasible. For one, Bill doesn’t seem to be too keen on the practice of basic human interaction. At the very least, he seems to overthink things. Or maybe it’s that strange disembodied voice always lingering about him and narrating his every word, thought, and deed that’s doing all the overthinking. Whatever the case may be, Bill’s mind is ever cluttered with incredibly specific scraps of observation that many of us take for granted. In fact, his whole family line seems to have similar troubles. A bush trimmed into the shape of a heart. A woman’s shoe filled with leaves. A lover’s message drawn in the sand. It all seems so discordant.
The film sympathizes with Bill’s plight. Nearly every moment of his life is surrounded by a suffocating haze of pitch black void. Bill’s very existence is but a tapestry of small glimmers of light in a sea of darkness. These glimmers vanish just as quickly and unassumingly as they appear, making each one incredibly special in its own way. There is always the present suspicion that these puzzling vignettes of experience are part of some grand design, but far be from Bill or his family to realize that so soon.
It’s virtually impossible not to commiserate with Bill, and the narrating voice (provided by Hertzfeldt) never takes attention away from the main character. One of the many things that’s so curious and amazing about Bill’s story is that we’re not allowed to know much about his background or the events that led to his state of chronic disorientation. He has an ex-girlfriend with whom he stands in very good terms, but it’s never clear why they broke up in the first place. One can guess at why they broke up, but we’re never given an answer as to what the reason was exactly. Such information would have been superfluous anyway. It would be like wondering how it is that Finding Nemo’s Dory can read or who actually built and deployed the iron giant. It would detract from the immediacy of the story at hand.
The information we are given is abundantly essential and valuable primarily because it is so scarce. In fact, the value of that which is scarce and fleeting is an idea that permeates the entire work. At only one hour in length with such piecemeal information on offer, one learns quickly to cherish every morsel of truth that can be grasped. It’s known among clinical psychologists that one of the most damaging things that can be done to someone who is mentally unstable is to lie to them since their grasp on reality is already so tenuous. It can’t be said that Bill’s loved ones necessarily lie to him, but they have a very hard time telling him how it is. Perhaps it’s because they are just as barred off from the actual state of affairs in the same way that Bill is, sans the mental and physical instability.
“Ignorance is bliss” is an unwise sentiment that is thankfully absent from the thoughts of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, but it does not indulge the idea that knowing the truth is always a pleasant thing. The narrating voice does a very thorough job of giving us insight into how Bill feels about what little experiential truth he’s allowed, but not at all times. There are moments of epiphany that Bill encounters in learning about his nature and place in the world where he and we are given only bare facts of great significance. His static and vapid stare does nothing to convey what emotional reaction he might be experiencing, if at all.
Those few moments when he does seem emotionally responsive to what he learns of both himself and his surroundings are moments that seem to be so overwhelming upon Bill’s senses that he’s nearly in a state of crippling euphoria. With his meager and humble technology, Hertzfeldt realizes these epiphanies with marvelous flurries of hand-drawn doodles and live photographed footage that serve to give some idea of what Bill experiences on a daily basis. As Bill learns more and begins to overcome the barriers of his own addled mind, the scenic compositions of the film open up as well, with new life and dimensions materializing out of the ever-present darkness, slowly joining together into a semi-coherent whole.
With Bill’s growing understanding comes both joys and tragedies alike. Piecing together the details of how Bill came to be who he is may bring you into a rough state of melancholy, dear reader. Even the narrator comes to a point in which he finds Bill’s life is far too heartbreaking to be taken as is and weaves an ending to the film that serves to upend all conventional standards of narrative arcs as well as the very terminal nature of life itself. Such an ending is ostensibly meant to stave off a grim tragedy, but in a way that brings about a state of being that can be argued to be infinitely more tragic.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day puts up for consideration that the only reason anything, including life itself, has any genuine and objective value is because of its finitude. That is such an odd dichotomy between metaphysicians regarding the worth and value of existence. Dostoyevsky wrote that if there is no eternality to life, all is permitted. That is to say, nothing ever said or done in the brief veil of existence holds any significance if the ramifications of which are to come to an absolute termination. At the same time, eternality can be also bereft of purpose or worth if it is occupied by only void.
Perhaps what Hertzfeldt is exploring here is the chance to find worth and meaning in the inescapable brevity and inherent limitations that we as mortals face. One particular point in the film touches on the ancient idea that time, as we experience, is but an illusion–that all events past, present, and future are all occurring simultaneously in a mode of actuality inaccessible to us. Bill comically dismisses this as trite before advancing in his task of pulling himself together. As he gets closer to doing so, his mental state seems to repair by all measures, but he also comes to a point of being even more unhinged and detached than ever before. It is a theme that was touched upon almost ubiquitously in the literary works of American author H.P. Lovecraft, though the cosmos is more amiable in Hertzfeldt’s world.
It seems that as far as Hertzfeldt and Bill can make out, we live in a world that wishes desperately to be discovered, appreciated, and understood in its full capacity. Bill seems to recognize this at the height of his cognitive abilities. At one moment, he wants to be able to stop everyone around him that are so mindlessly rushing about with their ungrateful existences and ask them to just marvel at all that they’re missing around them. If all would just halt for a moment, look about them, and say, “Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t everything just so amazing?”, that would at least reinfuse some modicum of purpose to the directionless drudgery of mere existence. That would serve quite well as a signal of transcendence if nothing else.
But how would they respond to such a realization? There are the proud who would see the transcendent as a threat to their false sense of self-willed importance and react with violence and denial. There are those who, in true Lovecraftian fashion, would be too weak of heart, mind, or spirit to be able to handle such an epiphany while keeping their psyches intact. For those who are able and willing to grasp such a divine reality, all the rest of value that the world has to offer will be open to them. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven…”
Friendly reminder, dear reader: This whole time, I’ve written on a movie about stick figures.
+ Deceptively simple and humble approach
+ Viscerally engaging and resonant
+ Deep and multifaceted characters
+ Beautifully cathartic
- You’re gonna keep thinking about it after it’s over
- I gotta fill this “negatives” section with something
- Produce aisles