Monday, April 15, 2013

"A Beautiful Day" Years in the Making

Remember "Rejected"? Don Hertzfeld's surreally violent cartoon was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short back in the year 2000, and has become an influential cult favorite. It's striking not just for its inventive visuals and unusual level of blood and guts (inflicted primarily on minimalist pen doodles), but its particular existential and philosophical bent. In "Rejected," the discarding of the animator's rejected drawings is depicted as a horrific apocalypse, dooming his terrified creations to an unspeakable void.

This level of cheerful nihilism was only possible because Hertzfeld is one of those rare independent filmmakers working in animation who is essentially a one-man studio. By doing nearly everything himself, he retains a high degree of creative control, which ensures his work retains his mature, challenging voice and point of view. I encountered more of his darkly funny shorts over the years, like "Billy's Balloon," where balloons become sentient and turn on their owners, and "The Meaning of Life," which charts a twisted version of human history. Then in 2006, he produced something quite different.

"Everything Will be OK" is the seventeen-minute story of a man named Bill, depicted as a stick figure wearing a little rectangle of a hat, who is losing his mind. Bill is meant to be a real world person, though a highly abstracted version of one, who goes to work every day, keeps in contact with an ex-girlfriend, and has relatives who worry about him. He watches a lot of TV and likes ice cream sandwiches. At first his journey involves a series of absurd little episodes and funny observations on daily life - an everyday conversation gone awry because neither participant remembers who the other person is, inappropriate fantasies, and the boredom and emptiness of the daily routine. But then Bill starts forgetting more and more, and his condition goes from annoying to frightening, and it becomes clear that something is very wrong with Bill.

"Everything Will be OK" was followed by two other Bill shorts, "I Am So Proud of You" and "It's Such a Beautiful Day," completed in 2008 and 2011 respectively. Last year, Hertzfeld edited all three shorts together into a feature film, running a little over an hour in length, also titled "It's Such a Beautiful Day." The latter installments delve deeper into mental illness, dysfunctional families, and finally the very nature of life and death and human existence. Though it retains the same sense of humor and penchant for the gruesome as Hertzfeld's shorts, the approach is much more serious and even-handed, to reflect the more ambitious material. The result is such a weird and wonderful film, incredibly personal and very touching. What makes it all the more astonishing is that despite the occasional use of live-action film elements and some special effects, "It's Such a Beautiful Day" is primarily comprised of simple stick figure drawings and Hertzfeld's narration.

Yet the animation is so evocative, and the storytelling with these simple tools is so strong and so compelling. It's easy to relate to Bill, who comes off as a real, sympathetic person suffering from some terrible unnamed mental ailment, constantly questioning the nature of his existence. Because he has no defining visuals characteristics beyond his hat, he is instantly a universal figure, and you automatically feel for him as he struggles against delusions and disorientation. The hand-drawn animation also allows a closer degree of shared experience with Bill's tenuous state of mind, visualizing it in ways that live action film and other, more complicated kinds of animation would be unable to match. And you realize how little it takes - a few simple ink lines on paper, really - to evoke such powerful reactions.

Their's something tremendously heartening about the existence of a film like "It's Such a Beautiful Day." Theatrical hand-drawn animation is supposed to be dead in the U.S., economically unfeasible and out of fashion (Disney Animation announced a new round of layoffs last week). And yet here's Don Hertzfeld, toiling away with his doodles and stick-figures, who has created a film of real emotional depth and insight on the human experience, and has managed to support himself through his work. Hertzfeld self-distributed "It's Such a Beautiful Day," currently offering it for $2 online downloads through Veoh and other platforms.

I've always been a big fan of animation, but over the last few years I've found the output of the big studios creatively wanting. Sure, last year's "Wreck-It -Ralph" and "Madagascar 3" were a lot of fun, and you can't deny the creators of "Brave" and "Paranorman" had some serious artistic chops. However, when it comes to advancing the art of animation, "It's Such a Beautiful Day" leaves them all behind in the dust. This is the first animated film in years I can justify saving a spot for on my annual "Best of" list.

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