Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: It's Such a Beautiful Day




Who would have guessed that the guy who amassed a cult following with animated shorts about talking bananas and smiling fluff-balls that bleed out their ass would emerge as animation’s answer to Terrence Malick?

I first encountered the work of Don Hertzfeldt when the Spike and Mike Animation Festival rode through Philadelphia in 2001. In the middle of the program was a short made up of simply drawn characters cycling through a series of rapid-fire jokes of such demented, sick-black genius that it shattered my brain like a hammer smashing a mirror and sent me into flailing paroxysms of laughter that lasted through the rest of the program and the entire walk home.

"Rejected"

The film was Hertzfeldt’s Rejected and it would go on to an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short  It turned me into a diehard follower of Mr. Hertzfeldt’s work. After seeking out all his previous films including the darkly hilarious Billy’s Balloon and the great Lily and Jim I understood that Rejected was the culmination of Hertzfeldt’s career up to that point. An original voice honing his style down to a fine point and creating a short of perfect cracked brilliance. What I couldn’t have guessed a decade ago was that the experimentation of Rejected would mark the beginning of the fascinating second act to Hertzfeldt’s career, one that found him applying his unique sensibility to a new philosophical searching. The sharp humor remained but it now came with an unexpected depth behind it.

Now that second act has culminated in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which is a masterpiece.


First released as three separate shorts – Everything Will Be OK (2006), I Am So Proud of You (2008), and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011) ­– this new film combines them into a single feature length film running just over an hour. I loved all three individually but was slightly wary at the prospect of knitting them together into a single statement. There was potential for a too-much-of-a-good-thing scenario where style that was devastating in short form would prove repetitive and suffocating in a feature. I needn’t have worried. The films, which worked beautifully separately, combine to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The power of Beautiful Day depends to such a degree on Hertzfeldt’s other-worldy style that it is difficult to capture in words, but I will give it a shot.


The beginning of the story focuses on the uneventful life of its utterly ordinary protagonist, Bill. An emotionless narrator lists the most mundane details of Bill’s existence from perfunctory exchanges with a supermarket cashier to watching boxing matches on the Spanish language channel while finishing off a box of crackers. As the film builds the bland details begin to distort, and we realize the relentless tide of trivialities is causing Bill’s grip on reality to slip. Eventually it all builds to a tidal wave and Bill's sanity is washed away in a sea of monotony. Hertzfeldt continues to widen the scope of the film over the its brisk running time until by the end the narrator has removed Bill from the limits of space and time completely, pulling back so far it regards the basic components of life with the same dispassionate eye it viewed Bill's morning bus ride. 

In Hertzfeldt’s vision it is all simultaneous glorious and meaningless and mysterious and empty and so beautiful you just have to cry. Even more than Malick’s Tree of Life, It’s Such a Beautiful Day lead me to marvel with fresh eyes at the things one takes entirely for granted like memory and aging and moving through time in a single direction. That the film connects these cosmic wonders to the boredom of the everyday lends a grandeur to the humdrum pleasures of life. As if all the beauty in the world can be found in watching the lights of traffic blur as you fall asleep in the backseat of a car. 



Hertzfeldt animation has always been much more sophisticated than the simplicity of his drawing style would suggest. Quality of animation has nothing to do with big budgets and photo-realistic computer-generated imagery and everything to do with timing and expressiveness. For all the strangeness of Hertfeldt's vision he keeps the humanity of his protagonist entirely relatable, and It's Such a Beautiful Day packs a huge emotional wallop as a result. Just look at the simple moment where Bill receives a grim diagnosis and the shot holds on him for a long while as he sits forlornly on the edge of a hospital bed, removes his hat and rubs his hand over his forehead. 


In case I'm making It’s Such a Beautiful Day sound like a cerebral slog I would hurry to add that Hertzfeldt hasn’t lost any of his wicked sense of humor. He often gets a laugh by perfectly pinpointing a banal moment where all share, like pretending not to see someone you know on the street because you can't be bothered to put in the effort to say "Hi". Then there are the many moments where we have to simply smile at the audacity of Hertfeldt's imagination and the fearlessness with which he will follow it on the strangest of flights.


It’s Such a Beautiful Day is also a feast of visual effects, all shot entirely in camera, without the use of computers. Hertzfeldt uses every trick in the book, camera speeds, multiple exposures, matte shots. He mixes in regular footage with the animation. Few shots in the film that don't utilize one effect or another. Even though there is basically no image computer can’t manufacture these days, you can still feel the difference in your gut when you’re watching the real thing in a film like this. For those of us that care about such things this movie is a sight to see, let me tell you.


I put it to you that Don Hertzfeldt is an artist to be admired. He animates his films single-handedly and has passed up repeated opportunities to cash in on his notoriety in order to maintain creative control over his personal projects. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is his finest work to date. It would be a worthy film on which to end a long and brilliant career, yet it is the work of a young artist who is still searching, still reaching. I am proud to say that I have been a enthusiastic supporter of his since that day a dozen years ago when he caused my whole person to shake with laughter. I can't wait to see where his imagination leads him in the decades to come.

Verdict: 10 out of 10

It's Such A Beautiful Day is touring the country through the end of November and is already available to preorder on DVD. All the info can be found here at Hertzfeldt's website.

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