How Don Hertzfeldt Breaks Your Heart and Blows Your Mind

In five easy or perhaps mercilessly difficult steps

It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the odd, sad, funny, hourlong epic masterwork from animator Don Hertzfeldt, concerns a mild-mannered man named Bill who discovers a terminal ailment melting down his body and mind. This seems like the apotheosis of Hertzfeldt’s artistry. Of course his beloved early shorts such as Rejected and The Meaning of Life still hold up, and his recent one, World of Tomorrow, astonishes in exciting new ways. But with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, it’s especially nice and maybe also a relief to see Hertzfeldt achieving artistic maturity without seeming to have grown out of his gifts. Now, please enjoy a five-point breakdown of what’s so great about it and him.

1. Deceptive simplicity

One key Hertzfeldt insight is his faith in the possibility of stick-figure pathos, and the related idea that an ostensibly “crude” technique can occasion conceptual elegance. He clearly thrives on the challenge of movies made by one man’s hand from pencil drawings and construction paper, with only in-camera (as opposed to digital) effects. When situated within richly layered narration, nuanced sound design and compositional complexity—including split screens, multiple exposures and other means of attention guidance—the minimalism of Hertzfeldt’s figures is precisely what secures our relation to them. Aside from his passivity, Bill’s literal simplicity makes him a perfect vessel for our emotional projections. Also, like the drawings, Hertzfeldt’s deadpan narration may at first sound flattening, but ultimately it keeps his sentiments from seeming overstressed, and therefore reinforces them.

2. Bittersweet hilarity

It’s amazing how well Hertzfeldt understands the mysterious relationship between cuteness and doom. Another thing about stick figures, with their overtones of all things childlike, is that they just seem so vulnerable. This supports Hertzfeldt’s blackly comic tone of amused fatalism. Time and again he renders a world which seems hostile to innocence, where all flowerings of hope and joy will abruptly wilt, sapped by some inescapable force of futility. It’s hard to explain why this is funny to anyone who doesn’t already think it is, but his fans understand that the obvious amusement Hertzfeldt takes from human suffering is in fact empathetic. In It’s Such a Beautiful Day, utterances of the phrase “It’s such a beautiful day” tend to happen just prior to catastrophic events, or even on the cusp of death itself. There’s something affirming in the relish with which he delineates a character whose salient feature is haplessness.

3. Cosmic profundity

In other words, Hertzfeldt has a worldview, which is more than we can say for many filmmakers with many more resources than he has. Glossed with stirring swells of Classical and Romantic music, his cartoony depictions of mundane domestic scenes become miniature theaters of the absurd, dramatizing universal anxieties about human intimacy, mortality and cosmology. Jokes deepen with their callbacks, and details which seem trivial at first acquire gravity through accumulation. If it sounds grandiose to claim that one artist’s stream of consciousness widens into a whole river of myth, consider how shrewdly and affectingly Hertzfeldt taps into the preexisting mythic metaphorical river-flows of Wagner’s “Rheingold” and Smetana’s “Moldau,” his most potent musical elements. (Sample script note: “LOW BASS OF RHEINGOLD KICKS IN AS BILL’S HEAD DISCONNECTS.”)

4. Formal unity

There is also a sense here of winging it, of going on intuition, which obviously wouldn’t work in the factory-made mode of animation. The story feels free-associated, yet never incoherent, and its style develops with the character—particularly, Hertzfeldt’s painterly Brakhage-esque abstractions illustrate and advance poor Bill’s mental and emotional disintegration. Yes, there are those precious moments, as if Hertzfeldt really is pushing himself to generate as many narrative oddities as he can imagine. But over time this proves to be an expression of showmanship, a respect for audience intelligence. Time matters to It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt’s longest work to date, because the accumulation of feeling is part of its narrative strategy. In both form and content, the film ends with a lyrical, literal transcendence. Likewise, in his more recent inaugural venture into digital work, World of Tomorrow, the considered implications of digitalness—mostly ominous, but of course comically so—were built right in to the meaning of the (once again brilliant) movie.

5. Quiet tenacity

Animation by hand is a long game, with long odds against it in a computerized world. Hertzfeldt has earned Oscar nominations and cult-hero veneration, but the best measure of his success might be his longstanding avoidance of the need for a day job. Earlier this year he tweeted his Guggenheim Fellowship rejection letter, adding, “twenty-one years of totally independent filmmaking and have still never successfully received a single grant,” along with a thumbs-up emoji. That could read as self-pity, but from Hertzfeldt, whose work articulates the humor in futility, it seems like a kind of humble determination. We know he could have done great things with that grant, but of course we also know he can do great things without it. A short while later, he tweeted, “the koyaanisqatsi soundtrack is blowing my cat’s mind.”