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It’s Such A Beautiful Day

dh_shot1This film flirts so closely with miserabilism that after having seen the first two segments I was prepared to out and out hate it. But then the movie seemed to get sick of being miserable just when I was, and we parted friends.

It’s Such A Beautiful Day is an hour long feature that began life as a trilogy of related short animations. Their subject is Bill, a man with an unspecified brain disease whose daily interactions deteriorate as his faculties begin to go, bit by bit. We’re never told exactly what’s wrong with him, or even, initially, that anything is.

dhshot2Everything Will Be Okay, the first “chapter” (actually, the first short released in 2006) starts, after some animated video of powerlines*, with a stick figure walking toward another stick figure. This is narrated by Hertzfeldt as a disappointing human interaction, and it raised my hopes for what this film could be – specifically, funny. There’s a genuine gag in this first section, followed by more as we’re led through slices of Bob’s life. Little by little, we learn that Bill is very much not okay as he examines his routines, and his life, and spends more and more time seeing things that are not there.

*Literally, there are pieces of what look like video in this film that are series of photographs that Don Hertzfeldt has used like animation cels. Never does anything the easy way, does he?

dhshot3His confusion and weirdness culminate in a complete breakdown, and then a near-death. Then, seemingly miraculously, Bill gets better… until he doesn’t.

The second and third pieces (I am So Proud of You and It’s Such a Beautiful Day) continue the story in their own fashion – I Am So Proud of You splits its time between Bill’s problems and the story of his family’s past. The final chapter spends a lot of time on a last minute journey that Bill takes.

They are funny, but the undercurrents of desperation and sadness that fueled DH’s funniest film, Rejected, take center stage here. Every bit of misery and horror that Hertzfeldt can come up with, he piles on Bill. Bill’s mom was insane; he finds a doctor’s file on her that recommended she never have children. His ancestors are madmen, child murderers, cat decapitators.

dhshot4It’s a long, dark, horrible… slog isn’t the right word, because it is often funny, and it does not drag. DH’s animation is always amusingly understated, and uses the hell out of his aesthetics. But as we came closer and closer to the inevitable end, I was preparing to kick my cats and yell at kids to get off my lawn. I don’t need the constant misery of the world placed on my head in ostensible entertainment. But in a shift at the very end of the film, it’s clear that neither does Don Hertzfeldt. Bill gets a very welcome reprieve, similar in tone to the ending of Murnau’s The Last Laugh. That ending was (IMDB informs me) studio interference. The end of It’s Such A Beautiful Day was born, I think, just in Don Hertzfeldt’s humanity.

It’s hard to review these films without discussing the artist since it’s all essentially a one-man band. Don H draws every cel, largely shoots the films himself and designs all their insane technical challenges. While there’s less abstract ambition in this film than in Meaning of Life, it’s still a visual dynamo. Hertzfeldt often uses a limited amount of screen space, place the action in a frame that occasionally moves, or splits into several frames of animation – so he is essentially playing out and animating several scenes at once, all done on 35-mm film with multiple exposures. The DVDs for the individual films everything will be okay and I am so proud of you! contains enormous archives of notes, cels, and descriptions of how Hertzfeldt created the films, made his effects, drove himself insane, etc. Unfortunately, there isn’t any such archive for the entire film on the Bitter Films Archive disc volume II, but it contains an extensive selection of edited Q&A sessions where Don Hertzfeldt comes across as genuine, funny, and decidedly non-pompous (I wonder if the long hours and hard grunt work these movies take have the effect of dragging all the pomposity out of him. I know if I’d single handedly created an enjoyable, thought-provoking, visually gorgeous and original body of work, I’d be insufferable.)

Even at his least structured, DH makes films for an audience (even if it is an audience of one).


Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky_s_Dune-153803568-largeI am not convinced Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a great movie. I am quite convinced it would have been a terrible Dune. Though Frank Herbert’s book is ultimately about the mind expansion of religion, and planet ecology and the effect of an environment on its inhabitants, it is also, however dense, a story. It begins, middles, and ends.

Jodorowsky’s vision, as shown in this documentary, would have been a weirdness, probably too much weirdness, piled on a weird story. A perfect (or even good) Dune movie has yet to be made and may never be made. It’s too sprawling and strange for a feature film, and may not be sprawling and strange enough for Jodorowsky’s version of it.

It was a version he was preparing to make all the way back in 1975, and for which he collected an extraordinary cast of artists and creators to realize a pretty daffy vision. But, for all his artsy impulsiveness and passion, one of the main impressions I got from this documentary about the ill-fated attempt to make Dune was Jodorowsky’s earnest conscientiousness. His Dune, however improbable as a motion picture prospect, did not exist as something nebulous in his head. It is not all effervescence, but rather a concrete plan, as evidenced in the book he produced. The book is a central figure in the documentary – a visual script, which is mainly a collaboration between Jodorowsky and Moebius, whom he discovered from his cowboy comics.

As it discusses a movie that was never made, Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t have a lot of clips to show us, so most of the visuals (beyond talking head interviews) are taken from this book, and the art created for it. Art from Giger, Chris Foss, and Moebius himself shows a deeply realized world, one that would have been nearly impossible to construct with 70s special effects.

But watching this doc, you have the feeling that if Jodorowsky had the money, he could have gotten it all done. Nicholas Wending Refn wonders how it would have changed cinema if this had come out instead of Star Wars (which, indeed, steals a ton from Dune, and, as speculated in this documentary, lifts some visual elements straight out of Jodorowsky’s visual script). That misses the point, I think; Star Wars was successful because of populist elements. The mind-blowing of the Dune movie would have been limited to those who were interested in having their minds blown. Much of the potential audience would have scoffed and said bullshit – right or wrong.

But as a portrait of the artist as a hard worker – as a man who identifies his damned ducks and gets them in a row, this is an invaluable document.


The Meaning of “The Meaning Of Life”

MeaningOfLife_TitleI have no doubt someone has used that title before. I have not. But I have seen Don Hertzfeldt’s The Meaning of Life, twice now in about the span of a decade.

I do not think I know what it means.
What does it mean to not know what a movie means? It means I do not know what reaction I am meant to have to it. I know what reaction I do have – admiration for its technical qualities, appreciation for the difficulty of the production and the breadth of the piece, confusion as to why it does what it does for as long as it does, and a sense of disappointment. I’m a little afraid that the message of the movie is one I find a little trite.
But then am I in the wrong for searching for a message? Or maybe a “message”?
In most movies, we have a story to follow. In that story, I can tell you what happened (the bad man stole the good guy’s girl, the good guy punched a bunch of people who are not good guys so we don’t care what happens to them, gets his girl back and kills the bad guy, who again we want to die, because he is bad). I can tell you if I thought it was well told or not, if the familiar scenarios – and all scenarios after a while become familiar – were told in ways that both satisfied and surprised, if the characters were interesting or sympathetic or funny or badass (that is the four dimensions of character greatness). I know if I laughed or got choked up – those are emotional reactions. I know if I wanted the good guy to win or, as so often seems to happen to me, if I wanted the bad guy to clean his smug clock, then smack the girl around and go out for some beers with me.
I know what a normal narrative film wants me to do with it, and I know how well it did that.
The Meaning of Life isn’t as easy to get a read off of. Is that good?
It’s more complex, and for those who seek complexity in all things, I say it has to be. Some of you only pretend to enjoy complexity in order to seem smarter than other people. Some of you really just gravitate toward it. Watch, and enjoy. I watch, and don’t quite enjoy.
Nor have I seen other reactions to the film. I’m in a bubble on this, and until after I finish this article/essay/blog/writing/journal/bloviation, I will not seek any information on the production, the reception, anything about The Meaning of Life. I want this opinion caught in aspic, floating in meat jelly to be a warning to me not to do this again.
Here is what I see in The Meaning of Life – that finding meaning in the vastness of the universe is both important, an everlasting quest, and pointless because we are just bleating animals. There’s nothing inherent in our existence that gives us meaning, and if there is, we do not notice it. The very vastness of the universe that we contend requires a meaning robs us of it. We can’t matter, can we?
And we’re told not to worry about it. Yet we do. We’re told there are more important things to be concerned with. Except how can there be, if all of life is multiplied by zero at the end of it?
Or maybe I miss something. I’m going to watch the short again, keep notes on all of the content (lest I’m not correlating some visual ideas) and see if that gives me any new insight.
And now I’ve watched it for the third time ever and the second this month.
Here’s my basic breakdown of what happens (I’m using a note format, not a narrative, and trying to be objective about it):

Flickering stuff on the screen – maybe fire

An orchestra tunes up as a piano tinkles around, and on the right side of the screen a man falls through a long tunnel, starting to rot and molder midway through until he’s dust

About then we get the title


Evolution to man – we see a little squishy thing lose tentacles, gain limbs, ambulate, and talk

Above his head, swirling chaos

Then the people come, and walk by each other with overlapping dialogue

Some is clear – “Give me your money” “We know what’s good for you” to start

But there’s too much to follow

A few things happen in the crowd, eventually a small fight

While the storm roils overhead


Then there’s a lot of shaking, and noise, and most people are dead

This happens three times

Then we move up, through the storm, and out of earth

Into the solar system

Then out to the stars, whipping around out there

Eventually back to earth and through the storm


A lot of alien forms. Further forms of evolution? The color of the storm above them changes, and it may be other planets. I don’t know

Eventually we get to flying dudes, then to a new evolution

Dozens of forms


Two fish looking guys, ocean sounds

One of them asks in fish language about the meaning of life (these words are clear)

Elder berates him, occasionally saying the meaning of life derisively

Fish guy keeps watching as the ocean grows dark


Then there’s more stars

I come away from a fresh viewing with…the feeling I do not want to delve much deeper. There’re plenty of questions, but I feel like the movie wants to engage more with the impressions it creates than specifics… Or is that intellectual laziness on my part? I like the little fish dude at the end.
I will now watch a documentary on the film.
I watch “Watching Grass Grow: Animating the Meaning of Life”. It is a time lapse of certain moments of animating, going to pencil tests, coloring, filling in crowd scenes. It brings home what a monumental amount of WORK this movie was to make. All the outer space sequences, the swirling planets, were done by Don Hertzfeldt’s pencil. Amazing, really.
Now, I listen to a commentary on special effects, called the Special Effects commentary. It was a commentary, but didn’t run through the whole film. It did remind me that, holy crap, DH is nuts. So friggin’ intricate. My technical admiration for this picture grows and grows. It is really a phenomenal piece of physical labor to make the beautiful effects that are omnipresent in this movie.
Hertzfeldt says people are surprised when he tells them no computers were involved in the production, but I think it shows. Some things would be smoother, some things clearer, had this not been done optically. Look again at the end of the film, with the transition from night to day. This was done entirely with lights and gels (and animated lights and gels! Holy crap). There’s incredible depth to the light, and the way the shadow grows. Sure, you could do that with a computer. But would you?
This is all technical admiration, though. I haven’t shown the film to anyone else, but I can imagine the reaction.
Hmm, after the viewing.
Then when I explain how some things were done, “Oh, wow! That’s impressive.”
And then I feel like a jerk for not talking about the narrative or the ideas in the film. But maybe they do not need to be expressed verbally. This film is a mood piece, and seeks to instill or elicit a mood. I think it does that well…
And I’m just not using the right tools, right here right now, to get anything useful or edifying out of it.

Don Hertzfeldt Examined… not too closely

Sometimes it’s hard to see the point of writing about anything, particularly anything that is good. I contend that critics like “difficult” or “intellectual” cinema less because they actually like watching it than they want to have something to write about that is in their wheel-house – that is, the movie that deals in “intellectualism” deals with “ideas” – and “ideas” means stuff expressed in writing and not with art.

Truth is, somebody with a real interest in the art and technique of cinema could find something to say about the meanest bit of grindhouse trash. Lighting, camera movement, shot length, every single aspect of a film is the product of a conscious decision and studying the art in that specific technical matter is possible. Illuminating, even.

But it doesn’t make you feel smart to do it. It’s tough because it’s objective and no fun for BS artists who look into the depths of all medium seeking only themselves (myself for the most part included, though less these days – which is why I write less these days).

All these thoughts come when I try to write about a favorite animator, Don Hertzfeldt. I love animation of all stripes, and rarely feel compelled to write about it because it is such a specifically visual medium writing seems like a failed response. Beyond the immediate experience, the contemplative interrogation of Don Hertzfeldt’s shorts feels inadequate.

First, because for the most part they are funny. You watch, you laugh. The dissection of humor is not only bad for the joke, it is awful for the state of the world. The current censorious atmosphere where jokes have to be vetted to make sure they do not offend certain sensibilities is the murder of truth under the lying guise of “empathy.” The spontanteity of the joke, the sponaneity of the response, is the whole of the act – whether one should have said it or laughed at it is immaterial dissembling.

So I appreciate the near-anarchic insouciance of Hertzfeldt’s early shorts. Some of the early student ones, the internet informs me he no longer much cares for. No big deal, but there hasn’t been (so far as I can see) an attempt to delete them from his catalog or apologize for them.

But that doesn’t mean I have a lot to write about them.So for the purposes of this (what is it? an article? hardly. An overview?) thing I will go through many of his shorts and just… catalog a few thoughts.

I’ve embedded video clips from Youtube for each short – many from Hertzfeldt’s own Youtube channel, but not everything is available there.

Ah, L’Amour

Don Hertzfeld – Ah, L’Amour [High Quality]

A flower appears, then rots and is burnt – love destroyed?Then the story emerges – a man, walking talking to women with phrases of increasing innocuity, each of which elicit a terrifyingly violent response.

(My favorite: Walks up to girl: “Hi, Sandee.” “No means no, you bastard!” and stabs him in the eyes.)

Problem with happy-go-lucky walking dude is he lacked game. He was approaching these women with an open heart hoping for a free exchange of pleasantry. He forgot to demonstrate attractiveness, a lesson he learns (after dying five times) by announcing to the next girl that he has money.
Love ensues.Is this movie mysogynistic?

My initial, major response is, “Who cares?” It’s funny, it’s barbed but not nasty (a real mysogynistic film would have not only indulged the man’s bitterness about relations (it is labeled a “bitter film,” after all) but would have engaged in cruel revenge against the women.)  That is – real mysogyny would require something more than trenchant observation.

That’s what the movie is. It might be wrong observation (I think it is not – and it is honest enough to admit that walking-dude does not care about the reaction he’d get to a woman he wasn’t attracted to. When men do this, it is called misogyny. When women do this, it’s called taste. Don’t believe me? Look at dating profiles, or just couples in the wild – the women who would hate this level of ‘shallowness’ from men wouldn’t be caught dead going out with someone who did not meet an arbitrary height requirement.)

Does it matter?

No. Art doesn’t exist to reinforce what you already think, though it might. Nor does it exist to challenge. It is one man saying a thing. His own thing, if it is of value.


Apparently Don Hertzfeldt’s least favorite of his works, and his second student film, Genre is amusing. A cartoon bunny who appears in 3d pixilization (mostly, I think, so that Don H could do something that looked more visually impressive than his previous short – or it was something he did for fun, since it was also done in a pre-college short which is available on the Bitter Films Archive DVD, which is also totally worth buying) is placed in different genres, where he is generally brutally attacked. A lot of animators have brutal violence in their early shorts. This is because, I imagine, stories are hard to come up with. First you have a character (it’s a cartoon, just drawing something funny looking) Then you need some conflict, something for it to do…
So you blow it up.

For the record, the genres that Don Hs bunny is subjected to are:
The Romantic Film
The Science Fiction Film
The Comedy
The Black Comedy
The Buddy Picture
The Porno Film
The Horror Film
The Children’s film
The Religious Film
The Abstract Foreign Western
The Porno Disaster Film
The Science Fiction Musical
…The Pretentious Student Film?

It’s most obvious touchstone is the classic Looney Tunes Duck Amuck. It doesn’t reach that one’s heights of hilarity or art (though of course it doesn’t star a character as strong as Daffy Duck, either, and Don H was a starting animation director and not one of the greatest animators of all time, Chuck Jones. Not yet, anyway)I laughed. When something is comic, it doesn’t need more of a review than that. Never justify a laugh, friends.

Lily & Jim

With the Woody Allen credits, this one has more of a “student film” feel to it – the way kids in film school try to be real serious when they’re ill-equipped for it. Which is an unfair criticism, because Lily & Jim is funny, and it has a feeling of reality to it (horrifying, terrible reality.) It’s an interview piece with two people, fairly uninteresting people, engaging in the terrible modern ritual the Date.

Here is one of the things in life that is not fair – one of the most painstaking aspects of this short, in terms of production, was the black backgrounds for the character interviews. They are supposed to emulate TV talking head interviews (or more likely filmic documentary interviews) with the subject talking in front of a black background. And because Don Hertzfeldt hates himself and his wrists and his friends, he decided what they needed was to draw in the black for each one. This took months. It’s the sort of thing that, as Mr. Plinkett would say, you don’t notice, but your brain does.

It creates life for the two stick figures that yap in the most boring way possible. When I first saw this about a decade ago, it felt like my life. Seeing it now, I want to hit both characters on the side of the head, and yell at them to “learn to have a conversation! It’s not that hard!”
But it’s also something people are not taught as a matter of course. It is expected to arise from human interaction via osmosis, but I do not think it does. People need to make more effort in learning how to interact, or else you become like these poor boring cartoons… or like some spaz on tumblr who thinks every random though is a new and exciting personality disorder that we must believe in and respect.

A show like this one that does not go to the outer limits of animation always seems to be raising the question of why. Why not just film this like a normal person instead of drawring so many ding-dang drawrings?

That misses some of the subtleties of the medium. The conversation here is abstracted, and the animation of the characters (largely blinks and fidgets) would look weird and dull with real people. Real actors can have inherently interesting faces, or repulsive faces, and so they would be the focus of the show, not that interaction (or lack thereof.) You could have an opinion of who was more attractive, or who should have been happier to be on the date. It would have de-abstracted the concept and made it a story about something completely different.

And the gag with Jim swelling up wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.

Billy’s Balloon

Billy’s Balloon has one gag in it, but it is a gag that is taken from its single notion, and played out in as many possible ways as can be conceived and it keeps from repeating itself by enlarging its scope. One kid getting attacked by his balloon is kind of funny.

Two kids is getting somewhere.

A full on baloonapocalypse where the children are helpless to fight back, ignored by adults, beaten, devoured, killed even by their balloons? That’s something entirely different.

What makes it different?

Well, I run hot and cold on whether I actually like this short. I’m sure I found it hilarious the first time I saw it, because I remember feeling contemptuous of negative reviews of it. Watching it again, I’m more subdued. I laughed at it, but laughing at kids being killed isn’t something I’m all that enthusiastic about (not that I’m being a moralizing prig – I’m not in high dudgeon, just less amused than I could be. It is maybe even a simple factor of aging, and that I’m old enough that when I see kids they’re not something I’m outgrowing, but something I’m heading toward.)

It definitely paves the way for the masterpiece that follows, which combines humor and a distinctly personal sensibility with even greater filmmaking.


First – this is one of the funniest short cartoon there is. It’s endlessly reinventing itself, and has a particular (and delightful) way of skating through levels of perversity.

The premise (introduced in the opening credits, so I don’t know why I’m repeating it here) is that Don Hertzfeldt was approached by the fiction Family Learning Channel to produce some interstitials. What he made were entirely unsuitable, even manic, and his output deteriorates from there.

The obvious statement is on the commoditization of art, and how to Hertzfeldt anything he produced that isn’t an honest expression of his own feelings/mindset is illegitimate. (Kind of – while of the screens in the short has the possibly tendentious caption “I’m a commercial whore!” there isn’t a sense of self-righteous indignation coming from Rejected.) Don Hertzfeldt isn’t necessarily screaming that it’s horrible that commercials exist – but rather he doesn’t want to do them, and that’s okay.

Tom Waits, who has brought lawsuits against companies that have used TW soundalikes when the real thing was not interested, has said  that if he wanted to work for Pepsi, he’d get a suit and go down to their office. I imagine (and I’m only imagining because this write-up is being done without the benefit of having read any interviews with DH, nor any notes – I may get to that later as I try to come up with a deeper profile of the man and his work) that Don H has a similar attitude. It isn’t as antagonistic to commercial enjoyment as kind of beffudled and oblivious.

The antagonism to commercial filmmaking comes with his next movie The Meaning of Life.
But I’ve gone on too much about “statements” and “messages” and not about the filmmaking – which is phenomenol. DH has taken the larger scope of Billy’s Balloon and somehow transferred it into the confines of the sheet of white paper that was the universe in his other movies. Billy’s Balloon pulled the camera out to show us more space. In Rejected, the space that we are accustomed to with DH – the flat white planet with no indication of perspective or any kind of Z axis. It’s a realm that can contain an infinite flight of stairs (for a baby to fall down) and hold gallons and gallons of anus blood, while at the same time contain dancing fluffy cloud deelies. And then, when the cartoon apocalypse finally occurs, this world is destroyed. The proscenium arch contains this entire Rejected world, and when it collapses it has nowhere to fall in on but itself. Stars and clouds fall to the ground.

And then there’s one of my favorite pieces of animation of all time:

Genre riffed on Duck Amuck, while these cartoons are not merely at the mercy of an unsympathetic animator, but a made one whose world is imploded right on them, taking the medium right away with him. In just 9 minutes Rejected fully inhabits and destroys it’s own strange mindspace.

And then there’s the Meaning of Life…
I don’t get The Meaning of Life.
But that’s an essay for another day.


Joy Division – Still

1000860Still is a grab bag, an odds ‘n’ sods collection for Joy Division completists that is easy to fault for what it is not:  Next to the band’s studio albums, efforts they curated with the utmost care, it feels like a bunt.  But of course it would, you say.  It’s Factory Records cleaning up, rummaging the vaults after Ian Curtis, the lyricist/vocalist, decided to go and die on them.  The fucker!

Of the erratic live tracks assembled, only two are keepers (“Sister Ray,” which is goofy, and “Ceremony,” which is breathtaking).  The other live songs pale beside their studio-based counterparts.  United by Martin Hannett’s production, which crystallized the band’s sound (brittle, dense, danceable, industrial), the studio tracks here vary in quality.  Some of them could be leftovers from the band’s earliest days, when they went as Warsaw.  Others feel like sketches for the standouts they never became.  In the top tier, then, we have just “The Only Mistake” (a rich look at guilt) and the groovy, almost funny “Dead Souls.”

So, Still lacks a satisfying arc, and it smacks of desperation, as though Factory had scurried around to cash in on what few JD songs were left in the can, overlooking (or deliberately sitting on) tracks that in 1981 had yet to find a home on an LP.  Somewhere between Still, Substance (1988), and Permanent (1995) is a useful, chronological overview of the band as it meant to present itself to the world at large—and it appears as though the Heart and Soul box set (1997) is it for now.1

Rating: C-

1Spotify and YouTube render the point moot.  In this digital, streamable age, a record like Still is simply that—a record.  Anyone can go online and cull the cream without having to invest in it monetarily.