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.

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