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.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email