It is with the greatest embarrassment that I must admit that despite reviewing and writing about animation for almost eight years now I had never heard of Don Hertzfeldt. I know, I know. That’s like saying you’re really into rock music and never having heard of The Common Sense. It’s like putting yourself out there as an expert on Renaissance painting and knowing nothing about Vincentio.
For crying out loud, it’s like saying you’re obsessed with American history and not knowing about William Batholomew Brockholst.
Hertzfeldt is one of those guys who makes you go “oh, this fucking guy”.
At 18, he single-handedly animated and scored Ah, L’Amour which won the Grand Prize Award for “World’s Funniest Cartoon” at the HBO Comedy Awards. This launched him into a career where he basically became the indie-animation Pixar, except he’s not an animation studio, he’s just one dude and if anything he’s gotten more critical acclaim and he never made Cars. He’s been nominated for an Oscar twice but never actually won so you know he’s not a sellout. And his films have frequently been named as the greatest animated films of the year, decade or all time. He also looks younger than me despite being six years older and he probably does yoga.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is actually three of Hertzfeldt’s short films strung together (seems kinda lazy to me, but what do I know?): Everything Will be Okay, I am so Proud of You and It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Despite being made over several years, the three films integrate seamlessly into a flawless whole because of course they fucking do.
Part 1: Everything Will be Okay
You might be forgiven, upon first seeing the animation for exclaiming “are you fucking kidding me?” In terms of character design, the animation is extremely simple. Borderline juvenile. But it’s a deceptive simplicity. Although little more than stick figures, Hertzfeldt’s characters move with an extraordinary grace and fluidity, and he manages to wrench incredible expressiveness and pathos out of their little sparse features. Our hero is Bill, an utterly anonymous little man in a hat noteable only for his striking resemblance to a certain well known internet computer game reviewer.
The narrator (Hertzfeldt) narrates as Bill goes through his humdrum day, recounting awkward little half-formed coversations he has with people him, describing the TV he watches and the snacks he eats and the mental tangents his mind goes off on. Bill, we gather, is not well. He’s attending a clinic and is suffering memory loss. Things start getting weirder and weirder until he notices that a guy at the bus-stop has a cow’s head.
Bill’s doctor prescribes him some new medication and then the narration breaks down and the movie goes proper bug-nuts Twin Peaks crazy pants for a few seconds.
After his episode, Bill’s mother comes to look after him. They spend their days watching TV and doing jigsaw puzzles. One day, she sees a loose thread on his collar and goes to cut it with a scissors which causes Bill to freak out and smack them out of her hand. Bill’s mother tearfully asks him how he could ever think she would want to hurt him and he doesn’t say “because from my perspective you suddenly lunged at my neck with a bladed weapon apropos of nothing” but I get the impression that we’re supposed to think Bill’s the asshole here.
Bill gets moved to hospital where his condition rapidly worsens until his doctor tells him that he only has days to live. And then he…doesn’t die.
He recovers, his family have to return the casket they bought at great expense and he has to go back to work.
Part 2: I Am So Proud of You
I Am So Proud of You is where the movie finishes stretching and starts getting properly weird. It opens with a story from Bill’s childhood, describing how his little brother Randall (a special needs child with hooks for arms) ran into the sea and drowned. Following this, Bill’s mother became smotheringly over-protective of him, sending him to school in an overcoat, a baseball helmet and asbestos gloves. Everyday in his lunchbox he would find a note from her; I AM SO PROUD OF YOU.
Back in the present, Bill seems to be recovering from his illness and getting on with his drab little squib of a life. We get a scene of him wordlessly watching a man using a leaf blower that lasts almost a full minute and obviously I don’t need to explain to you what that signifies.
We know come to my favourite part of the film, where the narrator described Bill’s family and shows that he came by his mental problems honestly. We meet his grandmother who suffered from tumours and kept dead cat heads in her drawer because rubbing them on her forehead soothed her head-aches, his great-grandfather who once strangled a rock in a fit of religious excitement and died when he was hit by a train and his grand-uncle who became a preacher and grew his mole-hairs long to purify his soul. And who died when he was hit by a train.
Back in the present, Bill receives a phonecall informing him that his mother had died after failing to take her medication. And being hit by a train (must be hereditary).
Going through his mother’s effects, he finds a doctor’s report advising her to never have children.
He also finds pages and pages of the sentence I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, which his mother used to practice to get her handwriting as nice as possible for him.
Bill suffers a seizure and becomes untethered from reality, drifting forward to the moment of his own death many years in the future and back to his early childhood which is rendered as a dreamy montage of ice-cream, fresh grass and city-lights drifting past the back seat window of a car as he drifts away to sleep.
Bill wakes up in hospital. His ex-girlfriend comes to visit him and they have ice-cream. It’s the happiest he can remember being.
Part 3: It’s Such a Beautiful Day
The movie starts to level with us. The simplistic animation style is how Bill’s brain is rendering a world that it can barely understand anymore. We see flashes of old memories rendered with live action footage. Bill’s doctor explains that his memories of his weird ass relatives are his brain trying to rationalise his existence by creating a family history for him to replace the memories that he’s lost. He’s discharged from hospital while he awaits test results and returns home to find that someone has left groceries on his kitchen table, which he interprets as the work as a kindly neighbour. He becomes trapped in a Groundhog Day-esque loop of going out for a walk, coming home and deciding to go out for a walk. Bags of groceries start piling up on his kitchen counter as he keeps forgetting that he’s already done his shopping. There was no kindly neighbour.
Bill’s doctor tells him that he’s only got days to live, and apparently means it this time. Faces with his impending death, Bill’s eyes are opened to the beauty of the everyday world (“his bathmat is GORGEOUS”). He rents a car and goes driving to wherever instinct tells him and finishes up at his childhood home, where a neighbour tells him where he can find his father, who he hasn’t seen since he was a child. He goes and visits his father in a rest home, even though his father is now senile and neither he nor Bill can remember why they’re there or who the other man is.
Bill drives he comes to a field near a forest and is about to die when the narrator takes pity on him and instead crafts a story where Bill becomes immortals, learns every language, fathers a billion children, lives to see humanity pass from the Earth, makes friends with alien creatures of light who revere him as a god until finally he sees the last stars go black at the end of the universe.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a very good film and one I enjoyed quite a bit, but I can’t say I had the same rapturous, life-changing response to it that many people have experienced. Say you hate Westerns. You might see something like Unforgiven or True Grit or The Searchers or some other masterpiece of the genre and be able to say “that’s a damn good film”, but it’ll probably never be your favourite film because you fundamentally just don’t jive with the genre. Well, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an arty, rambling, navel-gazing, philosophical examination on the nature of existence and I cannot abide that kind of film, either because I’m brilliant enough to see through it as the pretentious folderol that it is, or I’m a basic bitch. Take your pick. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is about as good a version of that type of film as you’re going to get. For all its simplicity, the animation is gorgeous, the choices of music are inspired and it’s often very funny and frequently insightful. But ultimately, it’s just not my thing.
NEXT UPDATE: 16 April 2020
NEXT TIME: Hey, Corona Virus ain’t all bad. Look who’s streaming early…