In Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated Rejected from 2000, an off-screen animator struggles to develop a series of sellable television commercials. His skewed non-efforts include a surreally cheerful conversation between a spoon and a banana, and a Biblically vicious blood-flood leaking from the rectum of a small puff-cloud. Like all of Hertzfeldt’s work, the cartoon is crude in multiple senses, but its grisly humor and busted hand design evince more than hipster primitivism. The sketchy drawings are intended to be less than appreciable if taken frame by frame, just as many scenes purposefully recycle the same brutal action ad nauseam: By favoring the repetition of gestures over plot or graphics, Hertzfeldt argues that animation is, at its essence, a kinetic rather than simply visual form of expression. And since the movement he studies is so often unnecessarily cruel (in another short, a malevolent balloon torments a toddler by lifting him to cloud’s height and then dropping him), Hertzfeldt’s animation thus becomes an existential philosophy, pondering whether all action doesn’t require destruction.
Most of Hertzfeldt’s early shorts revolve around some element of meta-commentary (“the animator” is a recurring conceptual character) that yields cheeky, if occasionally adolescent, insight. His recent films, however, have dispensed with this and adopted the more concrete humanism-under-stress of cartoonists like Charles Schulz. Hertzfeldt’s first hour-plus piece, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which he produced independently in analog over a period of five years, even features a bulb-headed, Charlie Brown-like antihero named Bill who wears a crumpled, rectangular hat.
Bill’s underdog-ness takes the form of beastly hallucinations that challenge his prosaic optimism: He imagines grocery shoppers with gargantuan, putrid crotches defiling displays of fruit, and parasitic fish heads throbbingly feasting on his brain. All of these jittery, hand-drawn horrors inhabit moving ovals surrounded by grim texture, as though scenes were being played out in the dark and illuminated in bits and pieces with judicious spotlights. This theatrical vignetting technique proves both visually and narratively advantageous: When Bill is diagnosed with an unnamed disease that partially explains his waking nightmares, cartoony thought bubbles full of violent colors and gothic figures (some of them derived from treated photographs, rather than sketches) overtake the screen to torture his mundane, graphite-on-white existence.
Despite all this macabre torment, It’s Such a Beautiful Day involves a lot of sweet, plucky humor that represents a discreet softening of the angry sarcasm for which Hertzfeldt has become known. Bill has an ex-girlfriend whose coyness strangely reassures him, and a mother who manages to be affectionate despite psychiatric afflictions of her own. An extended flashback in the middle of the film carves a path further through Bill’s family tree, many branches of which were prematurely pruned with terminal illness, spontaneous combustion, or train collision. An ironic motif also emerges in the various melancholy symbols that Bill encounters, such as the message “I Love You” etched in sand on a beach. Genuine beauty may be pervasive, but interpersonal trauma and reminders of life’s impermanence—the fact that such beauty is fleeting—keep it dormant.
This theme isn’t without hokeyness, however, a shortcoming most evident in the third act’s storytelling cowardice: Hertzfeldt refuses to let Bill succumb to his malady, instead fashioning a dreamy payoff wherein the character recovers with superhuman health. Bill in fact experiences a lysergic eternal life and watches the world crumble around him, until only the stars in the sky remain as vague proof of his once-fellow humans’ existence. Though expediently and radiantly animated, the wishful thinking in this denouement turns the film’s title into a desperate plea for affirmation. If peace with one’s mortality can only be managed through convoluted denial, the day must truly be ugly and unmerciful.