Friday, March 25, 2016

Classic Movie Review: The Films of Don Hertzfeldt - 1995-2005

To me, animator Don Hertzfeldt is the greatest director of short form animation currently working. His latest film is World of Tomorrow – an absolute masterpiece, probably the greatest thing he has ever done, which earned him his second Oscar nomination. His animation has been hugely influential and admired for years now – but he has remained an under the radar director – mainly because he has rejected all offers to work in commercials, and most offers to do something bigger than his independent shorts – the lone exceptions being the weirdest couch gag in Simpsons history, and a run with The Animation Show, which doesn’t really count, since it basically just showcased the type of work he’s always been doing. Hertzfeldt makes the films he wants to make, and if they aren’t going to make him hugely wealthy, it doesn’t matter – he has complete freedom, and that’s more valuable to him – and to us. Since I saw World of Tomorrow in early 2015 (from Vimeo – for a bargain of $4.99 – considering you keep it for a month, where I watched it approximately 10 times) – I’ve been meaning to go back and watch (or re-watch) all of his work from the beginning. It’s all fairly easy to find – either on Youtube or Vimeo. In short, the main is a genius – he uses mainly stick figures, but what he does with them is remarkable. His shorts are often hilarious, surreal and surprising emotional. He is one of the great directors of our time.

I am going to do two posts covering Hertzfeldt’s career – the first covers 1995-2005, and the second 2006-2015. Let’s get started.

Ah, L'Amour (1995)
Hertzfeldt’s first student film shows that he pretty much already has his style in place – even if it’s a lot cruder here than it would go on to be. The short runs about two minutes, and features a happy-go-lucky stick figure man walking down the street with a huge smile on his face – and running into a series of women. Each time he meets one, he says something fairly innocuous (and it gives even more innocent with each woman he meets) – before the woman freaks out, turns into some sort of raging, violent psychopath and kills him in some sort of grotesque way – decapitation, skinned alive, chainsaw, gun shot, stabbing, etc. – before the kicker, when he finally gets a girl. The animation here is cruder than it will be on any of Hertzfeldt’s other films (and I don’t think the print online is the best) – but we can already see Hertzfeldt’s visual style – the stick figures, the crumpled paper, etc – coming through, as well as his dark comic sensibility, as the man is killed is surreal, grotesque ways. The actual content of the film is, admittedly, more than a little off-putting – you can almost see the film being used by some sort of Men’s Rights Activists, and other misogynists (it certainly doesn’t help that the main character talks to every women he meets – except for the fat one), but taken for what it is – a little film made by an (admittedly) bitter student (the credits bill it as A Bitter Film by Don Hertzfeldt – Bitter Films would later be what Hertzfeldt called his company) and it’s an amusing little film. It is the least of Hertzfeldt’s work – by a fair margin – but it’s amusing.

Genre (1996)
Hertzfeldt’s second student film, Genre, is a big step up from Ah, L’Amour – the animation is better, the humor better, and on the whole, it’s just a wonderful, little 5 minute film. In the film, an animator (on assumes Hertzfeldt), draws a cartoon bunny (a little more advanced that Hertzfeldt’s stick figures – but not much), and then pokes and prods him, angering the bunny, as he figures out what to do with his creation. What he ends up doing is putting the bunny into 12 different, increasing bizarre movie genres – cycling through the standards – Romance, Sci-Fi, Comedy, Horror, Porno, Children’s, and then being increasingly strange – like the Abstract Foreign Western, before the bunny has the kicker – a suggestion of his own genre. Once again, Hertzfeldt’s penchant for black comedy is seen throughout – the poor bunny dies any number of times during this 5 minute film, often in bloody and hilarious ways. There’s really no use denying that the film is one of Hertzfeldt’s lesser efforts – there’s no real depth here, it’s just an amusing way to spend five minutes – but in that, it is damn fun. For a student film, it’s excellent.

Lily and Jim (1997)
Of Hertzfeldt’s four student films, Lily and Jim is easily the most ambitious of the bunch – at 12 minutes, it’s longer than his first two combined, and is really when he starts to explore his bittersweet themes that run through his work. The two title characters are lonely, 20-somethings both looking for a relationship – who end up on a disastrous blind date together. The film cuts back and forth between the date – where the pair of them struggle through a dinner, trying to come up with something to say to each other (often, allowing us to hear their inner monologue, and then the horrible results of what they actually say out loud), and the pair of them talking, directly to the camera about how things went. The film perfectly captures that awkward, getting to know each other – especially given how painfully shy both of these people are. The dinner is awkward and mostly silent – the after dinner part, when they go back to Lily’s place for coffee, is even worse (Jim is allergic to coffee, but is too embarrassed to say so) even better. The film is quietly quite funny, but also rather insightful in a way that sneaks up on you – Jim’s closing monologue on the nature of relationships is quite touching and honest. Visually, the film finds Hertzfeldt finding his groove – once again, they are mainly stick figures, with only a dash of color. This is more down to earth than much of Hertzfeldt (the only surreal part may be the inane images on the TV). The first two student films are quite funny, but shallow – Lily and Jim is when Hertzfeldt starting becoming the filmmaker he would go on to become.

Billy's Balloon (1998)
Hertzfeldt’s final student film is this sadistic little marvel. As a parent of two kids under 4, I can tell you there are few things they like more than balloons – and Hertzfeldt’s short starts out with a little kid, a rattle in one hand, and red balloon (a reference to, of course, the 1956 film The Red Balloon – a beloved childhood short), basically as happy as can be. And then, the balloon attacks – pummeling poor Billy into submission – and that’s just the beginning. At first, it seems like Billy’s Balloon will be a one joke film – like Ah, L’Amour or Genre – but Hertzfeldt keeps upping the stakes every minute or so (in this 5 minute film) – I particularly love who the balloon stops attacking when adults walk by, and then tries, and succeeds, to win Billy’s affection back – before it ups the ante once again. The film represents kind of a 180 from Lily and Jim, which was more grounded then anything Hertzfeldt had done before – and this one flies off into nasty, surreal, sadistic territory – and it’s also hilarious. A wonderful little gem.

Rejected (2000)
Hertzfeldt received his first Oscar nomination for his first, non-student film – the absolutely brilliant, hilarious, surreal, demented little masterwork – Rejected, which works brilliantly on its own, and also works as a precise summation of Hertzfeldt’s view on advertising – and why he doesn’t do it himself. The concept of the film is simple – Hertzfeldt is hired to do a series of commercials for “The Family Learning Channel”, and eventually for its parent company – one of those all-encompassing corporate giants who make everything. All of Hertzfeldt’s commercials get rejected, and they become increasingly demented as the go along – not that they even start out normal.

The first commercial has a stick figure (of course) holding a giant spoon in front of a small cereal bowl repeatedly exclaiming “My spoon is too big” – before he’s joined by a banana, who helpfully tells us that “I’m a banana”. Things get increasingly bizarre from there – men growing a second head, flying pig fish, a group of people with silly hats, a group of people in silly hats beating someone wearing a regular hat, a bunny with angry ticks company out of his nipples, stick figures spilling blood all over each other. Things get worse when he has to start selling products – as his bizarre, disturbing commercials have nothing to do with the products. All of this culminates in one of the most bizarre, surreal, disturbing things I have ever seen – a group of, I don’t know, fluff balls, who are dancing around as their leader exclaims things like “Life is Good”, “This is Fun” and finally “My anus is bleeding” – all to their cheers. In his text commentary, Hertzfeldt says that an academic once compared this to Nazi propaganda films – and while I’m not sure about the Nazi part, the propaganda is certainly accurate. This isn’t even the end of the 9 minute film – as Hertzfeldt first tries doing a commercial with his left hand, and then, in a complete psychological meltdown, the commercials literally start falling apart, the pages start crumbling, and everything is sucked into a black hole.

On one level, Rejected is just a straight ahead comic masterwork – hilarious in its bizarre, surreal nightmare inducing commercial landscape. But it also acts as Hertzfeldt’s mission statement – he clearly has the talent that he could make a lot of money doing commercials if he wanted to – but they wouldn’t be his work. So, instead, we get a bizarre little masterwork like Rejected – which is 9 minutes of utterly bizarre brilliance.

The Animation Show: Welcome to the Show/Intermission in the Third Dimension/The End of the Show (2003)
In 2003, Hertzfeldt teamed up with Mike Judge to present The Animation Show – a touring collection of animated shorts that went theatrical, and then to DVD. As part of this presentation, Hertzfeldt did three mini-segments – Welcome to the Show for the beginning, Intermission in the Third Dimension, somewhere in the middle, and The End of the Show, predictably, at the end. No one would have blame Hertzfeldt for merely phoning it in with this segments – that run a total of 8 minutes – but Hertzfeldt, predictably, didn’t do that – and actually does some fairly brilliant stuff here.

In the Welcome to the Show segment, it starts out pretty much how you would expect it to – with the Fluffy guys from Rejected coming back to welcome the audience to the show, implore them to visit the lobby for some snacks, etc. Then one of the fluffy guys asks the other one what Animation is, and all hell breaks loose, as he explains that anything is possible in animation, and to prove it, Hertzfeldt starts screwing with both of them – giving them extra arms, giving them longer legs, and basically torturing them, giving rise to one of my favorite quotes of all of Hertzfeldt’s work – “Damn the illusion of movement”. The segment has a mind of its own, and tries to go back to being a bright, cheery commercial (“Let’s all go to the lobby”, etc) – but what has already been unleashed cannot be stopped.

The even stranger Intermission in the Third Dimension is funnier and more surreal than the Welcome to the Show segment – and probably plays even better today than in 2003, since the film industry has embraced 3-D to an extreme degree. The two fluffy guys are back for an Intermission in the Third Dimension, before admitting that 3-D glasses are not available in all areas, but acting like everything we see will be in 3-D. When one of them puts on the 3-D glasses, his mind his blown – and he falls down an acid fuelled rabbit hole, full of bizarre imagery, before he is attacked by spiders.

The finale brings back our two lovable fluff balls, and one starts to make an impassioned plea about the value of animation – how it’s not just for children and people with mental handicaps, but a genuine art form for all – but is interrupted by robots, who the fluff balls immediately have to get into a loud, incoherent battle with, bringing our show to an end. It’s like a mini-version of Adaptation.

By their very nature, these three mini-shorts are not as deep as much of Hertzfeldt’s work – but I do think they act as an extension of Rejected in many ways – as it allows Hertzfeldt more a chance to explore just what is possible in animation, and try to explain why he loves it – and how it has been overtaken by commercial concerns – and wrapped up in a surreal, brilliant little package. Many people would have simply tossed something off quickly for these segments – but Hertzfeldt does something quite clever with them. They probably deserve more attention than they get.

The Meaning of Life (2005)
The Meaning of Life strikes me as a film where Hertzfeldt is clearly growing – stretching what he can do in terms of animation, while maintaining his visual style, he adds different elements to it. It’s also the most wildly ambitious film that Hertzfeldt has ever made – essentially encompassing all of human evolution from the beginning until way into the future into one, 12 minute films is daunting. But the film is up to the task – and fully earns comparisons to such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).

The film opens with a haunting image of a stick figure in light, falling and falling, before he turns to ash. Hertzfeldt then gives us millions of years of human evolution in the span of a minute, culminating with modern man – under storm clouds – as a series of stick figures walk across the screen, all repeating a single phrase over and over again – soon, there are more and more people, and things gets dark, and more violent – the screen is soon full of people, and Hertzfeldt then scrolls through human history, sometimes stopping on a group of dead people, and then scrolling further. Then in his boldest gamut, he takes us briefly into the cosmos, before returning to earth and showing human kind’s continued evolution – as we morph from one strange creature to the next, we never seem to learn anything, as each creature repeats our mistakes. Soon, we are left with but two characters – and a father and a son perhaps – who discuss the meaning of life – the father angry that the son would even ask, before he stalks away – leaving the son by himself with the stars – which brings a smile to his face. Soon, we are back into those stars.

It’s nearly impossible to describe The Meaning of Life – not the visuals, as while it does look like many of Hertzfeldt’s stuff, it also introduces the most ambitious visuals his films had seen to this point – the cosmos, who he tints the screen, near the end. But the overwhelming effect the film has on the viewer. It’s an abstract piece to be sure- perhaps the most daring one of Hertzfeldt’s career. It’s a film that forces you to reckon with it more than anything else he has done. In short, it is a masterpiece – the best film he had done to this point.

That’s the end of Part I of my look back at Don Hertzfeldt. The eight films (or whatever) here show a director on the rise – the early promise of his student shorts, the culmination of his humorous pieces with Rejected, and his ambitious The Meaning of Life to bring to an end his first decade. Next time, we’ll look at how Hertzfeldt has continued to evolve in the last decade.

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