Friday, April 1, 2016

Classic Movie Review: The Films of Don Hertzfeldt 2006-2015

The first 10 years of Hertzfeldt’s career took him from promising student to animated short film master – with no less than two genuinely brilliant films (Rejected and The Meaning of Life), and everything else being damn good. But Hertzfeldt would continue to be ambitious in the next decade.

A note here, I watched his trilogy Everything Will Be Okay, I Am So Proud of You and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (short) on separate days, and wrote the one I saw before watching the next one- to see how they hold up as shorts unto themselves. I then watched it’s Such a Beautiful Day (feature) on another day, to see how they hold together as one film, edited together. This was the best way I knew how to replicate what it would have been like to see the films, one at a time, and then edited together.

Anyway, enough of that – onto the films.

Everything Will Be Okay (2006)
The first part of Hertzfeldt’s ambitious trilogy about Bill, Everything Will Be Okay works on its own as a brilliant, funny, sad, and perhaps ultimately uplifting story of the main characters struggle with mental illness. Visually, the film has much in common with Hertzfeldt’s other films – all the characters are stick figures (we can tell Bill apart, because he wears a hat) – but Hertzfeldt adds something different here – the use of split screens, sometimes many in one frame – that shows Bill doing various things, or different parts of his mind he is trying to keep under control. At first, the movie seems like it’s going to be a straight ahead comedy – perhaps one about modern life, as it documents Bill’s strict adherence to a mind numbing routine. Gradually though, things start to get darker – his conversation with his ex-girlfriend about death, his eating an entire box of crackers, the slow motion replay of a boxer getting his head cut open in a fight, his mother’s heartbreaking reaction when she comes to try and take care of him. Things get darker and darker and darker – and then, when things look their bleakest, they start to look brighter (there are some wonderfully, dark comedic moments near the end – dealing with Bill’s uncle and a little later, a casket). Films do not often do a good joke of depicting mental illness – particularly not something like depression. When they do depict it, it makes the characters mainly look crazy – but that is not what Hertzfeldt does here. His film depicts just how overwhelming it can be, how lonely – and how you often go inwards, not outwards with your illness. The film is only 17 minutes long, but it is a mini-masterwork by Hertzfeldt.

I Am So Proud of You (2008)
In the second part of Hertzfeldt’s trilogy about poor Bill, the man suffering from debilitating depression we first met in Everything Will Be Okay, Hertzfeldt spends more time looking backwards than forwards. This 21 minute gives us a summation of Bill’s family history – a bizarre collection of misfits, all of whom, like him, suffering for mental illness – and quite a few of which have been run over by trains. It looks at his overprotective mother, who gave Bill an immense fear of death, and chased everyone else around her away – and at the death of Bill’s brother, which greatly affected him. The movie gets to the root of Bill’s mental illness – his fear of death, and his gradual realization that he has spent all his life fearing the inevitable future – death – so he can never enjoy the present. Like Everything Will Be Okay, I Am So Proud of You is funny in places – the recurring trains is hilarious – but also quietly sad and tragic, while at the same time giving at least a little hope for the future. It certainly is a part of something larger – visually, it uses the same techniques as Everything Will Be Okay, with split screens, etc. If I prefer Everything Will Be Okay – slightly – I think it’s because it’s a little more focused, whereas I Am So Proud of You goes off into as few too many directions – and although it ultimately builds to a great climax, it doesn’t (quite) have the same impact. It’s close though. Another wonderful film.

Wisdom Teeth (2009)
In between the second and third installments of Hertzfeldt’s trilogy about he made this thoroughly bizarre, bloody, surreal, hilarious five minute short – more a throwback to the likes of Billy’s Balloon than anything else. In the short, two German men are standing around – one of whom has just had his wisdom teeth removed, and the other asks if he can pull out the stitches for him. He agrees, but then the stitches just don’t seem to end, as the second man pulls and pulls and pulls, and the stitches pile up around him like one of those clown hanky’s, and the first man is gradually covered in blood. This is one of those shorts where at first it’s funny, then not as it goes on too long, and then hilarious because it just keeps on going. The kicker of the short is also hilarious – in fact it’s the funniest thing in the short. I have no real idea why Hertzfeldt decided to make Wisdom Teeth – because the saga of Bill was too depressing, and needed to do something purely comic again. If so, he succeeds, because Wisdom Teeth is quite simply hilarious. It is also, undeniably, the shallowest film Hertzfeldt has made since his student days (unless I’m missing something). Still, given just how funny it is, it’s hard to complain.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Short, 2011)
The final part of Hertzfeldt’s brilliant trilogy about Bill may be the most ambitious of the three (even if I still prefer Everything Will Be Okay). Bill’s condition has worsened, and doctors are putting him test after test, not being able to figure out precisely what is wrong. Bill’s grip on reality is slipping – he continuously walks around the block, not remembering that he just went on the same walk – he keeps buying groceries he doesn’t need, and doesn’t remember. He’s now pretty much alone in the world – he has an uncle, who doesn’t say much, and an ex-girlfriend who isn’t much help. When he finds out he’s dying, Hertzfeldt’s gets increasingly impressionistic with his visuals – adding more color, more photographs flashing, and finally taking Bill to a quietly moving place beyond death. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a film that starts off small and intimate – much like the other films in the trilogy, and then Hertzfeldt takes it off in a completely different way – quietly profound, and quite moving. This is easily the least funny of the trilogy – the other two were very darkly comedic – there isn’t as much of that in this one. In its place though is something bigger, and deeper – a brilliant capper for one of the best trilogies in recent memory.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Feature, 2012)
In 2012, Hertzfeldt went back and edited together his trilogy about Bill – the tragicomic story of the man struggling with mental illness and disease into his first (and so far) only feature film – running just over an hour in length. Watched back-to-back like this, it is fairly undeniable that the film subtle build of emotion and power – from the most bittersweet and funny, Everything Will Be Okay, to the transcendent It’s Such a Beautiful Day – works just as well as a feature as it does as three standalone shorts. Well, almost. I do actually think that sandwiching I’m So Proud of You – about Bill’s family history – between the other two, does expose the short as the weakest segment of the three – much more so than when viewed individually. There is also something about Everything Will Be Okay that works pretty much perfectly all by itself as a standalone short – that short hits you a little harder when it ends, instead of seguing right into I’m So Proud of You. On the flip side though, the wonderful, transcendent ending of the film works even better when you watch Bill’s story all at one time – it builds to it better, and doesn’t seem rushed in the least. Basically, what I’m saying is I don’t know if the films work better as stand alones, or all in one – but either way you watch it, it’s brilliant.

Day Sleeper (2013)
In 2013, Hertzfeldt teamed up with the Canadian Film Board to make this 30 second demonstration of their new app – a tribute to the great Canadian short film director Norman Mclaren (I reviewed six of his shorts not that long ago). It’s an interesting little short – a mixture of the styles of Hertzfeldt and Mclaren. Like Mclaren’s film, it is plotless, characterless and dialogueless – a series of animated explosions and abstract shapes. But it still looks like a Hertzfeldt film – just in a different style. It’s an interesting experiment, not much more, but it’s fun.

The Simpsons: Clowns in the Dumps Couch Gag (2014)
The Simpsons have reached out to different animators in the past few years to come up with interesting, unique couch gags – probably because their own writers are out of ideas. Reaching out to Hertzfeldt was inspired – and he didn’t disappoint, coming up with two of the strangest minutes that have ever been aired on network television. The wonderful bit flashes forward into the future, where The Simpsons have morphed into some sort strange, catch-phrase spouting blobs, and then Homer flashing back to when his family unit was still intact. This can probably be read as a criticism of The Simpsons itself if you want – but it’s really very much in line with Hertzfeldt’s other work – surreal, thought provoking, strange, sad and funny. It’s hard to say if this is the best couch gag in Simpsons history – but it’s inarguably one of the most memorable, brilliantly animated and daring. Hertzfeldt remains Hertzfeldt no matter what he’s working on.

World of Tomorrow (2015)
World of Tomorrow is the masterpiece of Hertzfeldt’s career so far – and given just how great films like Rejected, The Meaning of Life and It’s Such a Beautiful Day are – that really is saying something. This 17 minute, sci-fi film is more intelligent and thought provoking than just about any feature sci-fi film has been in years. It is about a little girl, who has no idea what is going on, who is dragged into the future to meet one of her many clones – several generations down the line from her. The clone explains the decidedly bleak future that awaits in humanity, in ways that are both tragic, and hilarious – as little Emily runs around not having a clue. This is Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious film visually – yes, he has stuck with the stick figures for the characters, but the colorful backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous, and add levels of visual detail unlike anything he has done before. In terms of its ambition, World of Tomorrow is a typically bleak view for Hertzfeldt. When I rented the film on Vimeo when it first came out – I took advantage of the 30 day rental period, and watched it at least 10 times. I rented it again for this piece – and will likely watch it that many as well. It is quite simply a stunning film – one of the best films of 2015, short or feature length.

Conclusion and Ranking
So, that’s it for Don Hertzfeldt’s filmography to this point. I would highly encourage anyone at all interested to go back and watch it all – after all, they are all shorts, so it won’t take long. Yet, even if they are shorts, they are more packed with ideas and humor than most features. He is one of the best filmmakers in the world right now.

Here is how I would rank his 15 directing credits – but every single one of these is worth watching:
15. Ah, L'Amour (1995)
14. Day Sleeper (2013)
13. Wisdom Teeth (2009)
12. Genre (1996)
11. The Animation Show: Welcome to the Show/Intermission in the Third Dimension/The End of the Show (2003)
10. Lily and Jim (1997)
9. Billy's Balloon (1998)
8. The Simpsons: Clowns in the Dumps Couch Gag (2014)
7. I Am So Proud of You (2008)
6. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Short, 2011)
5. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Feature, 2012)
4. Everything Will Be Okay (2006)
3. Rejected (2000)
2. The Meaning of Life (2005)
1. World of Tomorrow (2015)

No comments:

Post a Comment