Consisting of three 20-minute animated shorts, animator Don Hertzfeldt’s 2012 masterpiece It’s Such a Beautiful Day packs more pathos and melancholy into its one-hour tale of a stick man than most films can achieve – with real actors – in two. Aesthetically, Beautiful Day is a force of nature. Hertzfeldt veers wildly between the styles that make up the film; a simple pen-on-paper touchstone makes way for grainy photographed stop-motion which steps aside for the vivid and impressionistic visions of madness that comprise much of the metaphysical third act. The startling and distinctive visuals are accompanied throughout by Hertzfeldt’s own wry narration and a swooning orchestral score which perfectly underlines the cosmic drama on display.
Hertzfeldt graduated from the University of California in 1998 and has been making animated films all his life. Despite numerous award nominations and wins, as well as appearing on many “best of” lists, the uncompromisingly lo-fi (and usually bizarre) nature of his work has meant that mainstream exposure has not troubled him yet. Not that this appears to be his aim. As he states on his website, he has never – and will never – do advertising work. He likens this to a lover of walking accepting an offer to “walk around [an advertiser’s] house in circles for eight hours a day wearing a sandwich board with a picture of their product on it”. He makes it clear he is not in it for the money, preferring to fiercely defend the fidelity of his work – a fair philosophy and one that has afforded him total creative freedom throughout his career. Perhaps his most widely seen work is a baffling two-minute couch gag he made for The Simpsons in its 26th season, almost certainly the weirdest one ever seen on a show that has become famous for its decline in creative standards. When watching his work it becomes clear why he is known as the David Lynch of animation.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day tells the story – inasmuch as there is one – of Bill, the two-dimensional protagonist who struggles with the repetition and trivialities of his banal existence. As we follow him we discover that he is suffering with an unnamed mental illness (apparently some form on early-onset dementia) which is causing the “years to slip out of his head” as he begins his inexorable slide into total forgetfulness. Frequent trips to the hospital improve nothing as his mental forays into the past become darker and murkier, and his psychological symptoms begin to stray into the physical world. The film employs a variety of tones. An extended deadpan sequence involving a leaf-blower is masterful and several dry observations from the narrator bring some unexpected laughs but primary among them is an overarching mood of pure confusion, wonder and naivety. Hertzfeldt’s childlike awe at the nature of things can be heard clearly in his narration as he makes the ordinary seem totally otherworldly to the audience as it does to the rapidly degrading mind of Bill.
The film’s key accomplishment lies in the way Hertzfeldt is able to depict many complex emotions in one simply animated gesture, for example in Bill’s reaction to a grim prognosis from his doctor when he takes off his hat and slowly rubs the back of his head. We don’t need the multi-million dollar budget and terabytes of animated data of a Pixar film to feel the resigned and confused desolation of a man who is steadily losing his grip on reality. The fact that we can see a thousand-yard stare in the two dots of Bill’s eyes is a testament to the universal emotional power that Hertzfeldt brings to the film. Later in the film the repeated use of the mantra “it’s kind of a really nice day” as Bill begins to repeat the same day over and over, noticing the same things as if for the first time, is heartbreaking in the most understated way. Hertzfeldt’s blending of the commonplace (e.g. the grain on his wooden cupboards) and the cosmic (the abstract and metaphysical final sequence) strives to acknowledge the emotional ties that bind all things, even as Bill’s memory fails to understand why.
This author has been frustrated in the past for being unable to really articulate what it is that makes Beautiful Day such a special film. It really does have to be seen and heard for one to believe how much raw humanity can be displayed with such basic tools. Every powerfully written and narrated line hits perceptively upon base truths about what it is to be human in a way that never seems trite or sentimental – only poetic, beautifully sad, and full of wonder. In a crowded animation sector that is increasingly comprised of mega-budgeted 3D kids’ fare (this is not a bad thing, much of it is fantastic) it is encouraging to know that there is a place, however small, for avant-garde, hand-drawn works of art to stand up and be heard.