The greatest cinematic epic ever made about a stick figure, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the first feature length film from lauded cult animator Don Hertzfeldt, will have you laughing through tears while pondering the meaning of life, the universe and everything. The culmination of its director’s fifteen-plus year career in short form filmmaking, the seventy-one minute feature is a triumph of aesthetic, narrative, experimentation and theme; a movie that reaches the same profound existential heights of masterworks by Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, yet does so in a way that is unpretentious, emotional and frequently downright hilarious. It’s the best film of the year, by such a large margin that it’s actually kind of depressing.
Told from the perspective of an omnipotent narrator (Hertzfeldt), It’s Such a Beautiful Day actually consists of a trilogy of previously released short films: Everything Will Be OK (2006), I Am So Proud of You (2008) and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012). Linked together they recount the random thoughts, dreams and awkward social interactions of Bill, a painfully unremarkable office worker who’s forced to face the utter pointlessness of his own existence after being diagnosed with an unknown and likely fatal mental illness.
Combining the wobbly, rudimentary stick figure animation of Hertzfeldt’s earlier films with a vibrant variety of experimental and live action photographic techniques, Beautiful Day boasts a strange, surreal, low-rent beauty that demonstrates not only of the filmmaker’s singularly personal artistic approach as writer, director, photographer and animator, but also the mindset of his poor, beleaguered protagonist. Frequently, the minutia of Bill’s life takes place in various corners of an otherwise darkened frame. Later, when he’s faced with great psychological upheaval, the very fabric of his world seems to shake and collapse, as the audience is bombarded by patchworks of colour and sound.
Despite the sometimes abstract nature of the animation, Hertzfeldt’s doodling’s touch on some remarkable everyday truths. From its opening scene, large portions of the film are dedicated to recognisably mundane encounters between Bill, his relatives, his neighbours and his co-workers. “Not much happened at work”, the voice-over informs us, “Bill made a pyramid out of three staplers… and the new guy swallowed a paperclip and was rushed out in a wheelchair.” Hertzfeldt’s deadpan line delivery is a great comedic asset, as he recounts disparate moments in Bill’s uneventful day with a combination of worry and indifference.
Yet as funny as these moments are, they’re also profoundly tragic. Bill’s inability to connect is indicative of a societal affliction, one that so many of us seem to be suffering from. As his introspection grows deeper, we too are forced to consider whether we are all “little more than that frightening, fragile brainstem… insulated in our skulls in middle class houses, afraid of change, afraid of decisions, afraid of pain, stuck in traffic, listening to terrible music.” The emotional and philosophical peaks that Beautiful Day reaches would be impressive enough in a traditionally made film; that Hertzfeldt does it with stick figures is nothing short of astounding.
Slowly, Bill’s illness worsens, and he is struck by increasingly strange and disturbing flights of fancy (“the power of Christ compels you” wails a freakish looking bird, as Bill puts on slippers and levitates to the bus stop). Eventually his mother comes to look after him, as the film gives way in chapter 2 to a series of flashbacks that reveal Bill’s damaged family tree, suggesting that his entire lineage has been doomed from the very beginning. The stream of consciousness style seems to blend the best of David Lynch and Seth MacFarlane – and indeed, one can imagine fans of either man going into this film and loving it.
A beautiful score of opera and other classical pieces lends profundity to some moments, while striking hilarious contrast with the obvious insignificance of others. That Hertzfeldt makes recurring use of Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau River” – recently made iconic by its employment in Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life – is a particularly brilliant coincidence, one that highlights the similarities – as well as the differences – between the two cinematic tone poems. To say that this primitive hand-drawn animation rivals the aesthetic and thematic ambition of Malick’s film sounds absurd; the fact of the matter is, it may very well exceed it.
Moreoever, whereas Malick’s film collapses under the weight of its own unyielding self-seriousness, Hertzfeldt consistently offsets moments of potentially alienating existentialism with that signature absurd, acerbic or just flat-out juvenile humour (distressing news from Bill’s doctor, for example, is undercut in the following scene in which he goes home and masturbates for seven hours). By punctuating big philosophical themes – abandonment, alienation, memory, mortality – with instances of black and blue comedy, Hertzfeldt not only keeps his film accessible, but ensures that the more earnest moments strike home.
Indeed, as Bill creeps ever closer to the end of his journey, It’s Such a Beautiful Day suddenly transcends all emotional, artistic and spiritual boundaries, as Hertzfeldt delivers a conclusion that ranks, for me personally, amongst the most powerful sequences of my movie-going life. As I sat flabbergasted in my seat, I felt for the first time that I could appreciate how those acid-tripping hippies must have felt during the light tunnel scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And at the same time, the sequence is ridiculous and hysterically funny. What a perfect ending for a masterpiece.
Chapter 1 of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, entitled Everything Will Be OK, is available to watch below. You can also preorder the entire film on DVD, here.