Don Hertzfeldt has put his Academy Award-nominated classic on YouTube for free viewing. A clone from the distant future visits a young version of her first self, and monologue about her bizarre life.
Tag Archives: Don Hertzfeldt
CAPSULE: “WORLD OF TOMORROW, EPISODE 3: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME” (2020)
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DIRECTED BY: Don Hertzfeldt
FEATURING: Julia Pott
PLOT: A time-traveling clone appears to David Prime to warn him of future danger.
COMMENTS: There’s probably no one coming into “The Absent Destinations of David Prime” without having seen “World of Tomorrow” or its sequel first—but just in case, know that this short does stand alone, and knowledge of previous episodes isn’t absolutely necessary, though such knowledge will obviously inform and expand your enjoyment.
The rest of us will find the new World of Tomorrow familiar, yet different. The thing that’s most obviously missing is Winona Mae, the child star of the first two episodes. Her imaginative chattering provided both a ground for Hertzefeldt to bounce his speculative ideas off of, and a comic foil for Julia Potts (who voices Winona’s adult clones). The emotional and thematic core of the first two episodes was the tension between adult realities (represented by Potts’ hilariously flawed and damaged clones) and the innocent potentialities of Winona Mae’s candidly captured childhood. Now, at about age 9, the child has aged out of the role, and with her exit, Hertzfeldt has been forced to adapt the series. Potts still voices an Emily clone (Emily 9, to be precise), but the protagonist is now David, Emily’s love interest, introduced in the original through his brain-dead clone on display at a museum. David doesn’t speak (although his infant self babbles, courtesy of newborn voiceover from one Jack Parrett). The wistful melancholy for childhood lost no longer forms the emotional backbone of tomorrow’s world; instead, it’s the wistful melancholy of lost love—a romance that is complicated by the fact that it happens between various permutations of clones, each of whom share incomplete and faulty memories with their originals. This patchwork reflects the uncertainty (and fatalism) of romantic love. The theoretical construct of “shared memories” both drives the plot and serves as the chief metaphor.
“Episode 3” is less specifically philosophical and melancholy than previous installments, driven instead by its intricate time-travel narrative. What remains the same across all the entries is Hertzfeld’s incisive satire, Emily’s quotable non-sequitur dialogue (“I feel like I should like avocados more”), and the animation, which, although continuing to advance into ever more elaborate organic alien landscapes, remains stick-figure-based. The satire, in particular, hits a high note in this episode: the World of Tomorrow is a cybernetic nightmare of data overload chillingly reminiscent of our own fast-moving times. Tomorrow, humans will have neural chips—the equivalent of iPhones implanted directly inside our brains—that allow us to install and delete various functions as needed. Apps like Chinese fluency or basic ambulation can be removed at will to free up space for new content, such as Emily’s old bundled memories. Advertising is omnipresent; Emily’s memory cache is partly funded by pop-up ads, including one for “holograms that yell at you!”
“Episode 3” also continues the series’ trippy visual style, which has always featured simplistic stick figures marching against colorfully-envisioned digital backgrounds. Hertzfeldt throws in some new tricks, blurring some of the action to depict Emily’s faltering attempts to materialize herself—time-travel creates backwards-compatibility issues—and adding bewildering layers of content and chryons fighting for our attention. David’s hallucinatory journey to a distant moon to collect a trove of memories stored inside a robot could be Hertzfeld’s compressed stick figure tribute to 2001‘s Star Gate. With less dialogue this time around, the director pays greater attention to the sound design, which is stronger and stranger than in previous outings; there are ambient space noises, Emily’s messages are often glitchy and buried in layers of static. The soundtrack is classical and original music, sometimes used ironically (as when “relaxing music” meant to calm an agitated David is overlaid with an insistent electronic alarm directing him to his next destination).
“The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is the most ambitious “World of Tomorrow” yet, clocking it at over thirty minutes long, about double the previous two episodes lengths. The knotty time-travel plot will generates discussion and exegesis (charts may be helpful), without unduly sidelining the series’ main asset: its tragicomic empathy for the human condition. Each episode now is like a clone of the original “World of Tomorrow,” deteriorating in some aspects, but developing their own quirks or mutations, all the while maintaining a basic identity. Having survived the maturation of Winona Mae, it appears that Hertzfeldt’s imagination is capable of spinning out the series indefinitely into the ever expanding World of Tomorrow—and perhaps even to the day after that.
“World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is currently available exclusively for purchase or rental on Vimeo. I predict that someday all three episodes (and maybe even a future episode) will be available bundled together on physical media. No time traveler has yet appeared to me to divulge the release date, however.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…. there was no way [Hertzfeldt] was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Brazil’ into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way… ‘Time is a prison of living things,’ David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)
334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)
“Before movies, memory unspooled differently in the mind, trailing off in dust-blasted fade-out rather than spliced-together flashback…”–Steve Erickson
DIRECTED BY: Don Hertzfeldt
FEATURING: Don Hertzfeldt (narration)
PLOT: In the first chapter, “Everything Will Be OK,” delusions and hallucinations caused by an unspecified mental disorder impede the progress of stick figure Bill’s everyday life and leave him in and out of the hospital. Bill begins chapter 2, “I Am So Proud of You,” with flashbacks to his childhood, although his memories of his equally insane relatives are so strange that they may also be hallucinations. In chapter 3, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” Bill is again recuperating in the hospital, now with major memory loss, but with an impulse to visit an address he vaguely recalls.
- The character of Bill initially appeared in Don Hertzfeldt’s brief webcomic series “Anesthetics.” The strip foreshadowed the surreal humor of the early parts of the film, but did not suggest that Bill was suffering from mental illness.
- It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the feature-length compilation version of a series of medium-short films, beginning with “Everything Will Be OK” in 2006 and followed by “I Am So Proud of You” in 2008 before the final installment, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” arrived in 2011.
- Hertzfeldt photographed the movie in 35mm so that optical effects could be mixed with the animation.
- “Everything Will Be OK” won the Sundance Grand Prize for Short film on its release.
- Hertzfeldt launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to release It’s a Beautiful Day on Blu-ray along with World of Tomorrow and other selected shorts.
- Voted #16 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the 100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made and #1 on File Stage’s 2016 list of Best Animated Films of the Twentieth Century So Far.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The is movie is a continuous progression of images… most of them of black and white stick figures, although they are often grotesquely entertaining stick figures with monstrous fish heads growing out of their skulls. The most memorable effects mix Hertzfeldt’s line animation with real life photography. We picked one of Bill standing on a mesa gazing at a sunset, but you might prefer the scene of he and his stick girlfriend lying in the grass looking up at a canopy of leaves, or when he walks down the street and the pedestrians flicker back and forth between flesh and blood people and line figures. These sequences suggest inadequate fantasy wrestling with flawed perception, one of the movie’s major themes.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy brain tumor; snake-necked cosmic stickman; immortal schizophrenic
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Humble stick figure animation mixes with advanced experimental film techniques in this chronicle of the life of a character suffering from an unspecified mental illness. It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘s juxtaposition of the mundane and the cosmic caused some critics to hail it as a less pretentious, less humorless answer to The Tree of Life. Don Hertzfeldt would continue to examine the themes introduced here—the prominence and arbitrariness of memory, the mixture of sadness and wonder that make up life—in his next piece, the Oscar-nominated World of Tomorrow. I believe Tomorrow goes down as Hertzfeldt’s masterpiece so far—at 41 years of age, he still has a long way to go—but It’s Such a Beautiful Day is nearly its equal, and is a better fit for this List due to its feature-length, surrealistic humor, and far-out hallucination scenes that suggest the final moments of 2001 reimagined by a team led by Stan Brakhage and Charles Schultz.
Trailer for It’s Such a Beautiful Day
COMMENTS: Although It’s Such a Beautiful Day is technically a compendium of three short films developed over a period of five years, it Continue reading 334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)
WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS (2017)
DIRECTED BY: Don Hertzfeldt
FEATURING: Voices of Julia Pott, Winona Mae
PLOT: “Episode Two” picks up some time after the events of the first film, with a previously unmentioned spare Emily clone seeking out the original Emily Prime. This “back-up copy” clone, recognized only by a 6 on her forehead, travels back through time to capture Emily Prime’s memories, as she will never receive third generation Emily’s memories due the Earth having exploded, thus destroying Emily’s bloodline. Confused? As with the wealth of ideas in the first episode, there is a lot to digest here.
WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The original “World of Tomorrow” remains a long shot due to its short running length, and this sequel only improves on that aspect by about five minutes. It is equal, but not superior, to the quality of the first episode, and as a result will not be a List contender.
COMMENTS: The first “World of Tomorrow” arose from a series of audio recordings of Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, then four years old, rearranged to form a script. The recordings for the sequel were made when Mae was five, and the dialogue was considerably more difficult to sculpt into a coherent work: “It turns out that writing a story around the unscripted audio of a four-year-old is pretty easy compared to writing around the unscripted audio of a five-year-old. Where once I had short and expressive reactions that could be gracefully edited, suddenly I was facing down long, rambling monologues from a small crazy person.” Difficult or no, Hertzfeldt has crafted another elegant and irreverently funny work here that captures much of the same resignation and melancholy of the first, while narrowing the focus of the narrative.
Where the first short took us to robot mining colonies and museums where living clones aged on display, here Hertzfeldt limits our gaze primarily to back-up clone “6’s” experiences. We see the distant planet where 6 grew up, and the friendship she formed with back-up clone 5, called “Felecia” to discriminate her from other Emily clones. Together Emily Prime and 6 explore 6’s mind and memories. A particularly poignant moment comes when Prime discovers a shining thing in a stream, which 6 identifies as “a glimmer of hope,” something that has become much rarer in 6’s mind. 6 informs Prime that her mind used to be young and idealistic like Prime’s, but then 6 grew up and she hasn’t “seen a new glimmer of hope… in many years.” Scenes like these conjure up the wistfulness for childhood that characterized much of the first film, that yearning for dreams that went unrealized, marred by the disappointments of adult life.
The disconnect between Prime and her clone’s perceptions of the same moment greatly informed the comedy in the first film, and this element returns in the sequel. Prime doesn’t understand the significance of much of what 6 describes, and her innocent, childish reactions are often hilarious. When 6 plaintively asks Prime if she recognizes the planet where Felecia is exiled, Prime innocently suggests it might be “near Kitty land?” before offering other imaginative possibilities. In between these moments of disconnect, Hertzfeldt expertly weaves affecting dialogue (“The closer I look at things, the less I know”) as characters move across a backdrop of digitally conjured imagery. This feast of kinetic eye candy takes the form of swirling, nebulous particles, replacing the geometric patterns of the first episode.
Does Hertzfeldt’s description of a difficult second birth translate to the film emerging as a flawed outing? No, there are no major sequel shortcomings here: “The Burden of Other People’s Dreams” captures the tone and aesthetic of the first, pushing them in a slightly different, more specific direction. Perhaps narratively it is less than the first film’s full course meal (the glimpses of the larger world and story sidelines are missed), but ultimately “Episode Two” is even more intimate and affecting due to its limited scope. Without distractions from her story, we come to genuinely feel for 6, so that when the film reaches its climax and her current consciousness dissolves and Prime fulfills 6’s childhood hopes, we are moved on the same level as we would watching a live action film. The emotive power of Hertzfeldt’s films continues to be the strongest element of his uncompromising, independent oeuvre.
“World of Tomorrow, Episode Two” is available exclusively on Vimeo on Demand.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“If ‘World of Tomorrow’ was a journey outwards to the furthest reaches of thought, ‘World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts’ is an epic voyage inward, a dizzying spin down the rabbit hole of the human subconscious.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)
LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD OF TOMORROW (2015)
DIRECTED BY: Don Hertzfeldt
FEATURING: Julia Pott, Winona Mae
PLOT: The third generation clone of a little girl time travels to the present to deliver advice to the four-year old.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ll cite Don Hertzfeld’s own words, speaking of his inspirations for “World of Tomorrow,” in the film’s favor: “..I’ve always been a big fan of pulpy science fiction, the optimistic yet somehow terrifying science fiction of the 40’s and 50’s, where logic took a back seat to some really giant, weird ideas.” This film was conceived in a weird mindset, but working against this psychedelic stick-figure snippet is—as is often the case with shorts—its length. It’s a stunning work on both the visual and emotional planes, but as good as “World of Tomorrow” is, is it weird and important enough to justify bumping a full-length film off the List to make place for it? If only Hertzfeld would make a proper, weird feature-length film, and end this dilemma for us…
COMMENTS: “Our viewscreens allow us to witness any event in history,” says the visitor from the future with some degree of pride, although she casually concedes that “our more recent history is often just comprised of images of other people watching viewscreens.” Such is the World of Tomorrow as imagined by stick-figure animator Don Hertzfeld. The film is scripted around the recorded utterances of Hertzfeld’s four year old niece Winona Mae, which were later adapted into a screenplay. The girl’s ebullient proclamations of wonder are met with calm acknowledgment by her own clone, who has traveled through time on the eve of the apocalypse to implant this very memory (and to extract another one). Young Emily (referred to as “Emily Prime”) can’t understand the significance of the momentous exchange, focusing on the surface of the vision, delighting her ability to change background colors with a word. For her part, the pontificating clone, who speaks in the emotionless tone of a British Siri, seems oblivious that her words of wisdom are going over the girl’s head. This leads to constant humorous exchanges between the two (“I have no idea what you’re talking about” deadpans the clone in response to some childish gibberish).
Hertzfeld’s characters deliver their mismatched, wistful dialogue against a backdrop of constantly shifting colors. The animator retains the derp-y stick figures that have become his trademark, but digs into digital animation to create futuristic ooh-la-la wonders. Clean, precise geometric figures constantly drift through the frame like technological clouds, with neon static discharges bursting across the screen. Space is a deep purple expanse, and the Earth, seen from the moon, is covered with a grid of girders. Human memories (the kind people of the future will watch for solace) are fuzzy and shown at skewed angles, with unbalanced color that makes a field of grass glow yellow. The eye candy alone more than justifies this trip into the future.
The tone is resigned and melancholy, but not despairing. “Tomorrow”‘s morose vision of the future encompasses depressed robot poetry and shooting star corpses among its many ironic wonders. But while the film embodies the postmodern pessimism that concludes that technology is making us gradually less connected and less human, “Tomorrow”‘s direct emotional impact comes from tapping into that well of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. Forget the future; every adult feels like a deteriorating third-generation copy of themselves who feels “a deep longing for something you cannot quite remember.” Life is “a beautiful visit, and then we share the same fate as the rest of the human race: dying horribly.” Tomorrow is a mixed blessing, at best, but Emily Prime represents hope and solace.
“World of Tomorrow” is now available streaming on Netflix, or it can be rented directly on-demand.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… within the absurdity lurks a sense of longing for a connection, a soulsick-ness.“–Collin Souter, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)