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

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

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.

Still from It's Such a Beautiful Day (2011)

BACKGROUND:

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 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 feels like a single work—although the third episode departs from the first two in tone, explicitly teasing out the poignancy previously buried under layers of jokes and experimental effects. Throughout the series, the style remains largely consistent. Mostly, it’s barely expressive stick figure animation, with protagonist Bill set apart from the other two-dimensional characters only by his omnipresent hat. Hertzfeldt rarely uses the full frame, especially in those first two installments, preferring to stage his little stick vignettes inside irises that look like comic book thought bubbles. This method stresses the discontinuity of Bill’s thought process; concrete connections between scenes, which play out as disordered memories of an individual, are often lacking. Elements of a single scene might be separated into several bubbles, or similar moments might play out concurrently in separate containers. The experiments with mixing in live-action color film start slowly— at one point, we see a montage of human memories pass by in a blur—but reach a crescendo at the same time Bill’s hallucinations do, with the miniature hand-drawn sequences playing out inside balloons laid over abstract psychedelic backgrounds or a raging fire. Sometimes, his stick neck grows thousands and thousands of miles long, and his head snakes off to explore orange nebulae. The photographic backgrounds often feature out-of-focus images, sometimes layered on top of each other and scribbled over with dots of paint placed directly on the film, resembling  compositions. 1)Hertzfeldt acknowledges the influence of Brakhage in his Criterion Collection top ten list.  Hertzfeldt supplies his own deadpan third-person narration, detailing Bill’s demonic hallucinations with the same nonchalant tone he uses to describe a passing desire for a piece of toast, and sometimes even slipping into ordinary punchlines (“Bill took his new medication and went home and masturbated for seven hours.”)

The first installment, “Everything Is Going to Be OK,” is typical of Hertzfeldt’s early, comic/absurdist work (like “Rejected,” described in more detail below). After a pixilated opening of clouds passing over trees, the film begins with the story of Bill’s mildly awkward encounter at a bus stop with an acquaintance, a moment that, the narrator tells us, both men forgot by the next day. This seemingly meaningless intro sets up several themes that run throughout the series: the mundanity of everyday existence, forgetfulness, and the prison of subjectivity, as two discrete human beings are unsure what the other is thinking and how (and even why) to initiate a connection. The meat of “Everything,” however, is a series of absurd, frequently grotesque gags, as we are introduced to Bill’s increasingly disordered thought processes and deteriorating rationality, daydreams that move from mere eccentric concerns about the produce aisle stocking fruit at crotch level and his desire to have his post-mortem head shot into space to his belief that the man next to him at the bus stop has a cow’s head or his ability to fly to the grocery store wearing Lion King slippers. Although Bill is in and out of the hospital throughout this chapter, his condition is never described, and the episode ends inconclusively.

The sequel, “I Am So Proud of You,” debuted two years after “Everything.” Stylistically, it is the same as the previous entry, but fleshes out Bill’s backstory—though in a typically absurd and unreliable fashion. Disorientingly, it begins with Bill as a child on a field trip, with the narrator speaking in present tense. We learn of Bill’s various relatives—each bizarre enough to star in their own late night “” series—including his half-brother with hook hands, a grandmother taken to rubbing cat heads across her body in an attempt to cure her tumors, and a preacher uncle with obscenely long mole hairs. In particular, his mother, a minor and undistinguished character in “Everything,” is now revealed as an overprotective and very odd parent who, according to a doctor’s recommendation, should never have had a child. Meanwhile, other incidents could have come straight from “Everything”: little throwaway moments (“at the bus stop, his left testicle ached for no apparent reason and it almost made him feel dizzy”) that stress both the ordinariness of Bill’s existence and his encroaching sickness, delivered with the subtle strangeness that infects even the story’s quietest and most straightforward moments. The family histories and flashbacks expand Bill’s character and put him in a genetic context of madness, but they way the story flips back and forth between past and present also introduces an important new theme to the overall work: the discontinuity of human experience as mediated by memory, the equal weight of past and present in the psyche. Predictably, this chapter ends with Bill in the hospital once again.

In “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” completed in 2011, Bill appears to be suffering from dementia (layered on top of his schizophrenia). He is unable to remember names or recognize faces. The doctor explains to Bill’s ex-girlfriend that Bill cannot distinguish between false memories and real ones—a diagnosis that we may be tempted to apply retroactively to earlier chapters. Bill’s doctor finally tells him that he’s getting worse and he doesn’t have long to live, a message which, paradoxically, fills him with wonder. Bill begins noticing details in the everyday world, the vibrant colors or flowers and smells, and suddenly thinks everything is amazing. Hertzfeldt now fills the frame with color, increasing the proportion of film versus animation. Also, for the first time in the series, he adds significant amounts of color to the stick figure animations. Though still drawn as a stick figure, Bill now appears in real life landscapes, and the image fills the full frame rather than appearing in constricted windows. The minimalist style of the picture has expanded to embrace Bill’s epiphany about the majesty of his rapidly fading existence. Where “I Am So Proud of You” deliberately jumped around in time, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” instead tells a linear story, though one affected by its protagonist’s condition, and culminates in a heartbreaking reunion. Bill dies at the end—or does he? The narrator suggests an alternative ending, one which might be a mere fantasy, or might be a metaphor. While the first two installments were largely built around absurdist comedy—horrifying hallucinations played as surreal gags—“It’s Such a Beautiful Day” takes a gamble on pathos, showing real, explicit empathy for Bill’s plight.

If one watched the film without knowing of its episodic development over a period of years, It’s Such a Beautiful Day would appear to show a masterfully planned thematic arc: beginning as a deceptively simple, ironic comedy, it gradually adds in philosophical concerns, and ends as a genuinely moving drama. Knowing the background, we can trace the growth of Hertzfeld as an artist, moving from a brash youngster mainly concerned with shocking images and jokes to a more mature, wiser man, now brave and confident enough to attempt to say something about the human condition. Bill’s mental illness paradoxically makes him a good case study for the methodology of the human mind, magnifying the way consciousness’ stream mixes flights of fancy, memories both poignant and distorted, and eccentric fixations on the everyday minutiae that occupy most of its time, and seeks to create meaning from this flow of sensation and speculation. Bill becomes a weird sort of everyman. His confusion gets at the essence of what a human life is: more emotional than coherent, more a collection of moments and odd memories than a coherent triumph of straightforward narrative. It all plays out like a deathbed recollection, which, maybe, is what it really is in the end. It’s Such a Beautiful Day ends with a live-every-day-to-the-fullest-and-don’t-take-little-miracles-for-granted message that would seem treacly and maudlin if it hadn’t been tempered by so much bitter humor acknowledging that the pain and ridiculousness of existence is a worthy adversary to its wonder. As it is, It’s Such a Beautiful Day encompasses an entire lifetime, and more; a pretty good trick for a sad and confused little stickman.

Shane Wilson digresses: At the risk of hijacking this historic occasion for It’s Such a Beautiful Day, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to offer some praise for my favorite Don Hertzfeldt joint, Rejected. Ostensibly a chronicle of Hertzfeldt’s increasingly misguided attempts to go commercial, this 9-minute masterpiece is by turns wacky, grotesque and unhinged. The essence of Hertzfeldt’s worldview, with regard to both the craft of animation and the role of an artist, is distilled into its purest form here, and manages to be both hilarious and haunting. His deceptively simplistic stick-figure styling belies the visual poetry of the unseen animator’s descent into madness, as demonstrated in the cleverness of the animated figures’ interaction with the animation camera and paper in the mors ex machina finale. The film is eminently quotable—at least half a dozen lines of dialogue serve as immediate shorthand for fans—and visually compelling, considering its extreme minimalism. And of course, Rejected is without a doubt the only film in history to be nominated for an Oscar in which a fish stick suffers from anal bleeding. Longer, more ambitious films like It’s Such a Beautiful Day and World of Tomorrow may be a better fit for this List, but Rejected is a mainline of strange that is essential viewing for anyone who cares about weird cinema. It is a spoon of exactly the right size.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[an] alternately poignant and absurdist triptych… a twisted magic-lantern show…”–Peter De Bruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…trippy stuff…  a bold attempt to get inside the mind of someone who’s losing theirs…”–Dave Calhoun, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

“…It’s Such a Beautiful Day expertly combines the surreal humour of [Hertzfeldt’s] earlier Oscar-nominated short, Rejected (2000), and the more experimental nature of his The Meaning of Life (2005)… All of this crafts a highly original and utterly enthralling film that touches on staggeringly expansive themes – more typically expected in the work of master auteur and persistent award-winner Terrence Malick, than from animations.”–Ben Nicholson, CineVue (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

don hertzfeldt :: news :: i want to bite you – Don Hertzfeldt’s official site contains info on It’s Such a Beautiful Day and other projects

Don Hertzfeldt’s beautiful days – Hertzfeldt interview with the BFI (British Film Institute) after the completion of It’s Such a Beautiful Day

HERTZFELDT ON BLU-RAY – The (successful) Kickstarter campaign for the Blu-ray release

It’s Such a Beautiful Day: Analysis vs. Experience – Good analysis focusing on the film’s use of subjectivity, by YouTuber “Film Formula”

Truth in Doodling – Appreciation from the Chicago Reader critic’s J.R. Jones of Hertzfeldt’s work up to, and including, “Everything Will be OK”

it’s such a beautiful day (Western Animation) – TV Tropes list of tropes (and trivia) for the film

HOME VIDEO INFO: Your best bet by far is the Hertzfeldt-issued/approved Blu-ray of the same name (buy) (a collection of films “proudly making their first appearance on Blu-ray just in time for the format to slowly grow obsolete,” explains the copy). Although the disc is titled It’s Such a Beautiful Day, it’s really a career overview, with World of Tomorrow taking up most the back cover and getting co-billing on the disc menu. In between you can find almost every important Hertzfeldt short: 2000’s Oscar-nominated breakthrough “Rejected” (discussed above), 2006’s psychedelic “The Meaning of Life”, the surreally gruesome “Wisdom Teeth” (2010), and his student films”Billy’s Balloon” and “Lily and Jim.” There’s also the coyly titled “Popular Animated TV Show Intro” (spoiler: it’s Hertzfeldt’s longish couch gag for the “Simpsons”), a 12-minute interview with the Australian Film Museum about World of Tomorrow, and a short teaser for World of Tomorrow, Episode 2. It even includes two “surprises,” which I will spoil here: a World of Tomorrow postcard and a charming little booklet welcoming Tomorrow‘s Emily 7 to the world. That’s a lot for your $30.

You can also watch the film with a Fandor subscription. They own streaming rights to a number of other Certified Weird entries, including Mood Indigo, Spider Baby, Forbidden ZoneSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, DogtoothBelladonna of SadnessAlice [Neco Z Alenky], Reflections of Evil, and more.

Finally, to whet your appetite, Hertzfeldt has made the first installment of the film, “Everything Will Be OK,” available on YouTube in its 17-minute entirety.

(This movie was originally nominated for review by reader “L Holt,” who called it “A must watch for lovers of the odd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

References   [ + ]

1. Hertzfeldt acknowledges the influence of Brakhage in his Criterion Collection top ten list.

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