Frankly, modern cinema is a little glazed-over, which isn’t the same thing as saying it is bad. Tons of great films are released every year, but even among the greatest, a certain stagnancy grips them, cuts off their heads, and keeps them grounded. Comedy and animation are arguably the two biggest offenders on this front; when was the last time you can recall a comedy with a legitimate eye for visual framing and using editing and composition to enhance or form the girders of the humor? Films still have interesting stories to tell, but they seldom have an interesting means to tell stories. Content can fly, but the technique, the art of film itself, has been grounded for too long.
Don Hertzfeldt clearly agrees, especially in regards to animation, and he has more than a few ideas how to recalibrate the world of cinematic animation for the future. Ideas that, shockingly and refreshingly, advocate minimalism as an aesthetic in rejection of the more-is-more tendencies of animation studios today (even resident critical darlings Pixar). With naught but a white piece of paper and crude pencil-sketch stick figures, he is taking animation back to the stone age, and in doing so, bulleting it into the future. His It’s Such a Beautiful Day, a stitching-together of three short films he had spent years making, dialogues with fate, existentialism, life, death, the little moments of human connection, the much larger moments of human disconnect, the horrors of everyday life, finding meaning in the mundane, and much more. And all with one stick figure named Bill on a largely blank white background.
A white background that both focuses the film on what little animation it does spool out for us, and more importantly, a white background that empties Bill’s life and singularly and even terrifyingly discovers how little there is for Bill as he stumbles throughout his days. The background evokes life as an existential limbo of choices that don’t matter, emptiness that is full, and purpose that is largely arbitrary and transitive. Minimalism is not simply a cost-cutting measure, but a harbinger of emptiness and doom and a buttress to theme and characters.
Within the non-borders of that white background, Bill slumbers and lumbers and slumps between places that all seem to look the same – a wonderful expression of stagnancy even in motion, as Bill always walks but never seems to be going anywhere precisely. Hertzfeldt, who narrates in a self-conscious, dry, sardonic tone that recalls a young Bill Nye the Science Guy of all people, edits life as a dangerous, malignant malformation of cause and effect, pause and cascade. Bill stops and thinks, bursting through topics with a mind irrevocably racing from thought to thought like one of those deranged George Carlin bits on “little moments that connect us all” and “people who deserve not to be around anymore” tied together in a stream of consciousness rampaging river of anti-flow.
The endless hurtle of it, as well as the sublime mastery of pace on display, captures the hustle and bustle of the everyday mind, but it also revokes the normalcy of the mind to display, instead, inner thought in endless anarchy and bedlam. Bill, we are informed, has a disease that is tearing his mind apart, a disease that might kill him, and the free-form improvisation of the material (which cuts between time periods in jumbled, discordant fashion) purposefully and violently captures a mind in free-fall descent. Like Bill, we lose a semblance of time and place and just sort of float around and swing from mood to thought like a clock pendulum with a barbed wrecking ball at the end.
When we add in Hertzfeldt’s uncommonly demented, even psychotic, understanding of how to superimpose events on the screen simultaneously, Beautiful Day becomes a study in minimalism doubling back to invoke hyper-active mania. A mania that is shocked and rattled when Hertzfeldt takes to contrasting his wryly low-key-to-the-point-of-terror narration with disharmonic intrusions of some of the most devilish, animalistic sound effects any film has ever managed. All while the physical environment of the film disassembles and rejiggers itself with implosions and explosions and holes that emerge and disappear out of nowhere, as though the knife that is Bill’s mind was itself scratching or jutting through the screen. Taken together, Beautiful Day is a violent (and violently funny) visual and aural assault of pure cinema on the senses, and as satisfying and challenging a display of cinema-as-memory-and-mind as I have seen in many years.
The relentless narration would, in any other film, appear endlessly didactic. But, sheltered in and shackled by the animation, the narration too becomes a further emblem of discord amidst the collective strife. The words, which are intentionally slight and adolescent to the point where they become scary, both coax the malformation of the mind forward and hope to batten down the leaks springing into Bill’s life with percussive frequency. The cascade of narration windmills the pace of the film forward, and the brutality of the film’s temerity feels downright combative, turning an innocent child’s notebook drawing into a explication of the human id torn to pieces by a world that just doesn’t care. It is film taken back to the drawing board, taken back to kindergarten, and film forced to find a freshness and a spirit in its life yet again. It’s Such a Beautiful Day confronts wallowing drone and screeching wail, but the manic energy of it all, and the, if I may so unrefined to use the word “fun” to describe such a deranged motion picture experience, fun of it keeps it afloat in the end. This is every tool in animation ground into fodder for reconstructing the world, and what better purpose could any film serve?