In 2000, at 23, director Don Hertzfeldt
got an Oscar nomination for a cartoon he made with sharpies and printer paper. His 2012 film, It's Such A Beautiful Day
, is less primitive – stick figures and mixed media effects — but no less brilliant. It will make you cry like the opening montage in Up
. But unlike Up
, there is no catharsis here. There is no happy ending. You either die or you live to see the last star blink out while you float through the void.
It's Such A Beautiful Day
was originally released in three parts, between 2006 and 2011, all voiced and narrated by Hertzfeldt. Chapter one, Everything Will Be OK
, introduces Bill, our hat-wearing silent protagonist. Bill has a brain tumor. It's not responding to medication and he's suffering from memory loss, due in part to the treatment. Mostly, he watches TV and walks in the park, wondering what his life means. When he dies, Bill says he wants his head to be launched into space.
While he's pondering what it means to be human – that is, to be a brain in a meat suit – his condition is worsening. His doctor says surgery isn't an option and puts him on new meds. He loses teeth and hallucinates, eventually suffering a psychotic break on his way back to the clinic. When he comes to, he's curled up in an alley. His mother and uncle visit him in the hospital to share his final days. But he recuperates, though the doctor isn't sure why.
Chapter two, I Am So Proud Of You
, goes into Bill's background. He has a family history of mental illness and birth defects. His half-brother, Randall, had “aluminum hook arms, and his mind was as misshapen as his legs.” Randall drowned on a class trip to the beach while chasing a seagull. Bill's unnamed mother has a history of paranoia; her family, a history of mental illness and a knack for getting killed by trains. Bill never knew his father, and his stepfather left when Bill was six.
In the present, Bill has returned to his life and his office job. All seems well until his mother dies. Among her things, Bill finds old photos, a notebook – his mother practiced her handwriting for pages on end so he'd have the best-looking notes in his lunch – and her medical records, which warned her against having children for unstated medical reasons. Still, his doctor says Bill is doing remarkably well, and Bill starts to think things might turn out OK. But on the way home from the clinic, Bill has a stroke.
The last chapter, It's Such A Beautiful Day
, is the inevitable conclusion. Bill dies – or he doesn't, and he lives until the last star blinks out. Hertzfeldt explores both options. The whole trip to the ending is bleak and beautiful.
Part of what makes It's Such A Beautiful Day
stand out is its commitment to perspective. The audience is crammed into Bill's head. We see only what he takes note of, from his odd dreams to his idle thoughts to the things he sees around town. Devastating news shows up with all the drama of a weather report. The classical and operatic music Hertzfeldt uses make idle moments feel more dramatic. In general, the sound design does a marvelous job of setting the mood, whether it's the sound of rain on bus windows or the building white noise as Bill is told his tumor will kill him.
The animation rarely takes up the whole screen – usually, the screen is black with Bill and his immediate surroundings appearing in a bubble. Like the sound, this claustrophobic style is used to great effect. Hertzfeldt will put Bill in one bubble, then add his hallucinations or thoughts in another. It reminds me of Tennessee Williams
' stage directions for projectors in The Glass Menagerie
, filtered through Jean-Paul Sartre
or Terrence Malick
Hertzfeldt is best known for his weird sense of humor, and that's on full display. During Bill's psychotic break in chapter one, he hallucinates a bird repeating “the power of Christ compels you” over and over. Randall cries “Booooooon! Booooooooon!” as he runs into the ocean. But Hertzfeldt's pitch-black humor is at its strongest in chapter two, when Bill's family is on display.
Sad cartoons aren't new. Brilliant cartoons aren't new either. But stick figures aren't supposed to make grown-ass adults ponder the nature of existence and dread their own frailty. That is new. Give this movie 60 minutes of your undivided attention.
Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.