Very rarely is a director capable of creating so much sensation on screen with so little. And it’s not physical sensation, but rather an enveloping visceral experience that is distinctly embedded in the nature of film. It is when a film leaps beyond the boundaries of logic, and pursues our primal senses and feelings through image and sound. Only the greatest, such as Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, have achieved such daunting depths in filmmaking. It is this approach to filmmaking that drives the brilliance behind director/animator Don Hertzfeldt’s magnum opus It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
Watching It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an extremely bizarre and occasionally amusing experience. Stylistically, the film follows in the footsteps of Hertzfeldt’s earlier short films, which contain an odd concoction of surrealism, idiosyncratic humor and minimalistic animation. However, on a narrative and thematic level, It’s Such a Beautiful Day distinguishes itself from those short films by reaching for something more profound. The film’s core narrative is about a stick figure named Bill and the decline of his mental health. The film functions as an exploration of feelings and memories, and unfolds less as a cohesive story and more as a series of vignettes unified by Bill’s struggles in life and impending death. Each scene ranges from the mundane to the absolute insane, both accomplished with equal believability. Even with such heavy subject matter, Hertzfeldt still maintains an absurd sense of humor, often communicated through his hilariously amateurish and monotonous narration.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is clearly the product of an auteur. The film’s animation, sound design, special effects, narration and screenwriting were all completed by Hertzfeldt slaving away at his home. Despite this, the film still displays a remarkable level of inventiveness and technical sophistication. His animation style is distinctly characterized by stick figures and simple two-dimensional line drawings. If put in the hands of a lesser director/animator, the film could have come off as childish and lazy, but Hertzfeldt manages to bring a renewed power to the style. After receiving the news of his terminal disease, there’s a moment where Bill slowly takes off his hat and rubs his head. It’s such a delicate moment that exemplifies the power of Hertzfeldt’s simplicity. In order to display such an intimate level of rawness, the film must strip its visuals down to the bare bones of what makes us human.
Beyond the film’s sequences of pen-and-paper animation, Hertzfeldt applies a wide palette of techniques. During Bill’s hallucinations and daydreams, the film intersperses shots of distorted live-action with Douglas Trumbull-style special effects, reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. What really caught my attention was the film’s use of sound. As in his previous films, Hertzfeldt loves to decorate blank frames with extremely lush and atmospheric sound. Sound effects, music and dialogue complement each other, and are sped up, slowed down, looped, panned from channel to channel and played backwards to create a cacophony of soundscapes. It is akin to the surreal and disturbing sound design of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Hertzfeldt executes all of these techniques with such deliberation that it creates the perfect atmosphere for us to enter and experience the collapse of Bill’s mind.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is not just about Bill. It’s about how there’s a headstone waiting for all of us. Bill’s failing mind is no different from our illogical and broken world, and his musings of daily life remind us that we are all struggling. The film’s humor and raw animation style prevent these ideas from becoming pretentious and heavy-handed. Maybe that is why Bill’s outlandish journeys evoke such strong emotion, because they describe on a deeply visceral and philosophical note what it means to be human. For what it’s worth, we should appreciate our existence, even for all its craziness.
I guess it is such a beautiful day. A+