Friday, December 14, 2012

It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt brings a trilogy of short films about a psychologically impaired everyman named Bill to a close with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, his longest and most ambitious work to date. The 23-minute film is a tour de force for the filmmaker from its opening images, which flicker onto the screen and back into darkness with a literal gasp. Hertzfeldt’s prior two films, Everything Will Be O.K. and I Am So Proud of You, delved into Bill’s life with aesthetic subjectivity. The director’s mash-ups of forms, avant-garde collages of images, objects and lights, were never more prominent as he used them to visualize the poor protagonist’s slipping grasp on reality as his mind slowly rebelled against him.

Taken with those films, as a feature-length fusion of the three shorts now allows, It’s Such a Beautiful Day begins as a (relatively) logical continuation of the mounting visual instability. On its own, however, the Brakhagean intensity that ushers in this final chapter is radical in its immediate impact and only more powerful when the intellectual play of the construction is bent toward emotional communication. The foundation of Hertzfeldt’s wild compositions are deceptively simple pencil drawings, the sort where a single figure is always visibly shifting even when not moving as each frame shows contains an outline with subtly different shading.

Yet even this stable grounding can be subverted when Hertzfeldt blacks out the screen and animated in a hand-drawn, amorphous thought bubble. This creates a blank area around most of Bill’s life, broken up only by the myopic splotches of repetitious activity against a void a broken image of memory loss and the anchors of rote that keep him going, even though he does not know why he continues to perform these same actions. But then, can someone without mental and memory impairments answer that question any better?

Hertzfeldt alters this basic style in a myriad of ways, including live-action shots amid various tricks of light and three-dimensional objects. He creates a play of images overwhelming in their individual and even collective placement, objects that pass by so quickly that merely identifying them is a challenge in itself, much less what that object “means.” Of course, film is an object of motion, and what each piece of Hertzfeldt’s puzzle is and symbolizes (if anything) is secondary to its effect when combined with 23 other frames of action each second. The abstract imagery, then, has meaning only in what it conveys from second to second, and what it conveys (to me, at least) is an overwhelming sense of loss, confusion and anxiety. Some of Bill’s unexplained illness can feel vividly concrete and specific, yet Hertzfeldt’s wise decision to leave his protagonist’s issues unnamed permits a universality. Bill’s inability to get a handle on anything past his perfunctory routine, the feelings he cannot place when looking at a face that seems familiar but distant at the same time, these are exaggerated and visualized but still resonant takes on life itself. Life is chaotic, fleeting and overwhelming, and if Bill seems to have more downs than ups, sometimes it is hard to tell which is which until looking back in retrospect.

The greatest moment, however, occurs when the film appears to end, naturally, on a down note. Suddenly, Hertzfeldt’s own psyche shatters and wars with their Ur-self, demanding that Bill not suffer so sad a fate. Hertzfeldt then hits rewind, gradually moving back from the brink and then gaining speed as a mere aversion of fate becomes a total reversal of it. It is the most brazen ending since F.W. Murnau likewise changed the logical end of his character in The Last Laugh, only Hertzfeldt goes further than Murnau’s cheeky break in fortunes. As Bill goes from a mentally collapsing basket case to the smartest man who ever lived, Hertzfeldt fulfills all the greatest dreams we hold for the characters we love. But then, he keeps going, until Bill achieves an immortality that proves, in its own way, to be worse than death. It is a masterful piece of bravura filmmaking, and one that truly announces Hertzfeldt as not merely a gifted, absurdist delight but one of the finest filmmakers working in America today.

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