Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Throughout the history of cartoons, there has always been this absurd mix of childish playfulness with connections to mature themes and philosophies. This can be found in the strips of Charles M. Schulz, with the thoughts of existentialist dreariness that Charlie Brown’s nearly bald head conjure up, only to be contradicted with the hopeful, optimistic words of thumb-sucking and blanket-coveting Linus Van Pelt. This can be found in the strips of Bill Watterson, where a curious 5-year old child named Calvin (named after predestination believer John Calvin) tries to explore the overarching questions of the world with his best friend Hobbes (named after Enlightenment writer Thomas Hobbes), a stuffed tiger that is anthropomorphic only to Calvin’s imaginative eyes and mind.
Over time, it seems like less cartoonists seem to be originally mixing these ideas but rather replicating the works of their cartoonist ancestry. However, I believe that there is one cartoonist today still making the most original pieces of animation while combining an absurd childness with philosophical themes: Don Hertzfeldt. If you don’t recognize his name, you probably have at least heard of one of his works at the Oscars or once award season comes around. Hertzfeldt has made countless animated short films, mainly with recurring characters or as the continuation of a longer story. Hertzfeldt has been releasing films since 1995. Granted, some of those films were student films for his B.A. in Film Studies at UCLA, but these films are still included in his Blu-Ray collections sold on his website bitterfilms.com. Recently getting my hands on his “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” collection, I have realized how incredibly captivating, interesting, and brilliant Hertzfeldt’s films are.
A child sits in a park with a shaker and the red balloon. The red balloon suddenly comes alive and starts to beat the child, choke him with his string, and endlessly lift him into the sky and drop him from high altitudes. By the end of the film, we see that a Balloon Revolution has begun. The child that we see at the beginning of the film sees a friendly face get lifted by a balloon, only to get swept away by an airplane. A gang of balloons jump a helpless child, a crowd of children are harassed by balloons, them helpless to do anything about it. Realizing what I have just written, I understand how dark the actual short is, but, my god, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to watch. The absolute ridiculousness of the situation makes this dark tale of violence look so hilarious. Honestly, anyone can watch this film without taking anything symbolic or underlying into consideration. Sometimes when I watch this, I like to think of the balloons as representing the hardships of life. Maybe the balloons are different events coming into the lives of these children, and they’re too young to understand or deal with them. Perhaps the balloon is representative of something more sinister, like abusive parents or mental illnesses. However, when I’m not thinking about those things, I’m just looking at a bunch of balloons beating up little kids, which as morbid as it sounds, is pretty entertaining.
This short film was my introduction to Hertzfeldt, as I imagine it was to many others. Rejected, while it was nominated for Best Short Film in the Oscars, also became a viral phenomenon online. Being only 10 minutes, Rejected sees Hertzfeldt hired to make promo advertisements for the fictional Family Learning Channel, only for them to get rejected for their random, surreal, or vulgar nature. Eventually, Hertzfeldt realizes that these animations will not take his career anywhere, so he decides to destroy them in a rather terrifying apocalyptic sequence that breaks the 4th wall as drawings bang on drawing paper like a prison wall to ask the watcher to save them. Rejected is unarguably Hertzfeldt’s most famous and quotable work. My friends in middle and high school would all quote the dialogue at random times “Tuesday’s coming…” or the infamous “MY ANUS IS BLEEDING!!” scene. Watching Rejected still makes me laugh until I can’t breathe, even though I know all the jokes that are coming. It’s just that good. I remember though that whenever I would show my friends in middle school Rejected on Youtube, we would always get sincerely horrified once the cataclysmic final sequence rolled. From a thematic or philosophical sense, I don’t think Hertzfeldt is trying to say much with this one. Under the many layers of absurdism and juvenile humor, there is satire of art criticism, and the very act of being art being subjective. For example, something that Hertzfeldt considers to be art, like a man getting helplessly beaten to death by a gang of stick figures wearing silly hats, could be kicked under the table by the Family Learning Channel, taken away from any potential consumer or audience member. Lucky for us, we’re given all these cartoons in their entirety, but only to watch these pieces of art destroyed by Hertzfeldt, who finally gives in to the scathing criticism of the Family Learning Channel.
The Meaning of Life
Okay, here we go. We’re starting to get into serious philosophical territory with this one. The Meaning of Life begins with the quick evolution of humans to jump into a 4-minute sequence of a crowd of new individuals passing by each other. While they crowd together in passing traffic, they repeat what seems to on their mind, or what they are represented by (e.g. “Give me money!” “The saddest part? She had no idea.”). Of course, this is a Don Hertzfeldt short film, so if you listen closely you can hear an opera singer walk through the crowd with a shrieking voice or someone literally say “more redundant speech.” Then, the scene cuts to the same crowd traffic spot, but decaying corpses now fill the road that a lone, blissfully ignorant stick figure walks on. Set to Tchaikovsky, the camera then zooms out and out, going into space, and then the galaxy, until we zoom back in to the Earth to find the traffic replaced with deformed aliens, replicating the very same actions as the humans before them did: walking and repeating their instinctual dialogue until they die. The short ends with two aliens, a father and a child, as they have a conversation. Almost all of their dialogue is incomprehensible except for the four words “DAH MENING OV LAIFE?” which the child asks his father about, and met with a snicker and an introspective explanation of this meaning of life while his father gestures at the world around him. The child alien then sees the stars come out of the sky, as he sits, astonished. This short takes a left turn from most of Hertzfeldt’s other works. The absurdism and sardonic wit is still there, but the poignancy of Hertzfeldt’s work begins to shine a lot more, starting with this short. The Meaning of Life is one of those movies where no explanation is correct and it’s all left up to the mind of the beholder, but I will try to share my thoughts about the deeper meanings behind it. Hertzfeldt’s main purpose of this short, besides critiquing the familiarities and redundancies of normal-day life, is to show how ridiculous we look from an outside perspective. Despite being exaggerative, there’s definitely some truth in the repeated nature of Hertzfeldt’s stick figures. At the end of the day, all humans spend their life walking to the other side of the screen, babbling their mouths off, trying to be heard, to make a legacy. Then we die. The shift to the aliens halfway through this short could mean that in millions of years if humans evolve into unrecognizable creatures, none of us will change our natures. We will still seek greatness, we will seek validation, we will seek attention. But in doing this, we repeat our actions. We never change and live life the way it’s meant to be lived. We are all weighed down by our redundant dialogue, unable to escape. However, despite this morbid sense of nihilism, there’s still a sense of wonder in the world, represented by the ending with the two aliens. We might be tied down to our inevitable ends, but we’re able to know that we’re leaving a world that has much more to be discovered in it then we’re aware.
It’s Such A Beautiful Day
I don’t mean to hype this movie up, but this is my favorite film I have ever seen. In the mere hour that we follow Bill the Stickman, we see the world from his point of view and his gradually deteriorating mind. In fact, everything in this world is covered by black screen besides Bill and whatever he focuses his attention on, not only forcing the audience to sympathize with Bill, but also recognize how self-centered Bill actually is. We are not given any details on the disease that Bill is diagnosed with, but we only see symptoms of his condition. Hallucinations, memory loss, bright flashes, violent thinking, etc. The film does a fantastic job of not making us only watch Bill, but become Bill, which makes perfect sense. Bill is supposed to be all of us. Bill is given a simple name, a simple appearance, and vague enough details about his personality that he can act as a synecdoche for all people. Once I realized that Bill is representative of everyone, I began to immediately connect with him. For my watching experience, I thought about their past love interests and trying to make awkward amends and keep in touch with them. I thought about the people I’ve seen in the street, that I saw once and have never seen again. I thought about the simple act of watching TV and repetitive, mundane tasks around the house that partially suck the soul out of me. Despite all this pain that Bill goes through, there’s still an unquestionable beauty about It’s Such A Beautiful Day. Sure, Bill’s whole story is about him slowly losing his mind and life, but in that time he realizes more about the beauty of life as he continues on with his journey. He, like the rest of us, will stop what we are doing to go a walk to appreciate the wonderful weather. In fact, when Bill loses nearly everything, that seems to be all he has left, constantly circling his block, blissfully ignorant that he has appreciated the beautiful day 10 times before. The end of the movie emphasizes this idea more. Subverting the anticipation of Bill dying while lying down on a tree, Hertzfeldt mocks the audience by giving the audience exactly what they want: Bill, and therefore them, to live forever and ever. Then, the audience realizes that when life is endless, even the most beautiful and wondrous sights and moments become the normalcy, and ultimately mundane. The eventuality of death allows everyone in life to appreciate what they have more. If everyone lives forever, what’s the point? There’s no ticking clock to leave behind a legacy or to fear you’re wasting time. Nobody should end up like Bill, because if they do, everything that is possible to live through will be lived by them. I could talk about this movie for hours and hours, but I feel like I got the main points across. Please, if you have an hour of spare time this break, watch this movie. It gives a lot of insight without directly coming out and saying it.