Don Hertzfeldt is one of the most exciting filmmakers of his generation. A true original in American cinema, he deserves recognition alongside his peers as one of the most innovative, daring, and uncompromising directors working today. Yet most of his filmography consists of short features that star stick figures and grotesque cartoon characters. He found fame with his cult classic Rejected, yet has broadened his scope and ambition while never sacrificing his wickedly bizarre sense of humor. From 2006 to 2011, Hertzfeldt worked on a trilogy of short films that he decided to compile into one sixty-minute feature film. Despite its short running time, It's Such a Beautiful Day is the most daring film released in 2012, a profound and personal examination of identity, memory, death, and the paradox of exceeding our mortal limits while simultaneously embracing them.
The story, a fairly non-linear one, concerns itself with a stick figure christened Bill. As the narrator (Hertzfeldt) informs us in constant monotone, Bill is an everyman who ekes out a nondescript existence in an unspecified metropolis. His life is peppered with awkward encounters with other people, both complete strangers (as shown in the hilarious opening sequence) and those closest to him (his ex-girlfriend, with whom he remains on amiable, if overly placid, terms), yet Bill comes to realize that he is, in fact, suffering from an ambiguous mental illness. Hertzfeldt reveals this slowly in the first chapter of the film through his use of sound and photographic tricks, none of which relies on the assistance of computers. The effect is darkly troubling, and while Hertzfeldt never sacrifices his humor, he also never undermines the severity of Bill's plight.
After a brush with death, Bill begins the road to recovery in the second chapter and Hertzfeldt begins to diverge even further from a linear narrative. As Bill reflects upon a possible history of mental illness in his family, Hertzfeldt jumps backward and forward through the chronology of Bill's life, raising questions about the flow of time, free will, and the constant change human beings undergo until they become nearly unrecognizable as the person they once were. It's a daring shift, yet the director eases into this transition with confidence and total command of his craft. When Hertzfeldt reaches the third chapter of his tale, it seems like he's already used all the tricks in his arsenal. He somehow still manages to confound our expectations, while never straying from the tone he has established or from the emotional purity of Bill's story. I don't dare spoil anything, but there is a moment in the third act whose impact is, for me, akin to a famous scene in Chris Marker's classic film La Jetée in its surprising power and beauty.
It would be difficult to summarize or even discuss what Hertzfeldt has accomplished, even if I gave away some of his most powerful moments. Elements of the philosophical musings of Richard Linklater's Waking Life, as well as the grandiosity and fragmented form of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, can be ascribed to this film, yet Don Hertzfeldt is in a league of his own. He follows the beat of his own drum, fascinated by the limitations and techniques animation and photography can produce, but equally mindful of his audience. He understands the tragic core of his story: the fragility of the human mind, the fleeting nature of the relationships we forge and cherish, and the seeming impenetrability of death. All these themes culminate in an ending that can be analyzed on a metaphysical, even spiritual level, or as a transmundane validation of its protagonist. Regardless of how you interpret the resolution of Bill's story, it outdoes Hertzfeldt's 12-minute opus The Meaning of Life for sheer transcendent exuberance. It's Such a Beautiful Day lingers in the mind just as it lingers in the heart, for a very long time. It's bold, original, dark, achingly sad, and ultimately awe-inspiring. If nothing else, it can be considered the mark of a master filmmaker who has left an indelible and incomparable stamp not just on animation, but on cinema itself.