Written, directed, animated, and narrated by Don Hertzfeldt.
We can call Don Hertzfeldt’s masterpiece a work of animation, and that’s true as far as it goes. Certainly, there’s all kinds of animation in it; It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a kind of animation summit. Traditional hand-drawn material—mostly with white backgrounds, minimal environmental details, and stick figures—propels the movie. Sure. However, Hertzfeldt’s linework is often superimposed over stop-motion photography and still images. Abstract collage, lens flares, images that appear to be drawn directly onto film stock (as with Stan Brakhage, whose style Hertzfeldt is drawing from), motion paintings, stock footage that’s slowed down and sped up with time-lapse editing, and more is all here. It’s rapid-fire, sometimes with three or four panels of action going at once, sometimes with background animation behind the main action, sometimes with overlapped voices and conversations. Everything has a restless, herky-jerky quality, even the traditionally shot film footage (of waves, of trees, of post-apocalyptic landscapes). Everything quivers. Everything in It’s Such a Beautiful Day is about to become something. Even the ever-present voiceover animation is urgent, not quite breathless but just shy of unnerving. So, it’s better to say that It’s Such a Beautiful Day has an animating spirit. It carries the animus of its lead character, Bill. Bill is an everyman, a stick figure in a hat stumbling/freefalling/drifting through his life. Aren’t we all, in some way? Even in his smooth, dull glide, though, he’s restless, anxious, wanting to become something more and entirely unsure of what they might be. He feels like a rough draft of himself. Again, don’t we all? He’s going through the motions but beginning to wonder if all that movement is adding up to anything. Bill goes to the doctor. He talks to his ex-girlfriend. He runs into his neighbors. He spends a lot of time at the bus stop. Suddenly, he falls ill. Hertzfeldt never explains exactly what’s wrong with Bill but the poor guy starts having difficulty communicating to others, and begins to have visions. The lines between reality, fantasy, nightmares, and memory get blurred. Indeed, near the end of the movie, it’s suggested that much of what we’ve seen are false memories. The jittery cartooning, which has had slightly absurd touches even at the beginning, then plunges headlong into absurdity. We’re witnessing Bill’s end times—a major illness, a muted recovery, a return to illness, possibly his death or maybe an incredible communion with Earth’s wholeness (Hertzfeldt leaves it tantalizingly unclear) in a way that reminds me of the end of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We’re seeing Bill come to terms with his life, even though he’s losing sight of it and understanding of it, as his life is closing. He didn’t get to be who he wanted to be, in part because Hertzfeldt seems to insist that our beings aren’t static in the first place. We don’t settle on to one identity, one stable vision of self. We’re always as quivering as Bill’s life and dreams. We’re always a little sad, grasping a little at something we don’t understand and can never clutch fully—at least, not for long. If this makes this 62-minute gem sound like a morbid slog, I apologize. It’s not that. It’s Such a Beautiful Day resonates with the rich minutiae of life, with the small interactions that build up to a life, with all of the tiny things that Bill doesn’t see as he’s sleepwalking toward death but which he finally starts to get when he falls ill. He’s the most expressive stick figure imaginable—heartbreaking, deadpan, exhausted. Hertzfeldt’s film is hilarious. Encountering death doesn’t stop him from being darkly funny. A bravura five-minute history of Bill’s ancestors features a lot of his relatives getting hit by trains. An exchange with a dude whose name he can’t remember—but who remembers Bill’s name—is priceless, as is a wordless passage between Bill and a leaf blower at the bus stop. Hertzfeldt’s sadness is usually tempered by comedy, and the movie is rarely bleak. Because it continues to be openhearted in the face of death, It’s Such a Beautiful Day earns its mythic overtures at the end, as well as its evolution from quiet character study to sweeping melodrama. It pulsates with life, while haunted by death.