Not everyone goes to the cinema to feel a cornucopia of strong emotions. If that darkened room with a large screen and speakers spells escapism for you then American adult animator Don Hertzfeldt’s debut feature is probably not the right pill. While so much more than this, it is, undeniably, about meaningless suffering with an astonishing third-act coda putting the pin in delusions most of us have about what we’re going to achieve before death calls time.
If you’re still reading, hi, I think we could be friends. Let’s hang out and talk about mortality some time. In the same way that accepting the worst about life frees the individual to enjoy the moment, embracing the plummeting arc of Bill, ISaBD’s stickman protagonist, prepares the brain to appreciate the lashings of stylistic and storytelling originality found in each frame of this virtuoso creation.
For Hertzfeldt is an extremely skilled animator. His stickmen, little more than line drawings, have more pathos than even Keanu Reeves looking sad on a bench. As with his previous, blackly hilarious shorts, there are pauses between events in which characters just vibrate, which looks like a whole-body heartbeat. Breaking with form, the whole 62 minutes is told via an overwrought narrator, Hertzfeldt himself, whose tone of delivery carries a contagious tenderness for his everyman, whose only access to the extraordinary is bad genetic luck. When Bill’s experiences are universal, it feels like Hertzfeldt is sympathising with us all over the strict laws of nature, time and modern life.
But if there was ever a man whose professional experience qualified him to dodge sentimentality while on personal ground, it’s Hertzfeldt. The mind that gave us malevolent balloons dropping adorable kids from a great heights (Billy’s Balloon) and an increasingly painful but hilarious selection of anti-consumerist shorts (Rejected) knows that the way to tell of suffering is with frequent laughable zoom outs that bear out Chaplin’s famous remark. “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
Long shot is another way of describing the perspective we get on Bill told through three combined shorts: Everything Will Be Okay (2006), I Am So Proud of You (2008) and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011). The whole of his life is laid out, not always sequentially, evoking the creatures in Kurt Vonnegut’s 'Slaughterhouse Five', the tralfalmadorians, who see through space and time, sucking away the jerky drama of constant anticipation and replacing it with a panoramic wisdom. Real photography with a Malickian emphasis on nature – fire and water are everywhere – and music from the classical greats: Wagner, Rachmaninov, Strauss… ennoble events. Hertzfeldt is an alchemist for the thwarted. To the feelings fear, pain and alienation he has applied grace, imagination and mastery to create a moving and redemptive epic.
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