It’s Such a Beautiful Day: An Artist at Work

There are many different ways to tell a story. Novels, songs, plays, movies: they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Why one storyteller chooses their particular medium is always an interesting question to ask, to see what it is about the form that lends itself to the story in question. Given all of the other possible ways to tell a story, why anyone would choose animation, the most difficult, tedious, time-consuming subset of film, is a mystery in and of itself. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the answer to that question.

The story of a man named Bill, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an hour-long feature compilation of three shorts by animator Don Hertzfeldt: Everything Will Be OK (2006), I Am So Proud of You (2008), and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011). Though initially released collectively in 2012, the film has only recently been released online, thus granting it a well-deserved resurgence in popularity. It’s hard to say exactly what the plot of It’s Such a Beautiful Day is, as it’s more of an exploration of thoughts, memories, and actions through short scenes than it is a story. The unifying element of the vignettes are Bill’s deteriorating health, his increasingly erratic impulses, and his confusion and despair, both due to his looming death and the simple struggles of living. The feel, however, is definitive: Hertzfeldt’s narration and art set a mood that is amplified by his strong writing, detailing events varying from the mundane to the insane with equal believability, setting the audience inside Bill’s tortured brain. Each moment is packed with such force and connects to build such a compelling feeling that a more involved plot would be a negative rather than a positive.

Watching It’s Such a Beautiful Day is at first a very bizarre, bemusing experience. Hertzfeldt is best known for his Oscar-nominated short Rejected, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day follows proudly in that film’s footsteps, with the same trademark stick figures (hand-drawn, hand-animated, and manually photographed) backed by similarly odd writing. In one moment early on, the narrator describes Bill’s trip to the grocery store: “An old man who smelled of gasoline held up an onion and said, ‘Big onion,’ to no one in particular. He smiled at Bill and Bill looked at his socks.” These odd-but-honest non sequiturs are common place in the film, but they combine to form a powerful whole. Through the friendly guise of stick figures, Hertzfeldt is able to tackle otherwise taboo issues and present ideas that are hard to express. In one scene, after Bill recovers from the verge of death, the narrator says: “His uncle, whom Bill had not even noticed in the room, had taken a lot of time off work to fly in all the way from Tulsa. He looked vaguely annoyed.” The line is followed by several moments of awkward silence in Bill’s hospital room. The humor is weird while also maintain a commitment to honesty, packing moment after moment of the film with hilarious, oft-unspoken truths.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the product of an artist. Hertzfeldt clearly understands the form of animation as well as anyone, and he uses his mastery to great effect again and again. He plays with the rules of what a film can do, following no guidelines but his own artistic vision. Stick figures might commonly be a child’s way of drawing, but when Hertzfeldt uses them they take on renewed power. After receiving bad news, there’s a moment when Bill slowly takes off his hat and rubs his head, a delicate movement that contrasts with much of the film’s style. It’s a raw, human moment achieved entirely through stick figure animation. But Hertzfeldt doesn’t stop there. He brings a wide variety of tools to the table. He sets up multiple scenes on screen at once, juxtaposing the visuals as they play side by side. He does similar work with sound, looping audio tracks over one another, intentionally drowning out his own narration to create a cacophony that contrasts sharply with the classical background music. And then there are the additional elements: still images and video clips are integrated amongst the animations, the manual film is distorted, real water spreads across the screen and paper is set on fire. It is visually unlike any other film, and it’s executed so deliberately by Hertzfeldt that it works perfectly to create Bill’s mind.

And that’s really what It’s Such a Beautiful Day is about. It’s a look into the illogical, failing mind of a man, a glimpse at how another person sees the world. It’s a reminder of how we are all similar and different, how we are all illogical, how we are all struggling. It’s a story made possible by the flexibility of animation, the secret power of the inane, and above all Hertzfeldt’s own commitment to the medium and the story he chose to tell with it. It really is beautiful.

Grade: A        A perfect example of everything animation can accomplish