An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt
Friday, April 23
7:30 PM pm Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
Members $11, general $12.50
The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival is proud to present the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award to Academy Award–nominated short filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt for his unique contributions to animation. Over a long career, Hertzfeldt has remained fiercely independent by sticking to short format and challenging the boundaries of his craft. The popularity of his work is unprecedented in the world of short animation and his films are frequently referenced in pop culture. Hertzfeldt will be presented with the award and participate in an onstage interview at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. The shorts program Life, Death and Very Large Utensils, a collection of short films, past and present, is set to follow.
Will Success Spoil Don Hertzfeldt?
By Max Goldberg
What if I told you there was a filmmaker who channeled the ghosts of Stan Brakhage and Charles Schultz in equal measurewhose animation veers without warning from vaudeville to existentialismwho working by hand produces special effects to rival any Hollywood fantasiawho has a taste for Richard Strauss's strings and scatological humorwho, at the age of 32, is the envy of advertising executives and burgeoning surrealists alikewho eschews digital cameras for an anachronistic 35mm animation setup and lines fans up around the block in this supposed twilight of theatrical distribution? Who else but Don Hertzfeldt?
Using the rudimentary tools of a hobbyhorse, the Fremontborn animator whisks us away to faraway galaxies, probes our oldest insecurities and deconstructs the mechanics of a punch line. There's enough nonsensical brilliance and flaring imagination in a single Hertzfeldt short to supply several features, but compression is central to his handmade aesthetic. Both in terms of craft and emotional range, Hertzfeldt's evolution from early stick-figure howlers like Ah, l'Amour and Billy's Balloon to staggering works of heartbreaking genius like The Meaning of Life and the Everything Will Be OK cycle has been astonishingly steep.
It could easily have been otherwise. When he was 21, Hertzfeldt's fourth and final short as an auspicious film student at UC Santa Barbara, Billy's Balloon, was selected to play in competition at Cannes. Hertzfeldt missed the Palme d'Or but his edgy wit struck a chord with audiences who learned the lines by heart and tattooed their bodies with his figures. Every marketer dreams of this kind of viral presence, and the advertising offers kept rolling in even after Hertzfeldt's follow-up short, Rejected, took direct aim at corporate shilling. Instead of cashing in, Hertzfeldt plowed into two-year production cycles and untested formal terrain. As the man himself put it in his online diary, "I'd rather just walk through the woods and explore my own places out there, thanks."
Risk is fundamental to Hertzfeldt's arduous process. His style of composite animation entails reworking the same strip of film dozens of time without the luxury of a video playback. This means storyboards resembling physics proofs and an open invitation to serendipity. As the extensive special features on his DVDs makes clear, the Hertzfeldt way is an obsessive-compulsive disorder all its own (Ah, l'Amour is fondly dedicated to "my good friend caffeine"). The miracle of the finished films is that they retain a spark of spontaneity belying thousands of hours of labor.
Hertzfeldt's feel for what's funny is in direct contact with dreams, misplaced memories, common misunderstandings, unspoken observations and all the other flotsam of everyday life. Watching his early shorts now, one is struck right off by the nuanced expressivity Hertzfeldt is able to coax from crudely drawn figures; from the beginning, he displayed uncommon acuity as a writer. In Lily and Jim, for instance, he zeroes in on the impossible odds of a blind date with a few sidesplitting lapses in conversation. From these early exercises, it was only a couple of leaps to the cartoon sublime. The shot across the bow was The Meaning of Life, a self-conscious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hertzfeldt's vision of the decline of western civilizationa maddening crowd of isolationists, each muttering the same phrase over and over in cacophonous combatsuggests a comic-strip Goya or Nathaniel West. An awed contemplation of the cosmos follows, and for a few breathless minutes Hertzfeldt tests the limits of his imagination.
With the Everything Will Be OK cycle, Hertzfeldt's dense narration style catches up to these visual flights. The films center on Bill, an epileptic stick-figure trying to make sense of his world and coming unglued in the process. Hertzfeldt's multipaneled compositions dissemble space and time without losing sight of the human scale of his character's trials. Especially in I'm so proud of you, the second film in the cycle and Hertzfeldt's best yet, the animator's penchant for furious digressions has a distinctly Joycean flavor. Subsequent viewings reveal that what first seems random in fact forms an intricate, fragmentary mosaic of Bill's dissociative disorder. Hyperfluid ellipses and wormholes rush into tremendous formal jolts, and even the Hertzfeldt faithful may be too stunned to laugh.
The secret of any cult following is trust, and Hertzfeldt continues to reward his fans' devotion with elaborate DVD packages, gutsy touring schedules and steadfast anti-commercialism. Film culture still marginalizes artisanal animation but Hertzfeldt is doing as much as anyone to cultivate a new generation of cinephiles. When he launched the traveling Animation Show in 2003 with Mike Judge, the explicit rationale was "to free the work of these independent artists from the dungeons of Internet exhibition." As to his 35mm working methods, it's certain that tomorrow's frame-by-frame dreamers are paying attention. We're happy to welcome Hertzfeldt back to the Bay Area to celebrate his passionate brand of filmmaking.
Max Goldberg is a Berkeley-based film critic. His work appears in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Cinema Scope and sf360.org.
Life, Death and Very Large Utensils
Don Hertzfeldt Selected Filmography
2010 Wisdom Teeth
2008 I am so proud of you
2006 Everything Will Be OK
2005 The Meaning of Life
Welcome to the Show/Intermission in
the Third Dimension/The End of the Show (cartoons created to bookend the first
1998 Billy’s Balloon
1997 Lily and Jim
1995 Ah, l’Amour
2009 Lourdes Portillo
2008 Errol Morris
2007 Heddy Honigmann
2006 Guy Maddin
2005 Adam Curtis
2004 Jon Else
2003 Pat O’Neill
2002 Fernando Birri
2001 Kenneth Anger
2000 Faith Hubley
1999 Johan van der Keuken
1998 Robert Frank
1997 Jan Svankmajer
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