PREVIEW: Don Hertzfeldt At The ICA

Bill Johnson looks over the U.S. animated film-maker's career ahead of the screening of It’s Such A Beautiful Day and his early short films this Friday

DIY cinema is nothing new – from Steven Spielberg to Peter Jackson to all that ex-mumblecore lot currently cluttering up the US indie scene, countless filmmaking careers have their roots in somebody’s garden shed, or its New York loft equivalent. But few filmmakers have taken the idea of independence to heart in quite the same way as Don Hertzfeldt, Austin, Texas’s very own one-man animation studio-cum-distribution network. Hertzfeldt doesn’t just write and direct his own movies, he also animates them, soundtracks them, performs the voices, takes them on worldwide festival tours, packages them up on DVD and sells them on his own website. What’s more, he does all this without a penny of corporate sponsorship, one of the world’s only filmmakers to live and work in total creative freedom.

The downside of all this is that, although Hertzfeldt’s name is sacred in animation geek circles, his films haven’t managed to find the wide exposure they so richly deserve. His first almost-feature-film, the 65-minute masterpiece It’s Such A Beautiful Day, was given a limited run in the US last year to widespread critical acclaim: critics from The New York Times to The Village Voice queued up to lavish it with praise, while The Onion’s AV Club website placed it as one of the year’s top ten. But outside America, exposure has been limited to a handful of festival screenings.

That’s set to change this month, as the ICA cinema presents a one-week run of the film, plus a whole evening dedicated to Hertzfeldt’s remarkable early shorts taking place this Friday, May 3 (further details below). Taken as a whole, these films represent one of modern cinema’s most cohesive and idiosyncratic bodies of work, as a series of hapless stick-figure heroes struggle with an achingly familiar and relatable set of modern-world problems: isolation, corporate exploitation, mental breakdown, the loss of love and the search for meaning.

Hertzfeldt’s most famous work – and the word is used cautiously – has to be Rejected, the 2000 short which won his first (and, thus far, only) Oscar nomination. Leaving university with four increasingly smart and unusual cartoons – Ah, ‘L’Amour! (1995), Genre (1996), Lily And Jim (1997) and the hilariously despicable Billy’s Balloon (1998) – under his belt, Hertzfeldt was immediately set upon by the advertising community and pestered to lend his vision to their latest marketing scheme. Turning down every offer (and indeed suing at least one company for creative property infringement), he instead came up with Rejected, a ferocious sideswipe against corporate America in which a young animator named Don Hertzfeldt, crushed by rejections from major advertising firms, begins to lose his mind, the dividing line between his own reality and that of his work becoming increasingly frayed.

His next film was another leap forward: as its title suggests, 2005’s The Meaning of Life is not so much a comic short (though there is plenty of humour in it), and more an effort to boil down the entirety of human existence (and life on other planets, to boot) into twelve head-frying minutes. Commonly compared to 2001 and Terence Malick, The Meaning of Life uses optical effects, trick photography and stick-figure animation (Hertzfeldt is avowedly anti-digital) to track our species from the oceans to the stars.

Now, with his feature debut It’s Such A Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt has narrowed his focus back down to one man, but his themes are every bit as epic and universal. It’s the story of an everyman who finds his world coming apart thanks to a combination of hereditary mental illness, romantic hardship and bad medication. The film is unique, but it’s also a summation and re-evaluation of Hertzfeldt’s pet concerns. Like the early shorts it’s blackly hilarious, dissecting the minutiae of human interaction and laying our neuroses bare. Like Rejected it’s a sardonic attack on the shallowness of modern life, but it’s also about how the simple, meaningless things we take for granted can actually bring comfort when all else is gone. Like The Meaning Of Life it’s a grandiose tribute to the wonder of existence, asking all the big questions despite knowing that the answers will never, ever come. It represents a new artistic pinnacle for one of the world’s most remarkable artists.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day will open at the ICA on May 3, and that same night there’ll be a two-hour tribute to Hertzfeldt, screening a selection of shorts followed by the feature, plus a Hertzfeldt-themed party in the bar. For full details and tickets, head to the ICA’s website here.

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