No World for Tomorrow

Austin-based independent animator Don Hertzfeldt has come to a point in his career where he can basically do no wrong by me. At worst, his movies are shallow (and admittedly sadistic in a hilarious way) amusements like Billy’s Balloon and Wisdom Teeth. At best, he has reached the heights minimalist masterpieces with the hand-drawn animation form from his angrily critical Rejected to his unexpectedly ambitious emotional rollercoaster ride of his sole feature* It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Even his fucking Simpsons intro is inspired. And of course, his last 5 years have been spent exploring the potentials of digital animation to translate his previously beloved stick figure style against otherwise pointedly computer generated imagery or principles communicating unexpectedly bottomless existential journeys of fears and thoughts with the World of Tomorrow short film series, the first two entries of which are not only masterpieces on the level of Rejected and It’s Such a Beautiful Day… but may in fact even surpass them. So of course, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime was immediately my most anticipated movie of the year the moment its existence was announced and as of this writing I have watched it four times (the fact that it’s ONLY 4 times in a year is an accomplishment of serious discipline, honestly).

So like I said, Hertzfeldt can do no wrong by me. But it can take a minute for me to adjust to see what he’s doing more clearly and I have to say that if World of Tomorrow Episode 3 remains in my top three movies of 2020 when the time comes to wrap it up… it’s still something of a disappointment to me in ways I wasn’t expecting. The first area being how these shorts lose a lot of humanity by the absence of Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s Scottish niece who at the ages of 4 and 5 had been recorded by Hertzfeldt to voice the central child Emily of the first two episodes while the narrative was constructed around her aimless ramblings. By this point, Mae is now 11 years old and as wonderfully creative and imaginative as I’m sure an 11 year old could be, I imagine it loses the spontaneity of her exclamations the way that pre-schoolers have hardly any filter at all. So sad to say but understandable as it is, Emily Prime is nowhere to be seen in this entry and it is doubtful she will ever return unless Hertzfeldt decides to wildly change the course of this series a second time.

For the first time, what we have instead as a subject is David Prime (who spends most of the short silent but I suspect an uncredited Don Hertzfeldt is the voice behind a hilarious gag that I won’t spoil), a character whom we have never met but whose clones we have encountered throughout the first two episodes in several ways we knew and ways we did not know until this episode. When we meet David, he’s an already well into the cold and isolated future premonitioned in the first two movies, but when Emily 9 (as in the ninth generation clone of Emily voiced like all of Emily’s clones with impeccable deadpan by Julia Pott) has met David, he was a toddler upon whom she sent a long dormant neural message that did not activate until he reached a certain mature age and needless to say… being confronted with this deliberately packed memory is overwhelming to David. As we’ve seen in the first World of Tomorrow, one of Emily’s clones had met one of David’s clones and the two had fallen in love. Many of Emily’s subsequent clones have attempted to find ways that would facilitate a reunion between the clone’s memories and the man they remember having strongly romantic feelings for. Emily 9 is the one that landed at leaving a complex and overlarge memory/message for David that sets him off on a vast journey that ends up requiring him to sacrifice a whole lot for something that makes his compulsion feel more obligated than organic.

Which gets us far enough in the narrative to acknowledge the second thing outside of Mae’s absence that gave me a minute to be on World of Tomorrow Episode Three‘s wavelength: this is by far the most cynical and vicious of the three episodes. The first two episodes approached its cold future with more of a sad disappointment, but this one portrays David’s arduous journey across space (and not necessarily time but… it is something passed through) and within unknown planets with an understanding that David doesn’t particularly know what he’s looking for. He just frequently sees the face of this woman implying that some future version of him was a soulmate of a past version of her – a vision that already costs him literally, he has to uninstall skills to watch more of the message by way of an obnoxious HUD interface. It’s a pretty pointed tale about how dangerous and malformed love can be. Not to mention given the things David goes through to land where he and Emily 9 hope to meet, this is certainly the most jokingly sadistic thing Hertzfeldt has made since Wisdom Teeth on the basis of that cosmic romantic uncertainty.

Which is a treatment of love as a concept that I’m happy to see many movies, but it does come as a shock to the system within a series of shorts that didn’t feint in that direction before (though it did maintain a pessimistic outlook on the future and all its marvels). Just as well, since Hertzfeldt has by now stated he will continue to be making so many more of these shorts and it was going to have to shift gears at some point in order to remain fresh. More importantly, it felt to me in the span of watching the first two World of Tomorrows that Hertzfeldt had pushed the envelope on marrying his stick figure minimalist aesthetic with imagery that could only be created through computers. If this World of Tomorrow Episode 3 hoped to justify itself in any manner, I thought it would have to be in evolving that visual style further than Episode 2 ended.

It gets there and then some. Episode 3 is undeniably the most ambitious and visually complex film of Hertzfeldt’s entire career and it lands every technical leap it takes. First in its depiction of the future on an intimate level with the first scene, using its sense of depth to a frame to add more clutter to the living area of David and then compounding that through his HUD view – which also foreshadows yet another new toy for Episode 3 – as one of my favorite gag turn out to be the desktop crowding of his view by way of pop-ups (one of many prices Emily 9’s message forces him to pay). This is particularly aided by the sound design doing more than any other Hertzfeldt film to be as irritating as possible in ways that make sense within this world, whether it’s holograms that scream at you or the buzziness of David’s guidance system. Then there is the expansive way that Hertzfeldt defines the planets and areas that David and other characters live in or explore without removing any of the bold color (although another favorite gag of mine plays with the color) and defined lines that made up the previous films. This is, in any case, the most physical of the World of Tomorrows with hardly any room for abstraction in the story it wants to tell (though Taylor Barron returns as a visual effects artist and the only other crew member besides Hertzfeldt). It’s the first of the World of Tomorrows to actually interact and create this world rather than approximation of it based on the workings of someone else’s mind. Which probably ends up being why this feels so much less psychologically complex than its predecessors, but that’s a fair trade to me.

Then there’s how that depth finally gets to Hertzfeldt playing with the z-axis and the camera’s perspective to these characters in ways that give them more dimension than they ever had before. The teaser shot that announced this movie’s existence happens to give away one of the most impressive moments of character animation in Hertzfeldt’s career (with the only other contender being the climactic ballet in Episode 2) as we watch David from behind stumble during his wall on the remote planet where another piece of Emily 9’s message is and it is smooth as butter to watch his limbs swing around and his square body have more volume to it than any stick figure before. It also allows more camera angles to be utilized now that Hertzfeldt knows that he can actually animate these characters from those angles in ways that make spatial sense while still finding moments to play with their flat 2-dimensional origins.

Such a moment being a narrative revelation that I want to keep a surprise as much as possible that ends up being an avenue for shots and images to have layers that look more like filters of previous drawings from the series. We learn late in the film that there is a means that facilitates imagery that resembles cels but much murkier and unstable (similar to a technique used in It’s Such a Beautiful Day but with less motion) and how the characters play with this is one of the darker revelations within the whole story. And yet this technique is not something necessarily introduced to us that far in nor exclusively used for darkness or comic value, as the HUD point of view shots already allow us to see the world sometimes through that filtered screen with the same separation as David and particularly one of the earlier shots happens to be unexpectedly soothing and beautiful as David is faced with an old childhood nightmare on his HUD and closes his eyes. There is a lot more tonal versatility to these new techniques on Hertzfeldt’s part than expected for a short that mostly retain a certain group of emotional states.

So there is a lot that Hertzfeldt brings new to the table and practically everything about World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime does feel brand-new in a way that is exhilarating. It’s just that it did take me a couple more watches to get that and I still don’t know that I’m calibrated to love this the way that I did the first two. Still perhaps by the time Episode Four is made, the episodes will connect in a clearer way and I’ll be able to feel ready for yet another exciting divergence from the things that came before. I’ll be ready for the things to come.

*OK, it’s technically a short film trilogy but having originally watched them as separate short films… I find it just impossible to return to that presentation again since Hertzfeldt combined them into one feature. They just segue so well into each other.

What a Happy Day It Is

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I’m going to spend almost the entirety of this post gushing over what I consider to be THE cinematic achievement of 2017 (and arguably the last movie I saw that year if you live in a timezone that is not mine), so I think I can be forgiven for identifying the most frequent criticism I hear on animator Don Hertzfeldt’s last-second released* short sequel to glorious and wonderful World of Tomorrow, this one titled World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts. That criticism is essentially “it does not hold up outside of the context of World of Tomorrow, more particularly it does not hold up without watching World of Tomorrow immediately before it.”

Now, identifying that criticism does not mean I agree with it. Certainly, people would enjoy World of Tomorrow better with the knowledge of having seen Episode Two and it’s probably a lot easier to catch all the neat continuations of World of Tomorrow‘s visual anchors with the first short film fresh in your head, but Episode Two is certainly its own standalone story with its own insights on humanity and its own abstractions of those emotions into gorgeous technicolor seas washing together to fill the screen and sharp digital lines of various forms.

That said, Episode Two is soooooooo very much rewarding with the context of its predecessor in many ways. For one, much as Hertzfeldt made clear how tough it was to craft a new narrative from the new audio recordings he took out of his 5-year-old niece Winona Mae, there’s not only a challenging yet coherent narrative out of Episode Two, there’s also an evident growth from the last time we saw Mae’s character Emily Prime, rendered as a stick figure like every other character Hertzfeldt ever animated who isn’t a Simpson. There’s a lot of room for a little maturity and confidence between ages four and five, as Emily will indicate when a new adult clone of Emily (animator Julia Pott again) with a 6 on her forehead and a clangy metallic machine on her back suddenly barges into the child’s peaceful drawing time with a lot more urgency behind her “HELLO EMILY” (or is that just the fact that every line Pott delivers from this heavily damaged being is so loud and heavy? She still retains her mostly emotionally stilted line readings like before, still a huge strength) and Prime responds to her presence with a frank “you have to sit down, okay?”.

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I don’t want to go to far into what follows that introduction of Episode Two on a narrative sense (I will try to keep things thematic instead) because it’s so eventful and full of wonderful surprises, but I will explain how the middle ground into the same arresting colorful backdrops of dynamically undefinable computer generated shapes comes from ours and Prime’s entry into the mind of the clone. And if you thought the universe Hertzfeldt gave us in World of Tomorrow was dysfunctional, at least that one had real-world logic to it so we could recognize a rock when we see it or what part is the ground. Here, Hertzfeldt takes advantage of the opportunity to frequently glitch (both in on-screen and on the soundtrack) and leave remnants of visuals well after it’s communicated that the character or object is not there anymore to establish the fragile and impaired state of the being whose memories and emotions we are exploring.

And those memories and emotions are the product of a feeling of incompletion and dishonesty to one’s identity (indeed Emily Six’s existence as a clone/storage unit to Emily’s experiences is what gives her the titular “Burden of Other People’s Thoughts”), visually represented by backgrounds with gaping angular holes in them either interrupting an otherwise colorful scene with big spots of empty black or cracking a monochrome shot with chaos underneath it all. The uncertainty of our character at one point causes the colors to bleed in an artificial and digital way and it is the moment when it is clear Hertzfeldt has now mastered the usage of computers for his animation style. The force with which he deconstructs already unstable settings with dissolves and superimpositions** and aggressive revolutions of vertical smoke and clouds in dark tones of purple and red (Taylor Barron is credited for those clouds and, man, the movie would not nearly feel as urgent without them) is reminiscent in my mind of “Part 8” in this year’s return of Twin Peaks***, a rivaling attempt to translate intangible interior sensations such as depression and pain and loneliness into pure stimuli for the viewer. It is then no wonder “Part 8” and World of Tomorrow Episode II are the only competitors for the Best. Damned. Thing. I. Watched. in. 2017. The difference, other than moods since Hertzfeldt has never been as dark as David Lynch, is that Twin Peaks‘ anchor is the context of the TV series itself and Episode 2‘s anchor are distinct character presences. We’re here not only to sink into the mindframes the visuals lull us into, but in turn to recognize how that is the way the apparently blank Emily Clone 6 feels before we dig into the why.

Did I not mention this movie is funny? I promise it is, even despite what I just described.

Indeed, the more time we spend within the clone’s mind, the more we realize “oh this piece of scenery is her memory” and the clearer it is what the elements on her person, like the “6” and the bracelet across her wrist are AND what they happen to mean to her, neither of which are very happy answers. I don’t have trouble guessing that the way Hertzfeldt tried to cheat his way around Mae’s mostly unconnected lines is by crafting the true crux of the narrative around Emily Six (indeed, there is a span of time where Pott is the only voice in the film and it’s the most structurally clean moment in the film, though it also contains the broadest humor in the work – which is still hilarious if not very surprising – rather than the joyous randomness of Mae’s presence) and it means that we’re privy to more sadness surrounding the first 2/3 of Episode 2‘s 22 minutes.

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The last third, though, oh my Odin. Let me count the ways in which it accelerates World of Tomorrow Episode 2 into my heart as a wonderful blanket for the soul. First, we witness the full clout Mae gets over Hertzfeldt’s story in two moments (one of which preceeds that last third, mind you) where she ends up giving resolutions we would expect to this dense and dark depth into questions about existence we never want to ask. And in the way that only a five-year-old child could possibly do. Second, by that hand, Hertzfeldt indulges in simple yet bright and playful (and so much cleaner) designs full of cotton-candy-colored energy and life while retaining the still-impeachable logic that the setting would need, acting a foil to all of the fearfulness we saw before (it also is maybe the most rewarding sort of callback to the first World of Tomorrow and I feel like even being vague about how is kind of a spoiler). And third is by a lovely sequence of fluid movement and animation lifted up by The Nutcracker‘s compositions, not only surprising for a stick figure, but particularly for Hertzfeldt who has never in his career given us anything to imply he could make his characters so graceful and flowing as he does within the last few minutes of Episode 2 and probably could not have done so if he hadn’t finally mastered the digital technology with which he now animates.

It’s at once a shining moment of unexpected versatility on Hertzfeldt’s part but a beautiful tear-welling moment of catharsis after an exhausting 22 minute journey. It’s not often that you see an artist who will bravely dive deep into the sort of melancholy and gloom that Hertzfeldt is more than familiar with at this point and still rise effortlessly back up into unabashed optimism and inner peace. It’s possible that he couldn’t do it without the help of the innocence of his niece’s imagination and that is kind of one of the conclusions The Burden of Other People‘s Thoughts lands on: that while it doesn’t do to live in the past, even when it hurts us, there is still a solace in our childhood we ought to embrace and remember. But that is only ONE conclusion of many The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts holds in its treasure trove and here’s hoping more can be pulled out before the next Hertzfeldt comes to surprisingly top this one (I didn’t think World of Tomorrow could be topped and yet here we are). I have only scratched the surface in my first two viewings.

Oh, I watched it twice. Did I mention that? On the same day.

*A last second release that probably cost it a spot on the shortlist for The Academy Award for Best Short Film, Animated and that shit is GOING TO STING for the rest of my life.
**Again, Hertzfeldt’s usual M.O.
***For those who read this asking when I will return to my David Lynch retrospective, STinG is not here at the moment but if you leave a message, I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you, bye bye.

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Tomorrow Will Die

I’ve been an extremely late-comer to Don Hertzfeldt. In spite of his Oscar nomination in 1999 for Rejected and the constant acclaim he’s received as an independent animation darling, my introduction to his work literally came about, like, 2 years ago (2013) when I happened upon his 2010 short film Wisdom Teeth.

I liked it a lot. Enough to get my feet in the air kickin’, but it’s entirely the feature-length It’s Such a Beautiful Day that definitely made me a legitimate fan of Hertzfeldt and eager to approach all the other work he made in his career. I’m actually extremely bitter than between the year where both It’s Such a Beautiful Day and Silver Linings Playbook came out, it’s the mediocre latter film that has gotten all the rave about its portrayal of mental illness when a more honest film exists.

But that’s one for another post.

My main point behind this intro is that I am so fully in the bag for Don Hertzfeldt, you can tie it up and swing it around. So, it wasn’t so tough for me to decide to shell out the 4 bucks needed to rent his newest short film World of Tomorrow on vimeo-on-demand. Especially when it came out of winning his second Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year.

Hence, I may be biased, but I totally found that worth it. World of Tomorrow is a 16-minute short film so worth that time and money that I implore you to check it out as soon as you can. But, then again, I have to back it up, so that’s why we’re here.

Anyway, like you’d expect for Hertzfeldt, it is philosophically dense, avant-gardely wacky, and at points – surprising for Hertzfeldt on my end – unbearably adorable while becoming – unsurprisingly – nihilistic.

A message is caught by a young girl named Emily (voiced by Winona Mae) living in an undisclosed yet probably futuristic timeline. The message turns out to be from an extensively distant future where the deliverer immediately reveals herself to be one of many generational clones of Emily (this elder version is voiced by Julia Pott) and inviting Emily Prime to join her briefly in the future to discover the many apparent benefits of life there and the overall downside and depression inherent in future life.

And thus goes the movie’s ideology into fear, isolation, loneliness, progress, separation, and all that other anti-social things that astonishingly aren’t that far off from how humans like you and I act. Just as well a theme previously explored in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, but Hertzfeldt goes one further by now making World of Tomorrow weirdly alien to his usual viewers and even possibly to himself.

He does this simply by allowing World of Tomorrow to become his first digitally-animated work. And that actively gives off an inhuman gleam to most of the structures we witness in the future of World of Tomorrow, many of which are just lines of perfect geometry across a smooth colorful surface. We are meant to regard this as the “outernet” and how the majority of future citizens interact with each other (the short film never namedrops or even uses the term “Social Media” but I’m sure that’s one of the many technological advances that it observes as adding to this impersonability that the world of tomorrow encompasses). And yet the only people whom we ever physically live through this with is Emily Prime and Emily, arguably the same people.

The Outernet is physically and objectively “better” as an environment but also less lifeless, especially with this short’s obsession with the past and memory used as a theme and its one-track-minded (and eventually futile) desperation for immortality. Something reflected on how the physical perfection of digital animation is making everything in Hertzfeldt’s film a lot more clearer but also reasonably less personable than the previous works of hand-drawn animation that had a lot more humanity and imperfection in them. A story like World of Tomorrow could only possibly be drawn with that kind of soulful sheen of digital animation from a vehemently independent animator like Hertzfeldt.

And yet there’s still the whole remaining fact that these people are the same usual stick figures Hertzfeldt draws, completely white and thin, taking almost no space of the usually blank screen in Hertzfeldt work – although in here, the figures are overwhelmed by color to especially Emily Prime’s delight.

Ah yes, I’ve been making this sound astonishingly dreary and dark and while some of the humor of the short film comes from that dreary darkness, it also comes from a facet I’ve neglected to mention up until this point. Winona Mae, the voice of Emily Prime, is Don Hertzfeldt’s niece. She has no voice acting experience up until this point. Naturally, for she is four years old.

The majority of Mae’s lines are near non-sequiters reacting to the unfortunate philosophy the clone Emily is conveying to her, only somewhat connected to what’s said or going on on screen. And it plays off wonderfully as both a relief that Emily Prime, who we can assume is also four, is not allowing her to be bothered by what Emily Prime states is the irreversible future of the world and also as a depressing thought that what the Emily clone has tried to explain to Emily Prime will go absolutely nowhere and both from the fact that a four-year-old child simply cannot register the gravity of what’s going on. And the things Emily Prime is enjoying about the Outernet are clearly things that the Emily clone has no interest in and is to distracted with isolating herself from a humanity that is, in effect, also isolating themselves from each other.

Emily Prime also, naturally, gets the best of the lines – My favorites are when she names out several colors in ecstasy of how it changes the Outernet and, after only three, claims she can’t remember any or how she lectures the Emily clone about “snakeboys”.

It also means that Hertzfeldt can be more direct with his themes here than with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, almost flat-out laying them out, though this makes It’s Such a Beautiful Day the work that ends up hitting a lot more harder for this. And the saddest part is that Hertzfeldt doesn’t blame anyone or anything but just observes that humankind has a natural tendency to drift away from each other and put up more screens and more technology in the middle of them. It’s not even a slightly angry short film, it’s just a pensive one, and a perhaps regretful one.

World of Tomorrow is a wonderful, dark, and overall fantastic experience to have for 16 minutes and I implore you to go and rent it from vimeo whenever you have the time. It’s certainly better than all the movies that are coming out this weekend.

And then, obviously, when you’re done… Go out a bit more. Interact. See people. I know that’s what I gotta do.