I watched Don Hertzfeldt’s “The World of Tomorrow” short film recently, and then almost immediately went and found his trilogy of shorts, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” from a couple years back. Both films are heartbreaking — “Beautiful Day” a little more so, because it doesn’t have a character like the young Emily of “World of Tomorrow” to counterbalance all the existential grief — but they’re both funny, weird and beautiful.
In an interview, Hertzfeldt talked about how animation wasn’t important to him by itself. He got into it as a college student, he said, because it was cheaper than making live-action films. His point was that the medium is less important than the story. And although that’s true, it’s disingenuous. He must know that telling the story in a cartoon affects the way we respond.
So we call things “cartoonish” to suggest that they’re far removed from reality. In Hertzfeltd’s films, the cartoons are really stick figures, as abstract as you get get. But they’re tragic anyway. They’re stripped down of everything except posture and eyes, and it turns out that you can pack a lot of depth and story into those two things.
I think it resonates with me because a lot of my stories lately aren’t realistic either. It doesn’t mean I’m not trying to get at something real, because I am. But I also think that all fiction, all literature, and all storytelling, is by necessity artificial. We’re trying to capture something — the weird and messy experience of being alive — using symbols and forms that can’t ever be perfectly mapped to existence. At least if you’re trying to capture what it’s like on the inside, looking out on the world, it’s always going to be artificial. So you try different things. Some of those things are counterintuitive — to use stick figures, for example, or to put your characters in unbelievable situations. But if the response is genuine, if your characters behave and respond in a believable way, then you can start to figure out how to say something meaningful.
Anyway I loved the films. “The World of Tomorrow” just blew me away.