Two simply-drawn stick men approach each other on a field of white and share an awkward encounter as they pass. One of them, Bill, inexplicably stumbles through simple sentences and conflates words before they depart, never to see one another again. This was one of the character’s initial appearances in animator Don Hertzfeldt’s comic strip Temporary Anaesthetics, and reoccurs in his debut feature. The scene succinctly introduces the film’s protagonist and also the surreal comic tone present throughout much of the outstanding It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) – a compilation of the director’s triptych of awards-laden shorts.
The story follows the unassuming Bill – recognisable purely by his hat – through an ongoing battle with escalating mental illness. This initially manifests itself as confusion and the odd moment of memory loss but in the proceeding three chapters transforms into pronounced amnesia, elaborate and disturbing hallucinations and physical debilitation. These traumas are presented through a series of vignettes that make up Bill’s baffling, challenging, but mostly mundane existence; visiting the supermarket, going for a walk, or waiting for a bus.
An evolution of the acclaimed Californian director’s own styles, It’s Such a Beautiful Day expertly combines the surreal humour of his earlier Oscar-nominated short, Rejected (2000), and the more experimental nature of his The Meaning of Life (2005). He places Bill’s life in uneven white enclosures on an otherwise black void and eschews digital trickery in favour of trusted, self-taught, in-camera techniques such as double exposure and additional stop-motion. All of this crafts a highly original and utterly enthralling film that touches on staggeringly expansive themes – more typically expected in the work of master auteur and persistent award-winner Terrence Malick, than from animations.
With only a handful of isolated incidents of straight dialogue, the lion’s share of the film relies on voice-over provided by Hertzfeldt himself. His omniscient narration is unpolished but engaging and remains intriguing in the ambiguity of its source long past the end credits. As it presents Bill throughout his struggles with even the basic aspects of living his unexceptional line-drawn life, the film remains incredibly personal whilst also brazenly tackling grand metaphysical ideas.
From his origins as an absurdist comic character in a variety of odd situations, Bill is now placed by his creator in what would appear to be his darkest hour. By the time his story reaches its bittersweet conclusion, he has managed to explore memory, life, death, and the nature of time itself. Hertzfeldt may already be a favourite on the festival circuit with his crudely rendered stick figures, but with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, he has provided an inventive animated masterpiece that will hopefully reach a wider audience that it it can affect and inspire.