“Planted catnip for the neighborhood cats and within an hour it was trampled and shredded to bits. So they don’t totally destroy it, I’ve now become the idiot who chases cats away from catnip.” — From Don Hertzfeldt’s online journal (bitterfilms.com/forum.html)
The above quotation might function as a snapshot of the life and work of animator Don Hertzfeldt. In his stark, mostly stick-figure films, Hertzfeldt examines the futility of our lives through characters who endure stretches of unemotional non-action punctuated by sudden spasms of ultra-violence.
A DIY guy to the extreme, Hertzfeldt is a throwback in the digital age, using pencils, chunk erasers and Sharpies to sketch and complete page after exhausting page of illustrations. All of his films are available on DVD through his own Bitter Films site (bitterfilms.com), and he maintains tight control of their distribution. He shuns the notion of producing work for commercial gain, yet, somehow, he has become an award-winning, respected and, yes, commercially viable animator.
Case in point: Hertzfeldt’s 17-minute epic — epic for a short film, anyway — “Everything Will Be OK” (2007). Narrated by Hertzfeldt, and the first chapter in a trilogy, “Everything Will Be OK” follows Bill, an introspective, lonely man with mental and physical health issues. His life rolls out as a series of seemingly disconnected experiences — a crazy-quilt of live-action footage and nightmarish dream sequences — that leaves the viewer strangely uneasy uneasiness about what the futility of Bill’s life says about our own.
If this seems too high-minded a concept for animation, the much-shorter “Wisdom Teeth” balances the scales with its utter absurdity. Featured on Showtime, and clocking in at just under six minutes, “Wisdom Teeth” zeros in on Nigel, who’s recently had oral surgery. His friend, curious about his swollen mouth, asks if he can pull out one of his stitches. Nigel, reluctant at first, concedes, and his buddy begins the long and painful process of tugging a single, never-ending stitch from Nigel’s gums. The agonizingly long stitch removal runs a full three-and-a-half minutes, all the while becoming bloodier and more difficult to watch. The punchline, which involves the mouth-birth of a baby connected to the stitch and Nigel’s subsequent beating by a small but angry mob, is hilariously crude. Oh, and the whole thing is in German with English super-titles.
Hertzfeldt, of course, is a festival favorite. His latest, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” recently won the Best Director award at the Fargo Film Festival and the Yoram Gross Award for Best Animation at Flickerfest, Australia. “Wisdom Teeth” won a Special Jury Mention from the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, and “I am So Proud of You” and “Everything Will Be OK” were jointly awarded “Best Picture” at Brazil’s MUMIA Animation Festival.
Hertzfeldt has also been hired — and fired — by some reputable institutions, most notably the Family Learning Channel, which commissioned Hertzfeldt to create short promotional segments to air between programs. The abbreviated films — abstract, odd and violent — were rejected upon review by FLC, for reasons that might be immediately clear to the uninitiated viewer (http://bit.ly/GRNjxb).
Hertzfeldt had his revenge by releasing the wonderfully sick shorts in a collection called “Rejected.” In the commentary for the collection, Hertzfeldt says, “I’ve turned down more money by refusing all real commercial work than I care to think about. You never want to lie to your audience. … You can trick them, you can disturb them, but you can never lie to them. To me, commercials are nothing but lies.”
Absent much commercial work, Hertzfeldt instead relies on his cottage industry, his hardcore fans and his own outsider sense of what art and entertainment can be to propel a surprisingly successful career. One that, at the very least, generates enough income for more Sharpies.
John E. C