Expectations were high for Don Hertzfeldt’s one-night-only appearance in London, billed as ‘the animation event of 2009’. Part of an extensive international tour, the show at the Curzon Soho cinema not only boasted the first London screening of his new short, I Am So Proud of You (2008), it also gave fans a rare opportunity to hear the man himself. And when I say ‘fans’, I really do mean ‘fans’. Over in the States, they turned up tattooed with Hertzfeldt characters, queuing up to get pieces of clothing signed. While there didn’t appear to be any tattoos in London, there was a definite sense of excitement as people filed into a slideshow of Hertzfeldt’s storyboard scribbles.
It’s easy to see why Hertzfeldt’s early shorts have garnered such a cult following. With their deadpan timing and macabre wit, they have that alternative sense of humour that immediately makes you feel that you’re a part of something special – you’ve passed into an exclusive club of people ‘who get it’. The Curzon audience certainly welcomed the early works like old friends. Two particular favourites were Rejected (2000), Hertzfeldt’s deranged assault on the commercial side of animation, and Billy’s Balloon (1998), a skewed re-imagining of The Red Balloon (1956), in which a flock of balloons terrorise some unfortunate stick-children.
Although amusingly scripted and beautifully paced, these YouTube hits are eclipsed by Hertzfeldt’s latest works. Typically self-effacing, Hertzfeldt himself described the chronological development of his films as going from ‘sucking to not sucking’. While it’s widely inaccurate to say that any of Hertzfeldt’s films ‘suck’, there is a marked difference in the scope and visual imagination of his last three shorts. They really are breathtaking.
Building on his technique of using simple hand-drawn stick-figures shot on a 1940s 35mm camera, Hertzfeldt has added new elements of photography, creating an intensified atmosphere of dark claustrophobia. The earliest film to demonstrate this new aesthetic is The Meaning of Life (2005), which opened up the Curzon Soho programme. Described by critics as an animated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film depicts the changing fortunes of our solar system to a soaring Tchaikovsky soundtrack. As stick-people fill the screen, neurotically repeating lines of dialogue ad nauseam (‘Does this look infected to you?’; ‘I know he’s cheating on me’; ‘Give me your money’), Hertzfeldt shows us the absurdity and futility of existence in a beautifully amusing and poignant way.
This ability to simultaneously sweep across the entirety of human life and focus in on the minutiae of human anxiety is evident in Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious project to date. A trilogy-in-progress (I Am So Proud of You is the follow-up to his 2006 work, Everything Will Be OK), the films focus on Bill, a stick-man diagnosed with an unidentified disease, spiralling into mental illness. With Hertzfeldt’s quick-fire voice-over recounting the history of Bill and his family, both films play like hypnotic, mysterious literary vignettes. Indeed, Hertzfeldt’s work has been compared to Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut (although interestingly, Hertzfeldt said that he rarely reads fiction and more commonly finds inspiration in philosophy, psychology and real life). Despite their brevity, these strange visions leave a long-lasting sense of bewilderment and awe, demanding contemplation and requiring repeated viewing. The frenetic atmosphere of the Curzon bar and clamouring autograph queues felt quite incongruous after such complex, beautiful, introspective pieces of work.
An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt was organised by the London International Animation Festival and took place at Curzon Soho, London, on June 25. The event also screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. The LIAF’s 6th edition runs from August 27 to September 6 at various London venues. For more information about the festival, visit the LIAF website.