a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Don Hertzfeldt Shorts

Don Hertzfeldt draws stick figures. These stick figures -- of humans, human-sized rabbits, clouds with appendages, balloons who've Had Enough -- are then tortured, maimed and/or killed by either eachother, some leftfield antagonist or Hertzfeldt himself. In fact, it's always Hertzfeldt himself doing the torturing, maiming and killing. His characters invariably sport frowns or big, eyelid-less eyes, as if they know they are about to meet a demented, grotesque fate. They do not fight against it like Daffy in Duck Amuck. They know it's coming, know they can't escape it and almost never fight back. If an alien rips out their eyes near a yield sign, the next thing they'll do is try to walk, surely enough right into that sign.

That said, good luck finding his toon shorts. You would have to be a religious patron of animated fests (like Hertzfeldt's own The Animation Show, presently in Philly) or do the odious thing of downloading them in tiny, shoddy files to catch them since the maker himself has kept them largely out of stateside video emporiums. Back about a year ago, respite seemed to be on its way: Adult Swim spent a week promoting their Sunday airing of Hertzfeldt's 2000 product Rejected (improbably nominated for on Oscar). When the time came to show it, they mysteriously didn't. Fark! (I've since given up and downloaded them; I advise you to do the same.)

Whoever pulled the plug might've been keen to something. Honestly, Rejected would only half-fit into the program's usual array of po-mo smart-ass-ness*. His pics are po-mo and smart-ass, admittedly. But Hertzfeldt seems to (pardon the expression) take it to another level. The Ambiguous Non-Ending is always present and accounted for, to be sure, but so is the possibility of reading them as metaphors. What to make, for instance, of the death-to-the-kiddies Billy's Balloon? Is it about the way tykes are trained to have a Pavlovian reaction to certain objects? A presentation of these objects, who are sick and tired of being treated so single-mindedly? Just a joke about kids in an apparently parent-less world being tortured by the things they trust in (albeit rarely being killed, even if they plumet one hundred feet five consecutive times)?

Structure is another thing. Hertzfeldt knows structure. Using Balloon again, he starts off with one vomitously funny gag -- Billy's red balloon pounds on his head for a full minute -- and, once that's played out (Hertzfeldt's also a fan of the protracted deadpan pace, so much so that I just caught myself about to liberally compare him to Marguerite Duras), he introduces another, highly unpredictable, factor. (Showing it to my parents, they both walked away, right before I told them it wasn't even half over.) Both Balloon and Rejected go so far as to end on an apocalyptic note, which is, in the latter's case, genuinely unnerving and, as noted by Sam Adams, nigh-Godardian. (Instead of the simple "A Film by Don Hertzfeldt," it almost could've ended with "Fin d'animation.") (Which I didn't really translate, of course.)

While we're comparing him to Godard, why not De Palma, too? Both like to devise stylistic exercises where a good portion of the punch is how the filmmaker is taking some joy in punishing his creations. Hertzfeldt's admits it more is all -- blatantly so in his earlier college short, Genre, in which a cartoon bunny is morphed literally by the animator while sifting through a slew of genre styles. Those frowns and wary eyes he gives them is part of his plan -- he makes us feel sorry for his rudimentary characters, even while making us laugh hysterically at them. There's a trace of doom in Balloon when he ambiguously shifts from Billy, fatally dropped several times and having just seen another balloon drag another kid directly in the flight pattern of a jet plane before being dropped again, to the revolution going on elsewhere. At the same time, is it maybe, in an insane kind of way, possible to feel something for the balloons, finally in charge and (ulp -- bear with me on this one) no longer objectified? They're all part of the same mental state, these torturers and torturees; it just depends on who's most in charge.

Oh, and just incidentally, I did mention that these shorts are hysterically funny, didn't I? Just in case you thought I was writing a goddam thesis paper. Sheesh.

*No big slight on A.S., that. Sealab 2021, for one, is one of the least predictable and sane things on TV, even when it flat-out doesn't work. Incidentally, Harry Goz, the voice of the unhinged Captain died in September. This I didn't know. Is there a reason to go on?


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