I came across Don Hertzfeldt much in the same way countless others have: in college, having plucked a file called REJECTED_HILARIOUS.wmv from my dorm’s intranet at a friend’s urging. At the time, I was depressed as hell, in the midst of experiencing my first of many bouts with existentialism. I’d switched majors twice already and was eyeing a third, maybe anthropology? Or, forest management? Or, fuck. Additionally, I was way too anxious of a person to party all the time (or, really, ever), so most of my free nights were filled with hours of isolated dorm time, maybe some reading but mostly clicking things listlessly on my ancient desktop computer.
But then Rejected came into my life.1 I must’ve watched it 3 or 4 times consecutively. I was completely consumed by it, the way it managed to stay completely absurd and silly while simultaneously launching an all out attack on advertising through these crude, violent animations. After the first viewing, I had to take a lap around my dorm’s floor; there were so many incredible ideas packed into such a small space. That night, well after my roommate had put himself to sleep with about forty bong rips, I watched Rejected once more and wrote the first sketch for a comedy group I’d just established on campus. It wasn’t very good. Something about an ornery customer service guy behind a counter acting predictably rude to anyone who tried to return something. But, it was a start.
I’ve followed Hertzfeldt’s work over the years, though it’s a small catalog and there are significant gaps between projects. However, this is part of what makes the man who coined the term ‘My anus is bleeding,’ so compelling. On his site, bitterfilms.com, Hertzfeldt once addressed his aversion to doing any sort of commercial work:
‘I am often asked why I don't do commercials or ad campaigns or music videos and why I've turned down small fortunes from the corporate universe in favor of just carrying on with my own things. I like to take walks [in the woods, along the coast] […] it clears my head. I find new things. it's something i'll probably always enjoy doing.
So somebody comes along and says hey, I hear you like to take walks. How about I pay you to walk? you just have to walk around my house in circles for eight hours a day wearing a sandwich board that has a picture of my product on it.
Because money's not the reason I take walks. it doesn't really factor into it. I take walks because I enjoy doing it. It's something I'd do if I was rich and it's something I'd do if I were poor. 2
In other words, Hertzfeldt is incredibly conscious of what he puts out into the world. He thinks of his work’s value. He thinks of what it’s going to do, how his animations might effect people. He values his own ideas, his own philosophies over anything driven by speed and profit. He does what he wants to, on his own terms. It’s a luxury, to be sure, but it’s also an unbelievably refreshing sentiment. That sentiment truly comes through in all of his work, but especially so in 2006’s Everything Will Be Ok.3
Everything Will Be Ok is a 17-minute, mostly animated film narrated by Hertzfeldt. It follows Bill, a fairly quiet, fairly normal guy in the throes of an existential crisis, even if he’s not fully aware of it. We follow Bill over the course of a few weeks of his life, zooming in on certain details and anxieties Bill grapples with like the fact that he picks fruit from the back of fruit piles at grocery stores “as the fruit toward the front was at crotch level to the other customers.” In another scene, Bill can’t sleep and decides to have a snack in his living room but he “felt kind of strange eating in front of the TV without having it on.” There is no concrete narrative forced on the viewer aside from these wonderfully specific and beautiful details and the slow unraveling of Bill’s life, as he descends into an unspecified sickness.
More so than the silliness or gutsiness of Everything Will Be Ok is the palpable compassion that permeates the film. Of course, it’s tempting to view this film, as with all of Hertzfeldt’s work, through an existential lens. In zooming in on the relatively mundane minutiae of Bill’s life without attempting to string it all together to derive some sort of meaning or ultimate ‘lesson,’ the film is undeniably existential. But when I watched again, I started to think how wrong that is and how much hope Everything Will Be Ok actually contains. Toward the beginning Bill starts thinking about memories and what happens to memories when we die. He daydreams about the brains he used to see in a childhood classroom, and the narrator recalls that Bill “used to wonder if there were still pieces of individuals inside, scattered fragments of partial dreams or lost memories lodged deep within that dead tissue. […] He began to think about people in a new light, how everyone’s just little more than that frightened, fragile brain stem surrounded by meat an physics, too terrified to recognize the sum of their parts. […] afraid of change, afraid of decisions, afraid of pain, stuck in traffic, listening to terrible music.” It’s this sentiment that slayed me on my latest viewing. It does indeed point out the fact that we, as human beings, are perhaps fucked. But it goes beyond that too, pointing out how important awareness is, that if we all just became more aware of everyone around us and realized how they’re all these fragile, quaking things, just like us, maybe we could begin to heal.
Of course, Hertzfeld doesn’t budge an inch toward a happy ending. There is no silver lining, no ultimate Zen that Bill achieves. When his illness fades, he hops back on the bus to work and it rains the entire commute. He even struggles with his own awareness. When he falls sick and his mother comes to town to help, she notices a stray string sticking out of Bill’s shirt and moves in to snip it. Bill turns around to her before she can do so, looking horrified and smacks the scissors out of her hand, as if she was about to do him in. The mother replies: ‘How could you think I’d ever want to hurt you.’ And then, as the narrator tell us she ‘crumpled to the floor. In that moment, Bill thought she looked really old.’ It’s such a heartbreaking moment, but one that comes back around to that idea of awareness. If Bill had just been a bit more conscious, had a better of an understanding of his being, of everyone else around him, he’d have known that his mother only wanted to help, only wanted to just be a mother.
It’s moments like this that push Hertzfeldt’s work beyond just some dude making little cartoons. He knows how to be hilarious and absurd, but he also knows compassion and empathy, slipping those utterly heartbreaking, human moments into otherwise otherworldly landscapes.
1 A brief synopsis for the, I’m assuming, relatively few who are uninitiated: the fictional premise is that Hertzfeldt, an animator, was hired by the ‘Family Learning Channel’ and a frozen fish stick company to
whip up some ads and promotional material. All his spots, crude stick-figures that speak mostly nonsense (one scene is just a character saying ‘My spoon is too big to a banana.’ In another, an alien spacecraft comes down to earth, steals a mans eyeballs and leaves. The man then runs blindly into a yield sign and it’s revealed that this is actually an ad for frozen fishsticks. A truly hilarious moment that’s also poignant in its own way: advertising is so ludicrous and absurd; it may as well look like this.
3 A 17-minute piece that was eventually folded into a three-part feature length film along with two of Hertzfeldt’s other shorts, I Am So Proud of You and It’s Such a Beautiful Day.