SFIFF53: Dispatch #5, Don Hertzfeldt

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Coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival by Rumpus Film editor Jeremy Hatch.

When programming director Rachel Rosen took the stage at the Kabuki last Friday night to present the Persistence of Vision Award to Don Hertzfeldt, she said, “let’s face it: we live in a narrative feature-length world,” and talked about how much more difficult it is to succeed by making films that lie outside that definition. (Pretty much impossible, given how difficult it is to succeed by making films that lie within them.)

Don Hertzfeldt’s films, though narrative, are otherwise about as far outside that definition as is possible. They’re short animations whose every frame is hand-drawn on paper and photographed, drawing by drawing, with a 35mm animation camera from the 1940s, and he has often created the entire soundtrack himself as well. As Rosen described it, this is a “painstaking, artisanal process” and then described his body of work as ranging “from the incredibly simple to the fantastically dense.” For 15 years, Hertzfeldt has succeeded in making films his way, and so the Film Society presented him with what amounts to a lifetime achievement award. At the age of 33.

Don Hertzfeldt & Rachel Rosen

Hertzfeldt, a handsome, soft-spoken man with a closely-cropped beard and moustache, is indeed the youngest recipient ever of this award — previous honorees include Erroll Morris and Guy Maddin — and his first remarks upon receiving the little gold statuette from Rosen were appropriately self-deprecating: “I’m afraid they’re going to call in thirty years, and ask for the award back — ‘Don, I’m afraid the rest of your career just hasn’t lived up to the award.’ ” He thanked his parents for never once pressuring him to do anything responsible with his life, and then told a horrifying, hilarious story about the only art class he ever took, at a high school in the South Bay Area city of Fremont, during which a fellow student accidentally sliced off one of her fingertips with a giant paper trimmer. They evacuated the student, and the teacher picked up the fingertip and pitched it into the trash as if he were pitching a crumpled-up ball of paper.

It was an apt story to introduce his films, which marry the kind of despairing hope found in Beckett with a penchant for complex, interweaving visual gags that (as Hertzfeldt himself says) is taken more or less from Buster Keaton, along with a decidedly “sick” sense of humor: only the kind of guy who would recall that particular detail, the way the teacher pitched the fingertip into the trash, could come up with the premise of one of his first big hits, “Billy’s Balloon,” in which all the balloons in the world come to life and begin beating up and trying to murder the children holding them. All of which is, of course, completely hilarious.

 

A frame from "Wisdom Teeth"

Or how about one of his more recent shorts, “Wisdom Teeth” (pictured above), which begins when the man on the left agrees to let his friend pull one of the stitches out of his mouth, and by a wildly improbable sequence of events, ends up getting beaten and stabbed to death when an angry group of passers-by comes to the mistaken belief that he is attempting to eat a premature baby — and he can’t defend himself, because of course, a baby is lodged in his mouth.

A still from "Rejected"

These two films, along with another wildly popular classic, “Rejected,” were screened alongside his more philosophical pieces, “The Meaning of Life” and above all, his most ambitious work to date, the planned trilogy “Everything Will Be OK.” It’s not a simple matter to describe this latter work, but it is one of the most complex and multi-layered pieces of hand-made animation that I’ve ever seen. It describes the mundane life of a man named Bill, who, it gradually becomes clear, is suffering from a mental disease that is hereditary and which will probably kill him. It’s as darkly amusing as any of his previous pieces, but it has a powerful combination of emotional maturity and technical sophistication that is not present, at least to this degree, in his earlier work, and it has an impact that goes far beyond a mere laugh or two.

When I consider “Everything Will Be OK,” it strikes me that, despite the fact that Hertzfeldt has already had a long and accomplished career, that a Lifetime Achievement award was a little premature. It seems to me that this trilogy is a promise of yet greater work to come in the years ahead.


In the Q&A afterwards, Hertzfeld confessed that even after all these years, he still feels like he’s “getting away with something.” He lives on the proceeds from film tours and from sales of his DVDs through his website, which I encourage you to visit and, if you like the spirit of those few videos that have been posted to YouTube by fans, you should purchase his collections and his DVDs of “Everything Will Be OK.”

[All photos above by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society. Next up: the Kabuki (maybe) and Sam Green’s Utopia in Four Movements.]

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →