Your mind is all you are. Your thoughts, memories, and feelings are what make up the entirety of your identity and being. “You” are a seemingly infinite number of neurons and electrons rapidly firing nonstop throughout the entirety of your life until one day it will shut down and cease all function. Then “you” will be gone.
If our thoughts and memories and feelings are what “we” are, then without them we will collapse, or perhaps disintegrate. This is what happens to Bill, the hapless protagonist of Don Hertzfeldt’s animated masterpiece IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY.
In the opening act, jetted forward by a powerful performance of “Vltava” by Czech composer Bed?ich Smetana, we are introduced to Bill, an ordinary cartoon scribble who wears a hat and lives a mundane and unfulfilling American life. Day in and day out he drops his keys on the counter, he goes to work, he watches boxing; it seems as if his identity as a human being has been obliterated by years of inactivity and submission to routine. He doesn’t speak – instead, a droll, sardonic narrator played by Hertzfeldt tells the audience his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Everything Bill says comes through Hertzfeldt’s mouth. He is in many ways a blank slate for the audience to project upon, with a certain Willy Loman quality of defeat about him that makes him pitiable.
But this blank slate nature quickly slips away as we soon learn that Bill is not well. He finds himself having memory lapses and hallucinations. Eventually his inner mind becomes a flaming hellscape; he detaches from reality and ends up in the hospital, unsure if he will live or die, unsure if he is alive or dead.
Bill’s view of the world becomes distorted so that at times the images seem coherent and sensible, but more frequently appear as flashes of light and flickering faces. And as Hertzfeldt dictates Bill’s thoughts, we quickly come to see within him a deep, poetic soul, much more enlightened than his initial office drone appearance made him out to be. We learn of lost loves and childhood traumas that flesh him out beyond that two-dimensional sketch that he represents physically. He is man who is not only looking for meaning, but transcendence.
The themes of memory, cognition, and mental illness form the tapestry of IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY. Through its repetition, we get a sense for how fragile and significant something like memory may be.
Many other characters, particularly Bill’s family, are shown to have their own psychoses. They are at times, comical like the ancestor who tried to strangle a rock, or heartbreaking like the feral child who died alone in a field dreaming of the moon. But as we begin to question whether this is actual family history or a construct of Bill’s failing brain, these tertiary characters highlight the importance of self-awareness. It’s funny to laugh at the absurdities, but more it is frequently painful, like the tragedy of forgetting your girlfriend’s face.
Little mundane slip-ups, like conflating “What’s up?” and “How are you?” to say “How’s up?” become grim symptoms of mental breakdown. Watching the film for the first time we identify with a simple moment such as Bill making toast and then changing his mind about wanting it. It’s one of many humanizing moments that help us relate to him. On a rewatch it becomes another notch in the belt of his failing mind. We might be asked to question how we ourselves make these same mistakes day in, day out. Or it may recall an aging relative who struggles to carry a conversation for longer than a minute. We may make jokes about having “senior moments” when we forget the name of a dear friend, but the joke frequently covers the horror of being unable to recall such an important part of your life.
To represent Bill’s fragile mental state, Hertzfeldt engages in rapid editing consisting of flashing, colorful images that emphasize textures. We see photographs, glimpses of “the real world” intercut with the cartoon aesthetic. It is in many ways similar to the films of Stan Brakhage, particularly his early opus DOG STAR MAN, which is best described by its IMDb plot summary as being “a creation myth realized in light, patterns, images superimposed, rapid cutting, and silence. A black screen, then streaks of light, then an explosion of color and squiggles and happenstance.”
The rapid cutting and flashing lights, paired with industrial sounds and high-pitched frequencies, help visualize mental collapse in a way that is purely cinematic. Like Hertzfeldt’s previous short film REJECTED, where the animated world is annihilated in a post-modern apocalypse of crumpled paper, Bill’s world is dying through this cinematic representation. It seems to struggle to hang on before it tears apart entirely, or worse, flickers out into pure darkness.
Hertzfeldt masterfully blends his surreal, somewhat “random” sense of humor with the avant-garde to create a film that is as soulful as it is odd and as funny as it is tragic. In the end of the film, real or imagined, Bill reaches a majestic transcendence, becoming a God while still remaining his minute human self. He floats into the infinite, the same as he has always been – a plain little man with a hat – and we see ourselves floating along with him. It is the continuation of the human myth that Brakhage spent decades exploring; all these little fragments and moments are what make you who you are, and they flicker past you so quickly that before you realize it you have finished living. And after living, the only thing left to explore is the infinite.