The World Of Don Hertzfeldt (And, Eventually, Tomorrow)

There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill restaurant. One of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is just terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah I know. And such small portions.’ - Woody Allen

I couldn't write a more succinct review of Don Hertzfeldt's latest short film, World of Tomorrow, if a mafia lord was threatening to cut off a digit for each word I used. But, we'll get to that in a bit. First, some context.

Don made his debut in the indie animation scene with the short film Ah, L'Amour. This short, gleefully reductive in both form and content, treads familiar territory to anyone who's sat through collections of student films.

There are three genres college kids hammer mercilessly into the ground. These are:

  1. The Opposite Sex Doesn't Like Me
  2. The World Is Sad And Complicated
  3. You Don't Understand What It Means To Be An Artist

While Ah, L'Amour falls squarely into the first camp, it transcends the typical films in this genre. I'd love to wank philosophical and attribute it to "winking satire where-in the male protagonist is serving as his own foil" or some other pandering blather. But, that's not it.

Violence is funny. So is the (wildly misogynistic) punchline.

Even in this early short, Hertzfeldt's obvious talent for timing and violence is evident. That's not to say that he invented this style of pacing. High precision, metered beats that alternate between giddy excitement and the the always-imminent ultra-violence have long been the domain of Chuck Jones, particularly with his Road Runner shorts. Hertzfeldt didn't invent a style, he just took the baton and ran with it.

When watching a collection of student films, the three-genre repetition becomes at once soothing and deeply aggravating. The phenomenon is soothing because within five seconds, you can tell what kind of film it is and relax as the inevitable ending finally rolls around. And aggravating because there's no reason to be watching if you can see the finale coming miles away. What are those endings?

  1. What Glows In My Heart Is Brighter Than The Opposite Sex Could Understand And It's Their Loss
  2. I Understand The World (With The Implication That You Still Don't)
  3. I Will Prove You All Wrong When My Dedication To My Art Is Revered

Billy's Balloon, which Hertzfeldt completed as a student in 1998, falls squarely into the second category. Again, the film hits the beats without ever feeling stale, due in large part to an ending that ... You know what? Just watch the film.

Again with the giddy violence. Again with the darker-than-you-imagined ending. It's almost as if a pattern is emerging.

Oscar nominee Rejected is very much a member of the You Don't Understand What It Means To Be An Artist genre, albeit a very subversive member. And you know what? It deserved that nomination. While it starts out like another loopy little lark, it eventually evolves into a hauntingly emotional deconstruction of Hertzfeldt's aesthetic.

It doesn't hurt that Hertzfeldt's style has always looked like it's constantly on the verge of collapse to begin with.

By the time he was nominated for Oscar Gold (nearly making him an O.G.O.G.), Don Hertzfeldt had established a style unlike anything else on the short film scene. It was a deceptively loose style that would consistently sucker-punch the audience with unpredictable tightness in the third act.

Which leads us to his latest film, World of Tomorrow.

Available on Vimeo On Demand, this short tells the story of ... Well, it's hard to say what the story is about exactly. It touches on time travel, simulated immortality, lunar industries, Martian labor, cloning, heartbreak, death, lifeless living and so on and so on.

In short, it's a densely packed, overstuffed think-piece. This wouldn't be a problem, but Hertzfeldt has crammed a three-hour feature's wealth of ideas into what essentially amounts to 15 minutes of uninterrupted exposition. It's not a balanced 15 minutes or a metered 15 minutes. These 15 minutes come in brick form, with the main character talking the audience exhausted just to squeeze everything in.

But, it's a brick of pure conceptual gold. Hertzfeldt is, as he has always been, flush with ideas. Intriguing, silly, heartbreaking ideas that are at once universal and uniquely his. World of Tomorrow packs too many of those brilliant ideas into one fascinating short, even if it comes at the cost of his whip-crack timing. It is the rare culinary disappointment that leaves you hungry for eight more courses of the exact same thing.