On Wednesday, there were five deer in our backyard, though I never saw them. I only heard my infant son crying, and found him slumped in front of the sliding glass door, distraught that the animals had left. Before I learned about the visit from the deer, I just presumed he was crying to go outside. That’s how he’s spent most of his time these past few weeks: sitting by that glass door, longing for the moment he’ll be allowed back out into the fresh air.
As a child, I was fascinated by Dutch educator Kees Boeke’s book Cosmic View. Each page of the small volume features either a photo or an artist’s rendering, with each successive page expanding the perspective on the prior image by a power of ten. On the first page, a girl sits in a lawn chair cradling her cat; the picture is presented at a 1:10 scale, meaning every centimeter represents 10 centimeters. The second page shows the girl at a 1:100 scale, allowing the reader to see the cars around her as well. On the third page, at a 1:1,000 scale, we can see the building she sits in front of. The 26th and final image, by which point every centimeter represents 100 million light years, looks like chalk dust on a blackboard; as Boeke writes, “all galaxies and groups of galaxies, even the largest of them, are reduced to dots of various sizes. It goes without saying that the placing of them has been of necessity quite arbitrary.” I found it so thrilling as a child, flipping back and forth through the pages—from that ultimate mind-bending hypothetical back to the third image, the small girl and the big building, which, as Boeke notes, “tells a story of the war years, when the German military built it during the occupation of the Netherlands”—placing myself within the cosmic continuum, feeling both humbled by my smallness and validated by having been granted any footprint at all in that churning infinity.
In the opening moments of Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Bill—the generic everyman whose past, present, and future Hertzfeldt will spend the next hour dragging us through with whiplashing force—encounters an acquaintance on the street. Flustered, Bill says, “How’s up?” to which his equally flustered acquaintance responds, “Thanks.” The moment invites the viewer to squirm with memories of social catastrophes past, but immediately Hertzfeldt—in the breathless deadpan with which he narrates the entirety of Bill’s life and times—lets us know that Bill and his acquaintance “never saw each other again, and a day later had each forgotten the whole thing.” Like flipping a page and being confronted by an exponentially expanded perspective, the narrative leap is disconcerting yet paradoxically comforting. This sort of awkward encounter—one of several that Hertzfeldt sets against “Vlatava,” a soaring and thundering symphonic poem by 19th century Dutch composer Bedřich Smetana—can easily feel seismic. But soon Bill will forget this brief discomfort, and soon after that, Bill will forget everything, and then soon enough, Bill will be forgotten, too.
The seed of Bill’s story, Hertzfeldt told Sight & Sound in 2016, lies in “a WWII story I read about Nazis invading a town. The protagonist is in a large group of people who are being marched through the city and across a bridge where they’re going to be shot. This man has lived in this town his entire life, but as he’s being marched off to die he notices details in the cobblestone streets he’s never seen before. He sees new things in the faces of the people around him, people he’s known for years. The air smells different. The currents in the river look strange and new. Suddenly he’s seeing the world around him for the first time through these new lenses and it’s disorienting and beautiful. It takes a horrible event sometimes to grab you by the shoulders and shake you, to wake you up.”
Bill is woken up by an unnamed degenerative neurological condition, one whose symptoms include grotesque hallucinations (“The guy next to him at the bus stop had the head of a cow,” Hertzfeldt mentions as we’re shown exactly that, “but Bill pretended not to notice”), periodic seizures rendered through overwhelming audiovisual distortion, and, eventually, mental deterioration so absolute that he can no longer keep up conversations with loved ones he no longer recognizes. The horrors befalling Bill are so idiosyncratic that doctors are baffled, and after repeated attempts at treatment offer no relief, Bill has little choice but to await an inevitable and painful end.
Even prior to this decline, Bill’s existence is defined by depressive absurdity. Something as simple as a visit to the grocery store becomes a gauntlet of disgust and dismay as Bill can’t help focusing on how close other shoppers’ groins are to the produce, and strangers engage him either too much or not enough, leaving him constantly alienated from his own experiences. Bill seems to live hip-deep in a roaring river of input and sensation, with even the moments of grace he does manage to experience (“He noticed somebody had written I love you in the playground sand, and he thought that was really beautiful”) immediately overwhelmed by moments of unease (“Then some little fat kid with a deformed foot tried to sell him a magazine subscription”).
As his illness begins to overwhelm his daily life, Bill comes to see all of humanity as a collective hive of anxiety, billions of consciousnesses insulated within bodies insulated within homes, all perpetually terrified of life’s minor choices and sorrows. Later, a hospitalized Bill will share a room with a paralyzed young man who’s able to communicate only through a soundboard, which he uses primarily to press the button that robotically declares, “I am in pain.” Even before things get that bad, Bill’s experience of the world is scarcely different: the mind offers limited tools to express an infinite spectrum of feeling, and it’s so often easiest to focus on the ones that express disappointment.
Typically, I leave the house to write, but these days I work in the guest room. I’ve slept in there for the past few weeks, too—my wife is a nurse, and though she leaves her shoes and bags on the porch when she returns from the hospital, we play it safe for fear of being sorry. The relocation has made me unusually aware of how tied my productivity is to an implicit belief that the foreseeable future will basically resemble the present. Now thoroughly disabused of this illusory presumption, I turn more than usual to Twitter, gorging on facts and feelings that may fuel my disquiet but at least occupy my mind enough to keep from lingering on any particular current of dread. “After a certain point,” author and activist Bree Newsome wrote in a tweet I ran across on Thursday, “I feel busyness becomes another form of opiate, a way to avoid being still and present in reality.” Embedded with Newsome’s tweet was the one from journalist Maria Hinjosa to which she was responding. “Remember when we were too busy?” Hinjosa had rhetorically asked. “Remember?” I closed my laptop and went to the window, opening the shades I’d intentionally left drawn. For just a moment, the shift in ambient light fooled my brain into forgetting the claustrophobia.
Don Hertzfeldt was born in northern California in 1976. He taught himself to animate as a teenager, using the pastime to fill his years in social limbo, a young man “[not] even popular enough to be unpopular,” as he told New Times LA in 2002. Soon, that non-reputation would be replaced with a new title: “that weird guy who makes the cool cartoons.” Even in adulthood, after earning notoriety and acclaim, Hertzfeldt has preferred to work alone, using a pair of rostrum cameras from the 1940s that he refers to as “mechanical cows.” He was forced to remove a wall of his home in order to get them inside.
Hertzfeldt’s animation style could perhaps most easily be described as “rudimentary,” with both his characters and their environments rendered with as little detail as possible. In the years leading up to It’s Such a Beautiful Day—which Hertzfeldt produced as a trilogy of short films between 2006 and 2011 before repackaging them as a feature in 2012—this cartoonish minimalism tended to be most useful for comic effect. In the Oscar-nominated 2000 short “Rejected,” still likely his best-known work (if not his most-seen, a title probably taken by the brain-scouring “couch gag” commissioned by The Simpsons in 2014), these cheerful Hertzfeldian figures are repeatedly thrust at us in brief vignettes that begin in absurdity before immediately descending into surreal horror—“I live in a giant bucket” one stick figure notes to another before his companion’s skull abruptly sprouts a boil, which grows its own face and begins to babble incoherently. Recognized by Salon, The Huffington Post, and IndieWire as among the best work of its decade, the short was a landmark in what’s now recognized as the “lol so random” school of millennial comedy, described by Elizabeth Breunig in a Washington Post column as “a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish” in which “horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life—the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.”
There is plenty of “Rejected” DNA in It’s Such a Beautiful Day—Bill’s first descent into a hallucinatory hellscape is accompanied by a fish-headed figure in the corner of the frame who repeatedly screeches, “The pipe is leaking” (among the scant examples of synced dialogue in a film otherwise entirely narrated by an omniscient Hertzfeldt) while a pipe in its abdomen does indeed emit some unknown fluid. But here, Hertzfeldt’s trademark style offers a pair of essential assets in conveying the story of Bill’s painful life. For one, the childlike lack of detail is likely the only way this story could be bearable to general audiences; the events of It’s Such a Beautiful Day are outlandishly nauseating (in one flashback, it’s revealed that Bill’s grandmother kept rotting cat heads in a drawer in order to rub them on her own head and relieve the pain of the fish she felt smothering her brain) and ruthlessly sad (while being cared for by his mother, Bill flies into a paranoid rage and slaps a pair of scissors out of her hand, leaving her to ask “How could you think I’d ever want to hurt you?” before crumpling to the floor). Were it not for Hertzfeldt’s style, It’s Such a Beautiful Day would join the harrowing ranks of Julien Donkey-Boy and Clean, Shaven, unvarnished immersions into a world of delusion and psychosis bearable to only the most inured viewer.
But even as this style allows us to hold Bill’s story at a distance, it simultaneously allows us to be drawn close, and even project ourselves onto him. In his 1993 book Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud suggests that the less shading an artist provides a character, the more of themselves the audience will see in that character. Were Bill and his surroundings more detailed, we would view his story as distant from our own experiences. But, as McCloud writes, “We humans are a self-centered race. We see ourselves in everything.” Offering as example a basic cartoon face that looks not unlike Bill’s own, McCloud notes, “we make the world over in our own image.”
Thus, McCloud would suggest, when I observe Bill’s daily routine—tossing his keys on the counter only to be struck by a vertiginous awareness of “how many days of his life were wasted repeating the same tasks and rituals in his apartment over and over again”—I’m seeing myself. And I’ll admit that I spend an undue amount of time nursing vague feelings of anxiety and alienation. I’ll admit I’m often more prone to frustration than joy. I’ll admit to seeing myself in Bill, and Bill in myself. And I’d venture to guess that a lot of people reading these words do, too.
First, the illness steals Bill’s future, as the presumption of his imminent death reframes his current days not as the midpoint of his life but the end of it. Next, it steals his past, as his long-term memory rots away, leaving holes that—as a doctor later explains—his mind fills with “confabulated stories [and] false memories” in order to “somehow rationalize what’s happening to him.” Finally, even his present is stripped from him, as his loss of short-term memory leaves him capable only of stepping outside, noting it’s kind of a really nice day, and then walking around the block, seeing a tennis shoe stuffed with leaves (which “fills him with inexplicable sadness”), walking by the bridge and the farmer’s market, and then arriving back at his door with no recollection of how he arrived there, capable only of noting, it’s kind of a really nice day, and then walking around the block, seeing a tennis shoe stuffed with leaves (which “fills him with inexplicable sadness”), walking by the bridge and the farmer’s market, and then arriving back at his door with no recollection of how he arrived there.
Once his vision of the future, his memory of the past, and his awareness of the present are all taken, Bill is transformed into a being of pure awe, experiencing nothing but the current moment and thus constantly overwhelmed by life’s beauties both large (the fact that starlight has “traveled for tens of millions of years to reach him at this moment”) and small (noticing for the first time “the way his paper towels drink water”). At a dead sprint, as though trying to cram as much incident as possible into his film’s perilously brief runtime, Hertzfeldt tells us that Bill “wants to stop people in the street, and say, ‘Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t everything amazing?’” With his seemingly innate generosity among the last emotional tools to go, his final few acts include lending a stranger a pencil and, for reasons he can’t fathom, forgiving a man he doesn’t recognize as his estranged father. And by the time he lies down in a grassy field to die, all he has left is the ability to appreciate one simple fact.
“It’s such a beautiful day.”
My wife and I say it each morning as we look out the sliding glass door onto the backyard. We say it when we venture outside to walk a couple of anxious miles because we can’t bear the alternative anymore. We say it when we run into friends and neighbors doing the same, greeting each other from a cautious distance. We say it whether the sky is clear or cloudy, whether the air is warm or misty. We imbue it with a weight and meaning we never have before, because it’s not the weather that matters so much as the freshness of the air. And, of course, we say it because there isn’t much else we can say that isn’t tinged by either sorrow or fear. So we say it, and then we part ways with the only other thing we can think to say: “Stay healthy. Be safe.”
As I write this, a few weeks into an open-ended global self-quarantine that we hope might mitigate the worst effects of what data suggests will be a historic wave of illness and death, it’s easy to feel that the future has been stolen, or at least the luxury of feeling halfway certain what the future might hold on levels both micro and macro. It’s easy, as well, to feel that even the very recent past is suddenly unavailable, at least without the risk of tumbling into nostalgia for a time when we took mundane errands and gatherings for granted. As winter finally gives way to spring, each day offering my three-year-old daughter new flower buds to marvel at through the sliding glass door, I find myself living like a goldfish in a bowl, endlessly tracing the same few movements—bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to living room to kitchen to living room to bathroom to bedroom. I yearn for a return to normalcy while fearing the consequences that return might bring. I watch governments at home and abroad either fumble or sabotage their response to this disaster. For lack of a better option, I batten down the hatches and wait for death to roll through, hoping that by sheer luck myself and those I love might be passed by. And in the meantime, I focus as much of my attention as possible on my daughter’s shrieks of glee as she notes the day’s new purple and yellow buds. You’d think the kid had never seen a flower before.
Bill, for the record, does not die. Hertzfeldt will not allow it.
His creator first tries to revive Bill from the omniscient perch beside the mechanical cow that gives him life. ”No, no, no,” we hear Hertzfeldt beg as Bill lies prone in the grass. “Get up, Bill. Bill, get up. He can’t die here. He’s not gonna die. He can’t ever die.”
And then Bill is granted not just survival but immortality: “Bill will continue. He will learn more about life than any being in history, but death will forever be a stranger to him. People will come and go until names lose all meaning, until people lose all meaning and vanish entirely from the world. And still, Bill will live on.”
Bill’s revised fate is presented as a neutral option. Hertzfeldt does not judge the merits of choosing eternally-mounting numbness and ultimate annihilation, of outliving even the sun and continuing to exist “until all the lights go out;” the scenario simply unfolds with all the accompanying costs and benefits. I suspect I’d choose to live forever if the option presented itself, and I’d venture to guess once again that a fair number of the people reading these words would, too, even as Hertzfeldt stressed in his Sight & Sound interview that “death enriches life and gives everything its meaning. It’s the people who drift around wasting their time, weirdly assuming they’re going to live forever, that are the depressing ones, at least to me.”
Some time before he either dies or doesn’t, when he’s still capable of memory and prediction, Bill conjures a vision of his death. His mother has succumbed to the family’s dual curses, degenerative mental illness and death by train (a fate that’s already befallen Bill’s great-grandfather and great uncle), and while perusing her things, Bill imagines himself on his deathbed decades in the future. He imagines he’ll regret spending so much of his life obsessing over “this stupid, awkward moment of death.” Though he will not have the luxury of dying of natural causes at a ripe old age—whether he dies young or lives forever, his future will be more painfully complex than that—the fantasy of a simple death does him good. For at least a moment, it relieves the burden of worrying.
I hope that readers will run across this essay in a time that’s returned to something resembling normalcy. I hope that return will have triggered a tough but necessary reassessment of the status quo that brought us to this place of isolation and insulation, fear and sorrow. I know that as of this writing, the odds of the first outcome feel perilous and the second almost nonexistent, but I also know that whatever outcome lies in store—be it the one I hope for, the one I fear, or something more painfully complex—there’s not much I can control beyond what I choose to see when I look out the sliding glass door onto my backyard.
My son can’t combine many words, but this week he learned to pair two that are unusually urgent for him: “Go owside,” he pesters us now. “Go owside!” So on Friday, we took a walk; living in a seaside town that’s most active in the summer, we’re blessed with empty streets and beaches to roam at the tipping point between winter and spring. As we approached the lighthouse—the one that tells a story of the war of 1812, when the lighthouse keeper’s daughters were the first to see an approaching warship and so, lacking time to warn the town, played a fife and drum to fool the oncoming soldiers into believing a militia awaited them, staving off disaster for at least one more day—we noticed a mound of rocks that had recently been painted with notes of hope and affirmation. My wife, who’s currently prone to what she and her colleagues call “pre-traumatic stress” as they brace for the crushing surge of sick and dying patients they’ve been told to expect, began to cry reading the stone expressing gratitude for health care workers. She pushed the double stroller away and released the kids to go throw rocks into the tidepool, the one that’s kept calm only by the breakwater that absorbs the punishing force of the open sea.
I stayed to read the other stones. You are worthy of all the love in the world, one of them read, and I thought that was really beautiful. Then a man approached, and I shuffled back a few feet, as I’ve quickly become conditioned to do when anyone draws near. I asked how it was going, and he said, “Trying to keep sane,” which was an odd thing to hear, but not as odd as the speed with which this has become a reasonable, even universal, greeting between strangers.
Then he was gone, and I was once again alone with my family, and the view in front of us, and the sky above. It was such a beautiful day.