Don Hertzfeldt, Digital Kitsch, the Apocalypse

They appear empirically yet are liberated from the burden of the empirical, which is the obligation of duration; they are a sign from heaven yet artifactual, an ominous warning, a script that flashes up, vanishes, and indeed cannot be read for its meaning.
          Theodor Adorno on fireworks

Filmlive-action, feature-length filmhas a sense of time that's usually likened to a mold or the flow of a river. Animated shorts are more like fireworks. They appear, change shape at blinding speed, and withdraw. Alexander Alexeieff, whose Night on Bald Mountain (made with Clare Parker) is routinely considered one of the best animated films ever made, said that his goal was “a synthesis whose presence on the screen will last only one minute, during which the audience cannot withdraw its attention for even a fraction of a second.”

Partly because of this, animated shorts have had a difficult time getting noticed or remembered. The average moviegoer doesn't care about them; the average cinephile doesn't either. None of the major animation festivals (Annecy, Zagreb, Ottawa, Hiroshima) get the coverage of Cannes or Toronto or Sundance. 

Don Hertzfeldt forms an interesting exception to this rule. Currently the most famous independent animator in America, he's endeared himself to audiences with a way around that problem of brevity: sentimentality. He blends two pet themes, loneliness and cosmic time, in a way that American millennial-indie viewers (myself among them) find deeply familiar. He's a perennial favorite at the Sundance Film Festival, where he’s competed a record seven times.

His newest film, World of Tomorrow, was released this year to more accolades (Best Short at Sundance, Best Animated Short at SXSW, glowing reviews) and is available for rent on Vimeo On Demand. The film continues with these themes, and does so for sentimental effect, but it seems to miss (barely) its target. Hertzfeldt’s past work has been rewardingly sentimental without being kitsch. This one feels faintly kitschy—not entirely, but enough to be noticed, and enough to make me, in my millennial-indie sensibility, wonder about the relation between the two.

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Traditionally, the relation between sentimentality” and kitsch” has been taken to be very close. Critics and philosophers often use the two interchangeably. They mean something like: appeal to the tender emotions; excessive appeal to the tender emotions; cheap or unearned tender emotions; mechanical or forced elicitation of tender emotions.

The problem of sentimentality seems to be one of control and proportion. How much tender feeling is too much, and what’s wrong with appealing to our capacity to feel? Leslie Jamison’s “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” which pleads for the usefulness of both sentiments and artificial sweeteners, puts it this way:

At what volume does feeling become sentimental? How obliquely does feeling need to be rendered so that it can be saved from itself? How do we distinguish between pathos and melodrama? Too often, I think, there is the sense that we just know. Well I don’t.

In an age that's grown suspicious of sentimental appeals, one feels ashamed of the need to feel things; one dresses up that need with irony, or puts oneself at a remove from it. Jamison thinks that this is dumb.

I think so too. But I also think that talk of tender feelings alone, as part of an either/or choice, is not enough. There’s room, I want to believe, for a distinction between sentimentality—the appeal to tender feelings as such, which may be as strong as you like—and kitsch.

Kitsch, at least the type of kitsch I’m thinking of, is a special mode of sentimentality, a special address of it. This is not a matter of amounts (as if such feelings were a debt to be paid or fuel that could overfill a tank) but of focus or concentration. Stella Dallas is sentimental but it is not kitsch: its registers of feeling are too varied, it acknowledges too many points of view. Kitsch, by contrast, narrows its perspective and diffuses our attention. Kitsch is a luxuriant, hermetic kind of sentimentality. Kitsch wants to remain in the same place, subsist only on itself.

I have in mind a moment from David O’Reilly’s short, The External World, which tries, in a “New Sincerity” kind of way, to make a hard left turn from absurdist nihilism to tender profundity. Like all of O’Reilly’s work, its imagery is primitive-CGI, and it looks unsettlingly simplified and clean. The film accentuates this eeriness by showing, in comic deadpan, cartoony gags of terrible cruelty. The characters seem to know that they’re animated, not real, and they think that this allows them to be as vicious as they want: one character finds a girl bleeding out in a bathtub and showers in it; another induces seizures in a sentient glow-worm so that she can use it as a vibrator; and so on.

This tone changes at the end, when the city’s residents gather to watch a boy playing piano at a recital. Everyone cries. After fifteen minutes of unremitting sadism towards nonexistent (because animated) things, O’Reilly wants to end on a touching note: these cruel characters are reduced to tears by the naked unreality of music, and this binds them together.

But I don’t find myself moved by it, because the acts of violence are so specific and the moment of respite is so vague. O’Reilly tries to draw us in by enriching the atmosphere, using some techniques we haven’t seen before in the film: a slow arcing camera movement around the boy, a soft light streaming through the windows, even some reflected dust. He stuffs the scene with cotton, hoping the viewer will lounge in the softness.

The External World (2010): a boy plays piano among dust particles and streams of light.

The External World (2010): a boy plays piano among dust particles and streams of light.

The External World: the city under a warm sky.

The External World: the city under a warm sky.

More touching, I think, is a quiet moment from Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be OK. The main character, Bill, has just received some discouraging news from his doctor. Alone in the doctor’s office, he pauses for a second, takes off his hat, rubs his head. Because there’s nothing to look at but some pencil strokes indicating a stick figure, the timing and placement of those strokes are paramount. His body sags; his eyes are cast downward; his gestures look weighed down by something. The eye is drawn to these things, the attention heightened, because the instants, in their variations, matter so much.

This is dramatic for the same reasons that Billy's Balloon, an earlier (and hardly sentimental) film by Hertzfeldt, is funny.

Hertzfeldt's work has always been funny, but he doesn't exactly hide his sentiments with jokes. His comedy and drama share the same concern for timing and placement, for attention toward varying instants.

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Maxfield Parrish was, for decades, the most successful fine artist in America. His brand of populist fantasy set the template for Norman Rockwell (who was an avid admirer of him), and, later, Thomas Kinkade (who was an avid admirer of Norman Rockwell).

Parrish had a peculiar way of blending photorealistic detail with too-bright-to-be-believed color. His clouds and mountains are as richly textured as his bunches of flowers. Even his skies are intense, a red-gold or the famous “Parrish blue.” His subjects are completely free of tension (even when they're in a pose that might suggest action, like swinging their feet or leaning over, it looks like the action is already completed). It’s as if no one needs to move because everything is already within reach.

Daybreak (1922), Maxfield Parrish's most famous painting.

Daybreak (1922), Maxfield Parrish's most famous painting.

Three years after Clement Greenberg dropped Parrish’s name in his polemic “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (and not as an example of the avant-garde), Manny Farber compared Disney’s then-new Bambi to a Parrish painting. 

“It is,” Farber wrote, clarifying the reference, “an affectation of reality.”

Bambi (1942).

Bambi (1942).

Farber meant that Disney had betrayed the original promise of the animated cartoon: the thrill of movement for movement’s sake. Strictly speaking, there is more to look at in seven minutes of Bambi than a Betty Boop cartoon like Minnie the Moocher. Bambi has shading, subtle color gradations, niceties of timing in the movements of characters. Minnie, by comparison, is a mess. But that messiness forms (if “forms” is even the right word) a democracy of instants that ricochet off each other in an elongated burst. It makes fireworks.

Minnie the Moocher.

Minnie the Moocher.

There is, unmistakably, an allure in languid atmospheric effects. This allure is very much alive in animation today. In a 2013 New York Times story on BYU’s animation program, one student was quoted as remembering the exact moment he wanted to be a digital animator. At thirteen, he found himself “gazing into the deep, rough folds of Shrek’s burlap vest on the movie poster.” As if hypnotized: “gazing into the folds, really,” the story adds for emphasis. The image was on a poster that the student saw while he was waiting in line to see the film. It wasn't even moving. It didn't need to.

BYU’s program aspires to studio-grade computer immersion of the Pixar or Dreamworks kind, but it’s common to find this lure of synthesized atmosphere in smaller-scale shorts. Textures and qualities of light are made to form surfaces for us to linger on, spaces for us to linger in. This holds not just for three-dimensional CGI but drawing as well.

The Lost Thing (2010), grand prize winner at the Annecy animation festival: detailed textures, slowish and complex character movements, warm light.

The Lost Thing (2010), grand prize winner at the Annecy animation festival: detailed textures, slowish and complex character movements, warm light.

To Venner (2011), a Danish student film that had success at international festivals: rack focus, warm light.

To Venner (2011), a Danish student film that had success at international festivals: rack focus, warm light.

This is not the only way to use digital imaging (there are those like Eamonn O'Neill, who go for flatter designs), but why is it easy to find examples like this—especially serious ones? Because, I want to suggest, it's easy to make them. Not in the sense that it saves labor or time (far from it: compare to the work of Shen Jie, whose soundtracks and pictures are barely composed of anything), but in the sense that it's familiar. It's a way to make sense of a dizzying amount of technical options, giving a short the feel of a scripted film. It enables animators to think in narrative beats, shots, camera angles. (It's almost impossible to apply those concepts to Night on Bald Mountain, or George Dunning's The Flying Man.) This means shaping visual and sonic details to serve a single dominant tone. It means atmosphere.

Which is what makes Hertzfeldt's work so compelling. Like a lot of other contemporary animators, he takes his cues of pacing from live-action films. (In interviews he doesn’t even call himself an animator but “a filmmaker who happens to draw.”) But when he adds information or texture or an optical effect, it doesn’t spread all over the frame—at least not in a way that suggests a space we could dwell in. Instead, he puts into play clusters of highly concentrated elements that compete for our attention. When he wants a sky or a landscape, he won’t always surround his characters with it. He’ll often make it an autonomous thing in the frame, as brushstrokes—

The Meaning of Life (2005).

The Meaning of Life (2005).

or cellophane that’s been overexposed

Everything Will Be OK (2006).

Everything Will Be OK (2006).

or a photograph

Everything Will Be OK (2006).

Everything Will Be OK (2006).

or some nonsensical aggregate of things.

I Am So Proud of You (2008).

I Am So Proud of You (2008).

All these techniques relate a figure to a space without giving the viewer a place to rest inside it. When characters are awestruck by something beautiful (which happens a lot in Hertzfeldt’s films, with a kind of romanticism that recalls Terence Malick), it pierces, like tiny needles of light shot into the eye.

Hertzfeldt treats his sound in the same way. He makes elaborate use of digital sound mixing, often blending sounds together for ambient atmosphere. (This is a common way for animators to fill out their spaces). But just as often, he isolates a few elements in succession, like a radio play. When his soundtracks get more complex, he likes to grind layers of sound against each other, with no clear priority. Music, effects, and words drown each other out.

Hertzfeldt's fascination with textures doesn’t seek consistency. There is no single tone that fully shapes the details, no point where we get comfortable within a feeling. When Hertzfeldt reaches for broader sentiments, often in long moments of wordless reverie, the sentiments aren’t allowed to sit still. Even when spaces are smoothed over, as in the sunset from The Meaning of Life

or the finale of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, when Bill gets absorbed into photographic settings

there remains a tension between figure and space, as well as a tension between these moments themselves and earlier, more fragmented ones.

In the process, Hertzfeldt adds complexity to the familiar lonely-cosmos themes. His characters can’t connect with each other, but they can contemplate the stars. The first of these implies a feeling of emptiness that wants to expand to the size of the universe (no one but me has felt anything like this); the second gauges the size of the universe as an emptiness of feeling (I am, along with everyone else, no one). Neither of these perspectives gets the final word.

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Digital effects, in ways both obvious and subtle, have increasingly shaped the look and feel of feature-length films. Does this mean that the movies are becoming more like animation? In a strictly technical sense, yes. For some lovers of the history of movies, this has provoked a lot of anxiety. Dudley Andrew, the most outspoken critic of the digital age, calls this tendency a cinema of manipulation: a will to remake our world “until it conforms not only to our conditions of viewing but to our convenience and pleasure.” Andrew fears a kind of cinema that will select only those parts of the world we already know and shut out the rest. He includes under this rubric “most of animation.

I want to suggest that the history of animated shorts, broadly considered, doesn’t do this: the variety of techniques and textures that animators have explored, and the riots of instants that they’ve yielded, hardly conform to a world we already know. I also want to suggest, more tentatively, that the future of the animated short might be under the same threat of monotony that worries Andrew. There is no technique that can’t be run through a computer and given the same warm sky.

Andrew’s views have been widely criticized (most vocally by lovers of animation), but they speak from a discomfort that’s worth taking seriously. That discomfort echoes the older suspicions about kitsch. It brings to mind the feeling of looking at too many Parrish paintings in a row. The feeling is of a world that seems to go on forever, and yet doesn’t seem worth exploring because you won’t find anything new in it. The world seems built to keep you from ever wanting to leave—which is to say that it seems built to keep you from ever leaving.

World of Tomorrow (2015).

World of Tomorrow (2015).

World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt's first all-digital film, is about this lure of a synthesized feeling of home. He's spoken in interviews about how easy the filmmaking became once he started drawing on a tablet and working in Photoshop, and it seems appropriate that his first digital film is suspicious of things made easy through technology.

The film concerns a little girl, Emily, who is taken on a World’s-Fair-style tour of the future by her third generation adult clone. In this future, it’s typical to keep cloning yourself in the hopes of living forever. But the clones degrade with each generation. Nothing in this future seems to work very well. Everyone is suffering, mostly from loneliness.

Hertzfeldt spends most of his effort making this future environment seductive, so that he can undercut it with grimly funny anecdotes. In the service of this, he’s kept his familiar themes intact but changed some aspects of his style. Or, rather, he's extended the attitude of his most diffuse and absorbing moments (the sunset from Meaning, the end of Beautiful Day) and given them no boundary to press against. Movements aren't finely focused, and elements of sound and picture don't compete with each other. Music gently rolls in and out; abstract equipment hums pleasantly in the background; characters roam freely through settings that, while not realistic, are certainly lush. (Especially the “Outernet”: it’s like a womb if a womb were like the inside of a spaceship.) The two Emilys, wandering through the scenery, often form compositions that recall Parrish’s daydreamers.

World of Tomorrow.

World of Tomorrow.

Maxfield Parrish, Contentment (1927).

Maxfield Parrish, Contentment (1927).

It all fits together so cleanly that the eye tends to glaze over, in a way that doesn’t usually happen with Hertzfeldt’s work. And that’s part of the point: the film wants to acknowledge, so that it can confront, a kind of future-kitsch, an attitude which tries to extend an idealized past indefinitely forward. Emily’s clone pleads to Emily to think about time in a different way than this. “Now,” she says, “is the envy of all the dead.”

But the film doesn’t show us this alternative. We get no taste of a now that would satisfy these demands. Instead, the clone reveals that the world will soon end with a meteor blast, and, before she leaves, she takes from Emily's brain a memory for comfort right before the end. Given what we already know about Emily’s clone (she's watched a memory from her dead lover thousands of times without knowing why), it’s safe to assume that she’ll live in this memory, over and over, until the Earth burns. I'm uncomfortable with a scene like this that seems to luxuriate in hopelessness.

In other words, Hertzfeldt offers an interesting critique of future-kitsch, but he puts it at the service of apocalypse-kitsch. Instead of lingering in the impossible promise of a future free of effort, we're asked to linger in a set of memories, waiting for the end to come.

There is something seductive about relinquishing hope for the outside world and turning inward or backward for momentary relief. It certainly fits the “already-too-late” tone of impending ecological disaster that we are trying to adequately respond to today. But there is also something instructive about an art that is fat with nows, that can pack its instants with activity and vanish.

I have in mind The Event, a short by Julia Pott (who provided the voice for Emily’s clone). Like World of Tomorrow, and a lot of other contemporary shorts, its subject is an apocalyptic future. In it, an anthropomorphic-animal couple try to survive in the days after an unnamed disaster. They mostly fail. One of the couple loses a foot. Ghosts float out from among the rocks.

Pott makes liberal use of digital images and sounds, but for the purpose of holding them in watery tension, like buoys strung together that have lost their anchors. Time, picture, and voiceover narration (taken from a Tom Chivers poem) dance in a an almost-synchronous poetic jumble reminiscent of a Guy Maddin film. (Hertzfeldt's layered compositions in his "Bill" trilogy feel close to Maddin as well.) We see a sunny day before the Event but we are not made to long for it. We keep moving but we don't know where we're going. Tender feelings persist in the face of chaos, even though, given the ghosts and the severed foot that can still flex its toes, it's unclear what would count as “persisting.” It's a lesson in how to have an attachment to what is fleeting.