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Stick Figure Magician: Cult Animator Don Hertzfeldt Comes to the Music Box Tomorrow

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 28, 2012 9:20PM

Image copyright Don Hertzfeldt.
There is a moment in each installment of Don Hertzfeldt's masterful trilogy of animated shorts where you feel something in your chest. It's an unmistakably cardiac event, the kind that great art can elicit when something profound and undeniably true is conveyed about the human condition. That's when you say to yourself: are stick figures supposed to make me feel this way?

In the hands of a master, yes. And Hertzfeldt is to stick figures what Franz Liszt was to planks of ebony and ivory and what Ted Williams was to a stick of white ash: someone so transcendentally expert that to describe what they do in literal terms is borderline demeaning. In bringing his latest work to the Music Box tomorrow night, where Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud of You and the new It's Such a Beautiful Day will be screened together for the first time in Chicago,Hertzfeldt gives us a chance to take in a truly unique voice coming into its own, forging a new vocabulary to show us things we didn't even know we needed to see. And yes, we are still talking about stick figures.

The films tell the story of Bill, an everyman whose observation of everyday life is keenly aware and darkly comic, as he undergoes a breakdown and a convalescence. A Buster Keaton-esque straight man amid a world whose absurdity threatens its own understanding, enjoyment and successful navigation, we laugh at Bill just long enough to identify with him. Nimbly plumbing the deepest themes (the alienation of modern life, fear of death, the pleasures of worldy embodiment, the nature of memory), the films never lose the thread of imaginative whimsy that keeps us from falling in. They are quirkily personal, funny and yet grandly ambitious, as if Guy Maddin woke up one day in Matt Groening's animation studio and tried to make Tree of Life.

How does Hertzfeld perform such magic? It's tempting to ascribe some mystical power to the over 50-year-old 35mm rostrum camera he uses to photograph each hand-drawn frame (12 of them for each second of film): it's the same one Charles Shultz used to make some classic Peanuts animations. Animating this way is a laborious process, but one that allows for unexpected elements to creep in and affect the look and direction of the animation in subtle and organic ways which are alien to the rigorously planned out worlds of computer and video.

We're thankful that he stuck with the old ways upon finishing his film degree seemingly a few hours before digital technology took over for good in the late 90s. It served him well. He struck gold—literally, he pulled down the Gold Hugo from the 2000 Chicago International Film Festival, to say nothing of a coveted Oscar nomination—for his darkly comic, much-bootlegged and much-loved Rejected. He's turned out a string of wonderful shorts using his time-intensive process, and already earned the San Francisco International Film Festival's "Persistence of Vision" Lifetime Achievement Award. At the age of 33.

This final installment of the "Bill" trilogy, It's Such a Beautiful Day, completes his most ambitious work to date. It showcases a dazzling array of optical effects and a significantly enlarged visual palette, all employed to enhance his storytelling gifts. His pitch-perfect ear for musical accompaniment only shows signs of having continued apace, and there's a curious, TV news reporter-esque lilt to the narration that still sticks in our heads. Seeing all three chapters in 35mm at the Music Box will be a treat, and Hertzfeldt himself will be there for an interview afterwards, which he promises will be "embarrassing." We're looking forward to putting a flesh and blood to the face behind the stick figure.

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt takes place tomorrow, Feb. 29, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. The 7:30 screening has sold out, but the Music Box has added a special 10:10 p.m. screening which has just gone on sale.