Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

How do our deaths plague our consciousness? How does the gradual deterioration of consciousness affect a death? In the immense universe, what meaning do our conscious, tragic, and fleeting existences hold? In this essay, we explore how Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day answers these questions by echoing Absurdist1 existentialists2: It ponders the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence, then argues for several approaches from which we could construct meaning for his conscious, fleeting life despite the universe’s meaningless nature.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an animated dark comedy-drama following the final years of its stick-figure protagonist, Bill, who suffers from an unknown neurological disorder. The film weaves between his present daily routines, flashbacks to his past and his fits of seizure. Through Bill’s deteriorating life, Hertzfeldt explores Heidegger’s three neologisms for existence—being-toward-death (Sein-zum-Tode), being-with (Mitsein) and being-in-the-world (Dasein)—as ways to construct meaning out of our fleeting lives (Wheeler). Being-toward-death is a meaning of existence where the individual is actively conscious of their inevitable death, gaining an authentic appreciation of their current being as a result. Being-with existence is categorized by the individual’s conscious appreciation of how in being as a human, they are always already with others of the same type of being, in that their experience of existence implicitly references other humans’. Being-in-the-world understands the meaning of existence as simply the individual’s inherent being there in the universe (Wheeler). With each chapter’s passing, each meaning of existence is explored by Bill’s inability to appreciate it, as his mental degeneration causes him to grow progressively isolated (Wheeler).

The film introduces Bill’s present through vignettes of his daily life while his condition worsens, ending with a severe seizure fit hospitalizing Bill a third through the film. Bill’s neurological disorder manifests in seizures and dementia, physically preventing him from expressing his sufferings, thus isolating him within himself. Being-toward-death is evaluated by highlighting the dichotomy of horror and beauty Bill’s isolation forces him to confront in his life. The film laments the absurdity that instead of an appreciation for the beauty in his existence, mundane chores occupy Bill’s consciousness. Hertzfeldt’s exasperation is shared by the audience as we witness the tedium and worry characterizing most of Bill’s daily life, despite his extraordinary and pressing circumstances.

Objectively, horror pervades Bill’s existence. Hertzfeldt shows this by exaggerating the absurdity and perpetuity of the generational suffering in Bill’s family, worsened by its ineffability. The narration of this lineage of pain is almost comical – not one, not two, but three of Bill’s family members died being “cut in half by a train,” which Hertzfeldt sadistically punctuates by repeating the same visual of a train speeding through in each of these deaths’ montages, repeating the same diegetic sound effect of screeching steel as a final knife twist. These deaths by train are made more absurd by how they do not logically follow from their contexts—Bill’s great-grandfather was “eating an onion”; his grand-uncle was “crippled with lead poisoning and polio”; and his mother was “launched into a fit of senile hysterics after skipping her medication”—before the train hit. Hertzfeldt’s sadistic depictions of these non sequitur, darkly humorous deaths reinforce the absurdity of Bill’s generational suffering, symptomatic of the universe’s irrationality at large.

This absurd, irrational generational suffering is made worse by how it perpetuates throughout Bill’s family history to directly affect Bill’s psyche. Bill’s symptoms and hallucinations are eerily similar to his grandmothers: in one of Bill’s flashbacks to his childhood, we are introduced to his eccentric grandmother, who is said to be “suffering from seizures and dementia.” At night she would “find the preserved cat head” in her drawer, scrubbing their “furry little heads across her skin” because she could “feel the fish smothering her brain.” This fish-themed hallucination is strikingly similar to Bill’s, who is also suffering from seizures and dementia. He first dreams of a “monstrous fish head that fed upon his skull,” making a “low, guttural sound.” Later, in one of Bill’s seizures, the monstrous fish had “consumed his head,” and he even brings it up in a session with his doctor, telling him he had “a fish living inside of his head, possibly a trout.” Bill likely inherited his neurological disorder from his grandmother, making his suffering not only painful, but destined.

To make his point about the perpetuity of human suffering explicit, Hertzfeldt introduces a deceptively random segment in the film, where Bill’s colleague tells him about “identical twins who were separated at birth but had individually grown up to be serial killers.” The colleague’s offhand quip of how “it was as though they didn’t have any choice in what they turned into” aptly expands the perpetuity of suffering from Bill’s to all mankind’s, universalising the horror in human existence.

While Bill and his family’s lineage of suffering reflects the universally absurd and perpetuating horror in existence, the ways with which they reacted to their pain embody suffering’s ineffability. In every one of Bill’s seizures, he is isolated firmly within himself, in that his hallucinations cannot be seen by the people around him, and his complete loss of control over his body means he can not express what he was experiencing at all. This leads to a terrifying isolation where Bill feels alienated by everyone around him. Hertzfeldt graphically depicts this through the surreal and menacing visions Bill saw during his seizures, where everyone around him appears deformed and demonic. In one episode, the “guy next to him at the bus stop [has] the head of a cow”; in another, “everyone in the supermarket [looks] like some sort of demon, and they all [have] gigantic bacteria-ridden crotches buried in all the goddamn produce.”

The terror in these hallucinations are heightened by Hertzfeldt’s use of layered soundscapes, with loud, discordant noises accompanying each scene, often paired with piercing diegetic sound effects. This surreal, menacing and loud terror is overwhelming to a Bill who cannot speak, striking a deeper despair in the audience as we empathise with his helplessness. Hertzfeldt gives a literal depiction of this helplessness by including a segment in the film where Bill claws at the air at strings of scrambled letters flying by. This segment was paired with sounds of high-pitched screeching and incomprehensible speech, almost mocking as the letters remained elusive to Bill’s desperate grasps at thin air. 

After depicting the absurd, perpetuating and ineffable horror of human existence, Hertzfeldt aggrandizes this horror by pairing the narrations of these scenes with classical background music. Old Sir Symon the King cheers on while the narrator nonchalantly describes Bill’s tragic family history; Au fond du temple contrasted against the diegetic sound of buzzing flies when Bill hallucinates a supermarket full of “bacteria-ridden crotches” and Kirsten Flagstad sings Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder to the climax of one of Bill’s seizures. The layered soundscape of the film regularly comprises grand classical music, nonchalant narration and discordant, diegetic noises, blending these unlikely elements to compose a unique symphony, reflecting the interaction of horror and beauty in human existence.

Yet Hertzfeldt does not seek to romanticize Bill’s existence by aggrandizing his suffering. Rather, he presents this morbid richness as a meaning of existence Bill could have constructed in light of his imminent death, echoing the Heiddegerian spirit of being-toward-death (Wheeler). He then laments how Bill, and most humans, rarely recognise this grandeur of their existences, evident in how tedium takes up most of their lives.

In a particularly poignant scene in the film, the screen is divided into multiple vignettes of Bill’s daily rituals, and Bill is struck by this rare, conscious realization of his ritualistic life. As he “drops his keys on the counter and [stands] there staring,” he suddenly thinks about “all the times he’d thrown his keys there before, and how many days of his life were wasted repeating the same tasks and rituals in his apartment over and over again.” Surrounding him are repeating vignettes of him dropping his keys, making toast and getting batteries for his wall clock, each with their own set of repeating, diegetic sound effects to create a cacophony of rituals that represented Bill’s present life. Continuing in this rare bout of clarity, Bill hallucinates queuing at the bus stop in a line of “horribly deformed birds [checking] their voicemail.” One voicemail ponders how “the effects of tranquilizers on ant health at higher altitudes are unpredictable”; another coos, “[W]hy don’t you come over here and sit on my lap?” Hertzfeldt trivializes these voicemails by layering their flat, robotic voices, merging to create one long, monotonous note. These scenes universalise the characteristic tedium of existence from Bill to humans in general, only briefly conscious to Bill when he is forced to confront the meaning of existence by his isolating, imminent death.

Hertzfeldt darkens this realization of existence’s tedium further by haunting Bill’s hallucinations and death with it. Staring at his keys on the counter, Bill wonders if “realistically, this was his life, and the unusual part was his time spent doing other things.” This sentiment resurfaces later in one of Bill’s seizures where he sees himself writhing and clutching his head in despair, before letting out a violent, soundless scream and wreaking King-Kong-esque havoc on the city. A darker, robotic voice taunts him by chanting “this was his life” in the background, gradually layering over itself to create a menacing backdrop against the violent visuals of Bill’s hallucinations.

To cement the cruelty of his existential tedium, Hertzfeldt uses these ritualistic vignettes as recurring milestones tracking Bill’s memory degradation. After being told that all his treatments have failed and he “[didn’t] have very long to live,” Bill is sent home to live out the remaining days of his life. Subsequent montages show him failing at the rituals constituting his life: instead of dropping his keys at the counter, he spends 30 seconds trying to open the door with his mailbox key; instead of making toast, he has forgotten how to; and as he stares at his wall clock, he realizes he had forgotten to replace the batteries. Bill is dying, and Hertzfeldt chooses to depict this dying process through his growing inability to maintain these rituals, subtly affirming that this tedious existence is his life.

This ritualistic nature of Bill’s existence extends to most of humanity, and this bleeds into the performative interactions between Bill and the people around him. By juxtaposing the performativity of relationships with every individual’s genuine desire to connect, Hertzfeldt laments how this disingenuity in interaction isolates everyone in similar fashion to Bill, preventing the conscious connection being-with requires, a meaning of existence tragically obscure to both Bill and the people around him. In the very first scene of the film, Bill “sees somebody he recognised walking towards him, but he couldn’t remember his name.” He immediately scrambles to “think of things to say when they’d be close enough to acknowledge each other.” Both eventually fumble over their greetings, and when they pass each other, they “did a sort of awkward half turn, and then continued on, now confident that the other was not gonna stop to talk.” The awkwardness of this encounter is heightened by the gingerly, slightly breathless way it is narrated. Both characters feel equally obliged to trade niceties but were also equally unsure of how much conversation was obligatory with respect to their relationship. Despite sharing unease as common ground, they could not break social protocol by expressing it upfront. After the scene, the narrator adds that “they never saw each other again, and a day later had each forgotten the whole thing.” By adding this detail, Hertzfeldt reflects on how we waste most of our opportunities to recognise being-with existence by worrying over social trivialities, thereby failing to connect to the vibrancy of one another’s consciousnesses before they are lost forever (Wheeler).

Throughout the film, we see Bill maintain a lukewarm, fidgety relationship with his ex-girlfriend. When Bill “[has] a sudden urge to talk to somebody,” he “[phones] his ex-girlfriend and told her about the manatee on his calendar.” Aside from entertaining his strange interest on the phone, she even agrees to a walk in the park the following day. These kind gestures show a lively warmth in their relationship, how Bill appreciates her company, and how she cares enough about Bill to give it. During the walk, however, Bill quickly notices that “every time he was near her, she sort of moved away with a tight-lipped smile on her face as though everything were okay.” This awkward tension in their walk reveals the ex-girlfriend’s reservations in her intimacy with Bill. She has a social role to play—an ex-girlfriend who cares. With this role comes a restriction on the degree of intimacy she can share with Bill, which she cautiously attends to. 

This awkward dynamic resurfaces later when Bill is hospitalized. His ex-girlfriend visits him frequently, where  they  “talk for hours about current events.” Bill finds that these visits were  “the happiest he’s been in a long time,” adding to the warmth the relationship brings him. In a subsequent visit, however, his ex-girlfriend brings her boyfriend, Steve, later admitting  “she didn’t know why she’s brought Steve along” the following day. Hertzfeldt juggles lively intimacy and hurtful distance in Bill’s awkward relationship with his ex-girlfriend, caused by the tension between the social roles they play and their genuine, mutual desire to connect. The two dance around these social restrictions, reaching out and withdrawing tentatively, tragically crippled from connecting deeply and consciously.

Through these awkward relations, Hertzfeldt extends Bill’s isolation from the world to every individual. This is given a literal representation in one of Bill’s philosophical musings, where he “began to think of people in a new light, how everyone’s just little more than that frightened, fragile brain stem surrounded by meat and physics, too terrified to recognise the sum of their parts.” While Bill’s disorder physically paralyzes him from expressing his suffering, we are equally isolated from others as well. We form a society of consciousnesses “insulated in the shells of [our] skulls and lower middle-class houses,” awkwardly dancing around our social roles, gingerly prodding for one another’s unreadable thoughts. As we witness Bill’s acute awareness of the awkward dynamics in his relationships, Hertzfeldt invites us to recognize the tragedy of disingenuous human interaction, rendering the intimate, existential connection being-with requires forever out of reach.

By showing how Bill is tragically kept from constructing meaning out of his existence with being-toward-death and being-with, the film turns to the last of Heidegger’s neologisms – being-in-the-world. Hertzfeldt contrasts Bill’s sudden realization of the beauty in every little detail in the world even from his limited perspective against an imaginary sequence where he becomes immortal and completely detaches from himself.

Apart from isolated seizure segments where Bill grasps at thin air for words, Hertzfeldt’s persistent use of vignettes is itself a device constantly reinforcing Bill’s limited perspective. Paired with a narrator who appears to be Bill’s consciousness, the entire film is seen purely through Bill’s perspective, supported by how the many vignettes depicting random instances in Bill’s present life resemble a person’s fragmented, chaotic stream of consciousness. 

For most of its duration, the film feels trapped and frustrated by this tunnel vision. The horror in Bill’s seizure episodes is magnified by how the surrounding black screen pulses with an array of dizzying, trypophobic red dots; or how angry red flames burn through the vignettes and threaten the writhing Bill within. The use of the black screen as an impressionist backdrop creates a menacing presence that constantly surrounds Bill, always threatening to engulf him. Paired with Hertzfeldt’s recurring motif of isolation, Bill’s limited perspective appears as a prison he struggles to break out of.

However, the film subverts its attitude towards Bill’s isolation at the end of the film. When Bill was told he “doesn’t have very long to live,” he suddenly gains a profound appreciation for his existence. Before receiving the doctor’s distressing message on the phone, the film repeats a montage of Bill walking around the block three times. “It’s kind of a really nice day,” the same exact narration starts, as Bill “decides to take a walk around the block”; he “sees a woman’s tennis shoe filled with leaves,” and the same greyscale close-up of Bill’s face is shown as the shoe “fills him with inexplicable sadness”; he “walks down his side street,” alongside the same exact greyscale picture of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge “past the farmer’s market,” and arrives at the same “main thoroughfare” to the same diegetic sound of “birds chirping”. All three walks were exactly the same, in full greyscale and the simplistic, hand-drawn visuals used throughout the film.

After receiving message of his imminent death, Bill takes the same walk again. “It’s kind of a really nice day,” the same narration starts again, but this time Hertzfeldt’s crude line drawings are coloured. As the same “woman’s tennis shoe filled with leaves” fills Bill with the same “inexplicable sadness”, Rachmaninoff’s Morceaux de fantaisie preludes the close-up of his face; Bill walks down the same side street, and “sees striking colors in the faces of the people around him”; taking a detour from his signature grayscale, hand-drawn vignettes, Hertzfeldt fills the screen generously with vibrant live action footage and texture, as Bill notices “details in these beautiful brick walls and weeds that he must have passed every day but never noticed.” The same San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge bathes in a warm orange glow as “the air smells different, brighter somehow” to Bill; the rich blue of the “currents under the bridge” fill the screen, “strange and vivid”; and a blood-red rose angrily blossoms as the Morceaux de fantaisie trumpets boom. The sun is “warming [Bill’s] face,” and the world is “clumsy and beautiful and new.” “His bathmats,” Bill exclaims, “are gorgeous.” In an existential epiphany where he notices “all this detail he’s never noticed,” Bill marvels at “the grain patterns in his cheap wood cabinets” and “the way his paper towels drink water,” struck by the realization that “he’s alive.” This Hertzfeldtian cornucopia of sound, texture and visuals is a rendition of Dadaist city symphonies (Jilani), which aim to capture the raw sensation of the city’s “rhythms, textures and phenomena of life,” creating a visceral experience that “vibrates something deep within” the audience as well (Wei), inviting us to feel the magnificence of simply existing, of being-in-the-world. By contrasting the morbidity of Bill’s dire conditions with the liveliness he suddenly appreciates in the world, the film recognizes the essence of being-in-the-world: without needing these “sentimental illusions,” Bill’s consciousness of his finite existence in the universe is inherently meaningful, and his isolated perspective, instead of trapping him, enables his recognition of this. 

As his death approaches, Bill is suddenly determined to hold onto the magnificence of his existence, “rattled to the core” by one realization: “Isn’t everything amazing?” This grand moment of wonder turns to desperation as Bill “runs to the car rental place and finds himself a freeway and drives all night.” He wants to “[absorb] everything he can before it all fades again with the morning.” As he drives deep into the night, “sometimes he sings,” and “sometimes he cries,” and the “left side of his body is beginning to grow slack and numb.” Here, the narration layers over itself to convey urgency and desperation, chanting how “all he wants to do is just keep driving, somehow to keep on driving,” filling the car with gas “again and again.” “He wants to keep going,” Bill’s consciousness cries, “he wants to go forever!” Bill’s desperation in this penultimate segment answers the film’s search for existential meaning—this consciousness of our fleeting, magnificent existences we all share is inherently meaningful. If it were not, why else would Bill hold so desperately onto his absurdly tragic, tedious, awkward, dying life?

No song serenades Bill’s death, except the faint birdsong and rustling wind of the forest as he lies peacefully against a vividly green bed of grass. “It’s such a beautiful day,” Hertzfeldt deceptively states, as the screen cuts to black. Suddenly, the narrator breaks character by interrupting—“wait a minute, he’s not gonna die here?” Hertzfeldt’s voice communicates denial as he adamantly demands Bill to “get up.” The narrator’s denial reflects our universal inability to cope with death, despite our frustrations with finding meaning for our existences in a meaningless universe. “He can’t die here,” Hertzfeldt stubbornly explains, “he can’t ever die.”

This recognition is strengthened by the film’s surprising extension of the ending—an imagination of “what if Bill was immortal?” This immortality starts off utopian: Bill will “spend hundreds of years traveling the world, learning all there is to know.” He will “learn every language,” “read every book,” and “know every land.” He will create “stunning works of art” and learn to “meditate to control all pain.” But this imagination quickly turns nightmarish when Bill’s life begins to “[run] on an endless loop,” and his excess of life strips any possible meanings of existence—being-toward-death, being-with, being-in-the-world—from him. With death “forever a stranger to him,” Bill will never have to stare his limited life square in the face again, gaining the conscious appreciation of his current existing that characterizes being-toward-death. He will create and witness his own lineage of absurd, perpetuating, ineffable suffering, as he fathers “hundreds of thousands of children,” and any meaningful dichotomy of horror and beauty in the existences of their “own exponential offspring” he will “slowly lose track of through the years.” 

Bill will outlive his awkward relationships with acquaintances, and he will create new ones with acquaintances whose “millions of beautiful lives will all eventually be swept again from the earth.” He will outlive his awkward tango with his ex-girlfriend, taking more “walks to the park” with “great loves found… and lost… and found…” People will “come and go” in Bill’s endless life, “until people lose all meaning and vanish entirely from the world,” and being-with loses its signature awkward, disingenuous taste, turning to bland sand on Bill’s immortal tongue. 

And still, Bill will live on. He will “befriend the next inhabitants of the earth,” then “outlive them all.” He will spend “millions and millions of years exploring, learning, living.” The film, once frugal in its inclusion of coloured live action footage, now fills the screen gluttonously with beautiful landscape after beautiful landscape, from exotic deserts to mesmerizing night skies. In addition to contrasting against the former crude, grayscale Hertzfeldtian animation, these scenes also juxtapose against Bill’s existential epiphany before he died, all the details he “never appreciated” as he walks around the block. In that segment, the live action footage is mostly extreme close-ups of nature—a flamboyantly orange brick wall, a glossy blade of green weeds, a blood-red rose. These scenes construct the magnificence of existence by aggrandizing the precious details of life. In comparison, Bill’s endless life is saturated with panoramic, sweeping views of extraordinary landscapes, effectively trivializing the intricacy within them. Hertzfeldt implies that in his excess of life, any sensational wonder the world has to offer becomes dull to Bill’s eyes, until “the earth is swallowed beneath his feet.”

Eventually, this paling of meaning stretches across all space and time, as Bill keeps living “until the sun is long since gone. Until time loses all meaning and the moment comes that he knows only the positions of the stars.” The stars that were once only appreciated by him in his brief existential epiphany, he now “sees them whether his eyes are closed or open,” losing all of their former elusive value. This loss of meaning can also be seen as another form of death by isolation. As Bill’s excessive life blurs the division between his self and the universe, it effectively distances him from any human, any living being, from any material existence, from time itself, by stripping them of their significance to him. The ultimate isolation comes when Bill detaches from his self, when he “forgets his name and the place where he’d come from.” As Bill “lives and [lives] until all of the lights go out,” he loses the being-in-the-world meaning of existence completely, as neither the world nor his current being holds any meaning to him anymore (Wheeler). The film argues that this loss of all meaning and isolation is itself the “ultimate death” and ends the quiet rustling sound of nature.

Bill’s search for meaning of his tortured existence allegorises humanity’s struggle to find its purpose in the meaningless universe. Despite the film’s sympathy for Bill’s suffering and exasperation for his ritualistic, awkward life, Hertzfeldt ultimately argues for an appreciation of simply existing itself. He echoes Camus’ humanistic thought: the meaninglessness of the universe provides humanity with an intimidating freedom to construct its own meaning, and if “there is a sin against this life,” it consists in “hoping for another life, and eluding the quiet grandeur of this one.” (Camus) Any conclusion Hertzfeldt lands on is open to interpretation, but one appears to underpin the film: we can embrace the inexplicability of the universe and construct meaning out of our finite existences. While Bill’s physical death appears to strip meaning from his existence by physically trapping him within himself, this form of isolation was also vital to driving his conscious appreciation of the magnificence and meanings of existence. The film argues that the ultimate death is not the physical death of life, but the death of meaning by the excess of it, where the individual suffers the ultimate isolation – the detachment from their self.

Works Cited

  • Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2017. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/camus/.
  • Camus, Albert. Summer in Algiers. Penguin, 2005.
  • Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/existentialism/.
  • Hertzfeldt, Don. It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Animation, Bitter Films, 2012, http://bitterfilms.com/bluray.html.
  • Jilani, Sarah. Urban Modernity and Fluctuating Time: “Catching the Tempo” of the 1920s City Symphony Films – Senses of Cinema. https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2013/feature-articles/urban-modernity-and-fluctuating-time-catching-the-tempo-of-the-1920s-city-symphony-films/. Accessed 21 Jan. 2021.
  • Wei, Christopher. Now Is the Envy of All of the Dead: An Introduction to Don Hertzfeldt, the Animator. 2019. open.bu.edu, https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/36018.
  • Wheeler, Michael. “Martin Heidegger.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/heidegger/

  1. Absurdist philosophy asserts there is a paradoxical relationship between the human impulse to question the meaning of existence, and the impossibility of receiving an answer in the meaningless universe (Aronson).
  2.  Existentialists explore the meaning of human existence from the individual’s perspective (Crowell).

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