Saturday, August 1, 2015

Birthday Take: Don Hertzfeldt in "Rejected" (2001)

Scene from Rejected
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Don Hertzfeldt
Born: August 1, 1976 (39 years old)
Nomination: Best Animated Short (nominated) for Rejected

The Take

When it comes to animators, there are few that have as odd of a style as Don Hertzfeldt. For most of his career, he hasn't fallen into the traditional camps of doing beautiful drawings or CG characters. Instead, he has done what is probably often considered the lower form of art: hand drawn animation. He has stick figures deal with very mature subjects, finding new beauty in the rawness, resulting in its own euphoric payoff. His shorts aren't often conventional enough to be liked or even respected by everyone. However, his existential viewpoint is among other things one of the reasons that he continues to linger.

Among his more noteworthy projects is Rejected, which is him at one of his darkest and funniest. Through a series of vignettes, he presents the declining psychology of cartoons that were rejected by various groups. Some are blatantly optimistic for very strange subjects. However, he adds his own twist, turning everything slowly into a surreal final product that features a cartoon cloud bleeding out of its rectum. Yes, it may be very crude and simple, but the payoffs result in something phenomenally unique and powerful. The fact that he was even nominated for an Oscar for this is still baffling in a great way.

This isn't to say that this is his only achievement to animation. If you have been following the outlier animation scene of recent years, he has actually made quite an impressive cult status. Among his many things, he created one of the most surreal shorts for The Simpsons in 2014 where the beloved cartoon family is turned into robotic, gibberish-spewing creatures. He also released the full length It's Such a Beautiful Day, which saw him tackling loneliness of a deteriorating mind - all with his penchant humor. Most recently, he came out with the great short The World of Tomorrow, which may be among his finest achievements.

Much like Hertzfeldt's other work, Rejected is available via his Youtube channel. You can find a lot of his work there, which is mostly done with sly commentary on some emotional or creative facet. There's a certain improvement over the years however that you should be aware of. As the artist has aged, he has also gotten more involved in incorporating various styles of animation, thus making something more complicated to improve his emotional statements. As it stands, his best work feels like it is still ahead of him and his increasingly strong work has thankfully gotten more and more noticed.

Even if you don't like Hertzfeldt's work, I mostly want to spend today's Birthday Take as a chance to recognize one of the outlier art's finest voices. He seeks something more complicated in how we perceive images. He wants to do something that isn't beautiful, yet is metaphorically. What he ends up making is something totally mature and complicated - rich with dark humor and challenging animation styles. In some ways, he is the prodigy of stick figure animation. Yet that is a compliment because unlike most of us, he can make us feel a whole heap of feelings for them while throwing them into crudely drawn situations.

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