Directed by Don Hertzfeldt

The Animation Show

WHEN Fri 2/9, 7 and 9:30 PM, Sat 2/10, 2, 4:30, 7, and 9:30 PM

WHERE Music Box, 3733 N. Southport

INFO 773-871-6604

In Don Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be OK, which screens this weekend as part of “The Animation Show,” curated by Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge, a stick-figure everyman named Bill is suddenly struck by the futility of everyday life. “Bill dropped his keys on the counter and stood there staring at them,” the voice-over says, “suddenly thinking 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.” Bill’s image becomes the center of a grid that shows him executing myriad mindless chores. “But then he wondered if, realistically, this was his life, and the unusual part was his time spent doing other things.”

Count on an animator to appreciate repetition. Hertzfeldt generally uses 12 images per second, so a single minute of screen time requires him to draw 720 individual frames. These days many animators take advantage of computer tools, but he’s stuck to the old-fashioned pen-and-paper camera animation he learned in the mid-90s as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent films, with their elaborate optical effects, have required even more painstaking effort. But the result is a dark, hilarious, and increasingly expressive body of work that’s entirely his own.

Since the 1920s, the sheer amount of labor required to do animation well has shaped the genre, pushing it toward family-friendly material that can sell tickets and cover payrolls. But when you like to draw pictures of people being sawed in half vertically, you have to rely on your own resources. Hertzfeldt’s earliest films have all the delight of a schoolboy’s doodle, with heavy dollops of black humor and extreme violence rendered in simple black lines and judiciously applied spot color. His two-minute debut, Ah, l’Amour (1995), made when he was a freshman at UCSB, shows the hero approaching a series of women, each of whom punishes him severely. (One rips his heart from his body and breathes fire to cook it, then kicks his head off.) Hertzfeldt followed it with another gross-out exercise, Genre (1997), and the two films won a devoted cult audience.

In his next two films Hertzfeldt seemed to be looking for a narrative style, weighing the relative value of language and action. Lily and Jim (1997), which took about a year and a half to animate, began as a partly improvised dialogue between actors that chronicled a disastrous blind date. Hertzfeldt set out to master lip-sync animation, drawing up to 24 frames per second to render the faces but leaving the bodies mostly static against a gently shifting gray background. The effort exhausted him, and in Billy’s Balloon (1998) he relied entirely on movement to tell the story, mastering slapstick timing as a helium balloon beats a child about the head, then pulls him far into the sky and drops him.

Hertzfeldt broke through to a mass audience with Rejected (2000), which was nominated for an Oscar and widely bootlegged online. The film bitterly satirizes the compromises of commercial animation: as Beethoven’s Ninth storms on the soundtrack, intertitles announce that Hertzfeldt was commissioned to do a series of spots for the fictional Family Learning Channel, but his disturbing tableaux include such images as a pig’s head sailing through the sky with a tail of octopus tentacles. Another gig making commercials for a food company also ends in disaster. “Without meaningful input and lacking any coherent narrative structure the rejected cartoons grew unstable,” reads the intertitle. “They began to fall apart.” The paper starts to crumple and tear, enveloping the characters like a heavy wind or nuclear blast. One character thumps at the fourth wall with her fist, causing the paper to crinkle in a star pattern. The horrifying last image is a vibrating close-up of a face silently screaming.

Rejected proved that Hertzfeldt had moved past the splatter comedy of his college years, and with his hugely ambitious The Meaning of Life (2005) he aspired to the cosmic sweep—and chilly misanthropy—of his hero Stanley Kubrick. It opens with a parade of greedy, angry, whiny people (more than 60 actors provided voices) striding back and forth across a horizontal baseline; as they pass and bump into each other, they grow fatter and wearier, until nuclear war wipes out the entire race. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite accompanies an elaborate planetary ballet that was done in pastels and took months to animate, and when Hertzfeldt returns to earth it’s populated by a succession of space creatures, each a mockery of the human form more hideous than the last. By the end of the production Hertzfeldt had begun experimenting heavily with optical effects requiring numerous multiple exposures, and the short culminates in a majestic series of star fields drifting lazily across a black background.

This 12-minute burlesque of evolution took almost four years to complete, and like the fictional Don Hertzfeldt of Rejected, the real one seemed to reach a breaking point. On his Web site, bitterfilms.com, he compares the creation of the crowd scene in The Meaning of Life to “etching a novel into a rock one letter at a time with your fingernails.” He leads a cloistered life, drawing every night from dinner till dawn in his Santa Barbara apartment, and in interviews and online journal entries he describes the mental strain of having to focus on such detailed work hour after hour, day after day. “Bitter Films Volume One: 1995-2005,” a new DVD anthology sold on his site, includes a “making of” documentary for The Meaning of Life that’s nothing but an extended time-lapse sequence of him bent over his drafting table, listening to music and drawing, drawing, drawing.

Judging from his new short, Hertzfeldt has pulled back from the brink. Everything Will Be OK has a more reasonable scale than its predecessor, and the story, music, figures, and optical effects have been brought into perfect alignment. For the first time he uses an omniscient narrator to carry the story, beautifully articulating the anxious ponderings of his quotidian hero: “Bill daydreamed about all the brains in jars he used to see at school. . . . He began to think of people in a new light, how everyone’s just little more than that frightened, fragile brainstem, surrounded by meat and physics, too terrified to recognize the sum of their parts, insulated in the shells of their skulls in lower-middle-class houses, afraid of change, afraid of decisions, afraid of pain, stuck in traffic, listening to terrible music.”

The visual design is simple but striking: against a black screen, small irises open up to expose Hertzfeldt’s familiar stick figures, and as Bill’s story unfolds the slight jiggle in his form seems appropriate to the unsteady cosmos he inhabits. Other irises open up to reveal black-and-white live-action footage of trees, telephones, or buildings over the characters’ heads. After Bill learns from his doctor that he’s going to die, the soundtrack falls silent, and in the most poignant scene Hertzfeldt’s ever produced, Bill sits alone on the examining table, slowly removes his hat, places it in his lap, and runs a hand over the top of his head. As he descends into rage, despair, and madness, the short becomes a terrifying opera of lighting effects, double exposures (flames, a blurry close-up of a dog), and some of Hertzfeldt’s trademark grotesques (a man with a fish head and an open pipe for a penis).

Everything Will Be OK is impressive for its control but also for its mercy: quite unexpectedly, Bill recovers, perplexing his doctor and forcing his mother to return the casket she’s already bought. In the final shot Hertzfeldt places Bill in the center iris, peering out a bus window on a rainy day as he prepares to return to his job, the image tinted light blue. Other irises open around him, framing live-action footage of rain and water splashing, while a passage from Bizet swells on the soundtrack. Bill’s bus pulls out, ending the film, but for a long time afterward a sense of wonder for everyday life lingers.

For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.