There Are No Small Films: In Praise of Don Hertzfeldt’s ‘World of Tomorrow’

world of tomorrow

I’ve seen World of Tomorrow three times since it was released on demand on Vimeo on March 31. Since then, I’ve been debating whether or not I should write about it. Most of what has been written about this 16-minute animated short are raves calling it one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see in your life among other superlatives. Being afraid, as I am, of the power of backlash, I was wondering if writing a glowing review of it would actually help people to turn against it. After a long deliberation with myself, I came to the conclusion that I was a little bit trapped inside my own bubble. How big is the market for animated shorts anyway? My Twitter feed might be raving about World of Tomorrow, but I doubt the “real” world knows much about it. This is all to say that, if my writing about it is going to get a person who wouldn’t have otherwise seen this movie to experience World of Tomorrow, then that’s good enough for me.

Then again, the other reason why I wasn’t sure I should write about World of Tomorrow is that I don’t really know what to say. As good a place as any to start is to say that this is the latest short film by animator Don Hertzfeldt, who just happens to be one of the most exciting and original voices in contemporary animation. His most popular work is a trilogy of animated shorts about a stick figure trapped in a confusin universe. These shorts were packaged as a feature by the name of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which is available to stream on Netflix right now. He also got some press for guest-directing a surreal couch gag for The Simpsonswhich by the way, was one of the best things to air on television last year.

Actually, the Simpsons gag might be a good entry point if you want to get into Hertzfeldt, and particularly if you want to get into World of Tomorrow, since they both share certain science fiction elements. Considering we’re talking about a 16-minute short, I think it’s better to keep the plot elements of World of Tomorrow to be discovered when you watch it. The very basic way of describing the movie is as the meeting of four year-old Emily (Winona Mae) with her future self (Julia Pott). It is structured as a guided tour of a future that is clearly a way for Hertzfeldt to present as many philosophical, and often scary, ideas about what might be lying in humanity’s future.

Hertzfeldt’s imagination is one of the things that make World of Tomorrow so fascinating. It offers, in 16 minutes, more fruit for thought than most any science fiction movie I have ever seen. But continuing to praise World of Tomorrow on its ideas would be regarding it as a solely intellectual experience when its biggest strength might be purely emotional. Hertzfeldt cast his little niece as young Emily, and as he puts it in his description of the movie, he “learned very quickly that you cannot direct a four year old (…) you just sort of have to let the four year old happen”.

The presence of this unfiltered four year-old girl is the key to World of Tomorrow‘s greatness. Hertzfeldt clearly tailored the movie around what his niece said in the recordings, but you can still feel the authenticity of the performance. Animation is a medium where the creator has virtually absolute control over his product, so the fact that there is an uncontrollable being in the middle of this very cerebral movie makes it irresistible to me. As a result, World of Tomorrow is not about its big ideas, or its very funny observations, or being melancholy. It’s a movie that just “is”. Hertzfeldt captures “existence” in a way that very few filmmakers ever have.

We don’t often say this because he works mostly in short formats, but Don Hertzfeldt is one of the best directors alive, and World of Tomorrow is the best piece of filmmaking I have seen so far this year. If you haven’t spend $3.49 to rent it on Vimeo yet, I strongly suggest that you do.

Grade: 10 out of 10

2005 Project Batch 4: Good Night and Good Luck, Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Caché

cachebannerThe 2005 Project continues…

goodnightandgoodluckposterGood Night and Good Luck (Directed by George Clooney)

Consider the fact that this was made right in the middle of the Bush presidency, and that, at its core, it was clearly intended to be a straight-on critique of the President’s policies, his decisions regarding the war in Iraq, and especially the disappointing coverage of the news on the part of the American press by looking at the great journalists of the past.

Also consider the fact that, years later, when Aaron Sorkin tried to do essentially the same thing in “The Newsroom”, he came up with one of the most tone-deaf and out-of-touch television series of the past decade.

With those things in mind, I can’t help but be incredibly impressed by how elegant a movie ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ is. The secret of its success: referring to the original material, by showing actual footage of Senator McCarthy, and turning the movie into something as close to a documentary as possible. The fact that the black-and-white photography, the production design, and the costumes all so perfectly evoke the time certainly help. And I’m a sucker for depictions of interesting work environments, so I got a kick out of watching these people be great at what they do.

This elegance makes this clearly Clooney’s best movie (that I’ve seen), and hinted at a bright career that has so far, sadly, not lived up to the expectations. Think of the puzzling messiness and lack of structure of ‘The Monuments Men’, or the immature and simplistic script of ‘The Ides of March’. I can hardly believe it’s the same man that was confident enough to rest a movie’s success on David Strathairn’s face.

wallaceandgromitposterWallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Directed by Nick Park, Steve Box)

On the one hand, it’s easy to see that Wallace and Gromit are better suited to a shorter format. On the other, this is a mighty fine movie.

Most raves of the movies at the time it came out pointed out how refreshing it was, amongst a sea of computer animated Shrek knock-off, to see proof of human involvement in the animation (a frequent example was how you can see traces of the animators’ fingertips in the clay figurines).

The sad part is that those feelings remain true to this day. We still have Laika, but with Ghibli calling it quits (at least for now) and Aardman seemingly inactive, I’m wondering if anything but CG will ever come back to the mainstream.

As for ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, it might overstay its welcome a little bit, but it still features the clever wit of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, and it gets points for Helena Bonham Carter’s wonderful Lady Tottington, and introducing us to Ralph Fiennes’ comedic talents.

As one of the most popular reviews on Letterboxd points out, it’s kind of amazing that Dreamworks gave Nick Park a bunch of money so he could make what is essentially a movie about “marrow-growing contests in Lancashire”. Nick Park is a cool dude. I wish he worked more often.

CacheposterCaché (Hidden) (Directed by Michael Haneke)

First things first. That ending. I know. It’s frustrating. I don’t know what it means. Is it perhaps the ultimate example of Haneke’s contempt for the audience? Probably. However, Haneke is also a very talented dude. Watching ‘Caché’ as a mystery might be a pointless exercise. Watching it as metaphor might not.

I’ve found that beyond his fetishism, Haneke is quite a master when it comes to symbolism. What does ‘Caché’ have to say about the War on Terror, which was at full swing back when it premiered at Cannes? And what does it have to say about France’s (and Europe’s) history with other nations, particularly Islamic ones? In other words, why is the cock decapitated?

Perhaps more interestingly, how does ‘Caché’ read after the tragic events of earlier this year and the whole ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign? Who or what is hidden here? Is it the camera that shoots these people’s lives? Or is it our main character’s (and thus France’s) history? How do we assign blame? How do we sleep at night? And why does Haneke insist on making movies about cruel children?

What does it all mean? Haneke may or may not have the answers, but his movies sure as hell inspire good conversation.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mommie Dearest (1981)

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It’s April Fool’s Day, but don’t worry, this blog won’t make any stupid jokes or post any fake reviews. There is only one April Fool’s tradition that we respect around here, and that is to play along with ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot‘ (if you haven’t played along yet, you should try it, it’s so much fun!). Last year, Nathaniel had us watch the Village People, roller-skating musical extravaganza that is Can’t Stop the MusicFollowing with the “Camp Classic” theme, this year’s pick is Mommie Dearest. 

I suppose that is our cue to start theorizing on why Mommie Dearest turned out the way it did. The thing that has made this movie survive in the public consciousness is clearly the fact that the people involved were not planning on making a funny movie (there are too many slow and boring moments for the makers of Mommie Dearest to have meant that comedy to be intentional). But the filmmakers should have known that there was no way to transform Christina Crawford’s memoirs of child abuse at the hands of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford into a good movie.

Christina is coming from too personal a place. There is dispute whether or not the things she describes in her book actually happen, and I don’t know if they did, but it’s obvious that she had plenty of resentful feelings about her mother. The thing is -and I feel a little bad for Christina saying this- that nobody cares about the abuse she suffered as a child. The more interesting story is that of one of the most famous in the world coping with what seems to be a severe case of mental illness.

A straight-forward adaptation of Christina’s memoir would probably have been a bad and bland movie, so thank God for Faye Dunaway, who almost single-handedly brings life and a sense of purpose to this movie. As Joan Crawford, Dunaway gives one of the most puzzling performances I have ever seen, never searching for nuance when a good histrionic scream will do. Dunaway exorcises her body through acting, and the result is one of the most fascinating pieces of acting I have ever seen.

There are so many iconic (and hilarious) moments to choose from. There is the classic “NO WIRE HANGERS!” scene, or the equally nonsensical “Tina! Bring me the ax!“. My personal favorite comes towards the end of the “wire hangers” sequence, when they’re cleaning up the bathroom floor, Joan loses it, and she starts hitting Christina with a can of soap. I don’t know what it says about me that I laughed so much at a parent beating the shit out of her child, but this is the kind of behavior that Mommie Dearest brings out of me. As for a “Best Shot”, there is only one that captures perfectly all that is memorable about this movie. I call it “Dunaway (or Crawford?) Unbound”.Screen shot 2015-03-31 at 10.55.13 p.m.