The Lilac Pilgrim – Yet Another Blog

Archive for July 2009

I’m a little perplexed that the readers of my blog find it using phrases like ‘joker fangirl’, ‘anneliese van der pol boobs’ and ‘”crush on” hertzfeldt’.

And the other day, it was found using the phrase ‘bundy/dahmer slash’. You people… need help.

Promotional poster for the US tour

Promotional poster for the US tour

Two weeks before June 21st 2009, my sister was browsing the internet and suddenly squealed in delight. Or so I hear; I had been at work at the time, but I’m assured it was a powerful moment when she discovered that one of her most favourite animators was premiering his latest animated short in Edinburgh. Upon returning home I was asked if I wanted to tag along to An Evening With Don Hertzfeldt. She couldn’t go on her own, so I agreed.

Two weeks later, I found myself on a train to Edinburgh after finishing a six hour shift in the slave factory in which I am employed. Not feeling too well, I sat with my sister across from a very nice gentleman with whom we had an interesting conversation about the arts, science, BP and patriotism going too far. After getting off the train, we made our way to pick up the tickets and then it was off to the cinema where we would see the premiere of Hertzfeldt’s film I Am So Proud Of You, the second in a trilogy of shorts about a man named Bill who is apparently very unwell, as well as a selection of his earlier works.

Now, when I tagged along, it was as a guardian. My sister is a big girl and can take care of herself but I couldn’t have her going to a strange city on her lonesome. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the sequel to Everything Will Be Ok, which I viewed with my sister at her friend’s house.  It had been good, yes, but I was pretty soured to the whole Hertzfeldt animation thing by the clips floating around the bowels of the internet, specifically the random segment involving a small stick-like figure holding a massive spoon and standing in front of a tiny bowl as he declared that “mah spoon is tew biiig” in a high pitched voice, when suddenly and giant banana walks into the room and announces that “I am a banana.” Out of context, that only served to piss me off. Suffice it to say that I was not looking forward to the show at all, other that the fact the the animator himself would be there and I was hoping to ask him “What. The. Fuck?”

Just as we are getting herded into the cinema room, my sister gasps and freezes.

“That’s him,” he breathes, looking as though she is in the presence of Zombie Freddie Mercury himself. I look around confused, not sure who I’m looking for. Frustrated, my sister garbles some unknown fangirl language and points at a guy standing right next to us, sporting a beard of sorts and a green jacket. That, I am informed in not-so-nice language, is Don Hertzfeldt. He looks sort of generic to me, and we finally go into the cinema and choose seats in the third row. I find myself utterly interested in the shots of the animator’s scribbles and planning sheets flashing up on the screen in a cycle. As my sister points out, so does the animator.

A sequence from The Meaning of Life

A sequence from The Meaning of Life

After a short introduction, the films start. We are first of all treated to The Meaning Of Life, an apparently non-structured bundle of sequences that relate to one another in a disjointed fashion. I’m no artist, but I enjoy it, and the audience laughs along. I don’t know why, but I find I laugh hardest when a portly character walks across the screen declaring his love for fishsticks, and when a strange creature chastises a younger creature for talking about the “Meaning of Life”. The audience claps heartily when that animation finishes and wait intently for the next: Rejected.

Rejected is a brilliant idea. It represents Hertzfeldt’s feelings toward being asked to animate advertisements for companies, and shows that it’s probably not a good idea to ask him to do ads for you. (Hertzfeldt comments in dismay during the interview at the end that “Even after I made Rejected, people are still asking me.”) Some of the fake ads include a sequence for the Family Learning Channel in which a man in an ordinary hat walks unsuspectingly into a Silly Hats Only area. After the ‘You Are Watching the Family Learning Channel’ card, we are shown the result – the poor guy gets lynched by the silly-hat-wearers. Also in the Family Learning Channel segment is the “mah spoon is tew big” sequence, which turns out to be a whole lot funnier in context. The film ends in the animator apparently having a nervous breakdown and all the characters literally suffering as a result. A comical, but powerful, short film.

In case you hadnt noticed, his spoon is too big.

In case you hadn't noticed, his spoon is too big.

Next was Billy’s Balloon, a seemingly innocent short that starts out with a small, unattended child playing quite happily with a rattle and holding a red balloon. Laughter erupts when the balloon suddenly and inexplicably begins to attack the boy. The hilarity just seems to escalate when the balloon stops abusing the child when adults walk by. After that, it just gets better when the balloon proceeds to lift the boy way up into the cloudy sky… and very deliberately drop him from plane-height. Repeatedly.

After this, we see Intermission in the Third Dimension. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what this even is. It looks like it’s making fun of 3D films (complete with 3D glasses) at first and then it becomes this bizarre seizure-tastic journey into the dimension of insanity. Still funny though. To myself, I’m wondering if Scottish people aren’t just a bit mental; we’ve laughed at everything so far.

Then comes Everything Will Be Ok, the first in a trilogy of films following Bill, a middle-aged man who is very sick with… er… We’re never told what it actually is, but whatever it is, it gives him awful symptoms, including hallucinations, paranoid delusions and apparent seizures. Bill’s life seems to be mundane and uninteresting, but it is that which makes his experiences all the more fascinating to watch. People can relate to the simple stick-like figure, and everyone in the audience receives the film in a different, very much individual way. The reaction to each comedic sequence in Everything Will Be Ok is met as before with a ripple of laughter (some of it uneasy) throughout the audience, whereas each symptom we suffer with Bill as he tries to battle his illness is met with a solemn silence. Captivated, the audience is undoubtedly gaining some sort of newfound wisdom, finally understanding what their life is really all about, or maybe mentally reminding themselves that they have work in the morning. Whatever the case, the film’s end credits are met with the same roaring round of respectful applause as each of the last films.

Finally, we are all treated to the very first UK showing of the new film I Am So Proud Of You. This film explores Bill’s ironic and macabre family history in a deadpan and fantastical fashion. With his family just as messed up as he seems to be, it is really no wonder Bill turned out the way he did. Medically, that is. I don’t usually like to get personal, but this film moved me in a very strong way. Other people in the audience later remarked on the powerful feelings evoked by Hertzfeldt’s spectacular storytelling, a style made even more impressive when he tells us later that “I make it up as I go”. His films, particularly Everything Will Be Ok and I Am So Proud Of You, are clever, witty and masterful, but they are at the same time not overbearing, not dry or formulaic and most definitely not patronising. His films invite you to watch for yourself and try to take what you will of it. What you see in it is not forced; instead, you must figure what it means to you. Watching his films, you can feel alone in a crowded room, you can feel blissfully ignorant to the world around you, you can feel as though your life is mapped out somewhere within the philosophy and thoughtfulness of this incredible animator’s work and so much more. Conversely, you can also feel like you’re wasting your time watching an unstructured child’s stream of consciousness when you could be at home watching something mindless on the television, in which case, these films are probably not for you.

At the credits for I Am So Proud Of You, there is an extended version of that respectful applause, amplified as it seems that everybody present got something out of the experience. Don Hertzfeldt is ushered to the front of the room, looking jet-lagged and somewhat frightened. His presence is a surprise; unlike many filmmakers, he is not intimidating. (My sister would beg to differ, of course, as she later took the mic to declare that “Your films terrify me”, which was met by a retiring “Thank you”) His body language is not threatening; he is on the audience’s level, and yet I have never seen someone look more shocked in my entire life. His eyes are perpetually wide and large as a deer caught in headlights and his pose is unassuming. He apologises to the audience for his appearance; he is tired and now he has to stand for an extended period of time (“Animators don’t stand up a lot…”) but he has, he assures us, enjoyed watching us watching the films. He is asked various questions by the host, one about the way in which his films provoke strong and different reactions from his audiences. He responds to this question by expressing distaste at Hollywood filmmakers who assume that their audiences are idiots, and try to force them into a reaction (“…they might have this extreme close-up, and it’s like ‘Cry, damn you, cry!'”), which he doesn’t want to do.  Asked about the internet (which, in my opinion, made him better known than he could have hoped to be without it) he answers in his odd, ranting way that he doesn’t like films to be on the internet, though he won’t hunt down those who put his older stuff up for others to enjoy. Continuing on this rant, he begins to talk about the increasing number of films available on mobile phones and remarks with seething bitterness that “There is no art student out there who wants to make her film debut on a fucking phone!”

It actually is a deer in headlights. It just resembles Hertzfeldt.

Deer In Headligh-- er, I mean, Don Hertzfeldt signing a poster

Later, it is time to answer audience questions. My sister takes the mic and compliments him on his terrifying films. She asks if he would consider live action and then cheekily asks for some advice on becoming a filmmaker. Hertzfeldt says that he would consider live action and then announces that “this is where I say I don’t know anything and then I won’t stop talking”. His advice is long and ranting like most of his speech, but it is certainly different to the usual “be the best you can be” speeches other filmmakers seem to have shared between them. He states that it is those who are willing to work hard, to spend a lot of time on their art, to practically live in their workspace and not come out except for food or coffee are those who will succeed. His speech is not easy to listen to if you happen to have a stomach threatening to empty its contents all over the three rows in front including the poor animator and host due to the aforementioned sickness, but it is poignant and passionate and very genuine.

After this, we are all invited to purchase some DVDs and have them signed by Hertzfeldt, who in person was charming and sincere. As we parted ways, he wished my sister the best of luck and we were able to return home, but home was truly furthest from my mind. Even as I lay my poor, sick head down to sleep that night (and many subsequent nights), all I could think of was those films we had watched and how they had, indeed, affected me and imprinted themselves on me in such a shocking and powerful way. I have a newfound appreciation for independent film, especially animation, and after being brought so close to a wave of conflicting emotions during I Am So Proud Of You, I can proudly and safely say that I am in terrible anticipation for the next installment of this thought-provoking, wondrous trilogy.

What has two thumbs and a brilliant mind?

I give it two thumbs up, too.

Don Hertzfeldt’s production company website, including information on his films and a blog updated regularly by the animator is at

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  • HoistTheColours: Dear author, I full-heartedly and absolutely agree with your above statements. I just thought I would let you know, since I don't quite understand w
  • richclark: I covered this in my blog too. Found your post on one of Wordpress' random (associated posts). Has Ask really made the impact it needed to from
  • The Lilac Pilgrim: I couldn't go anywhere without someone mentioning it. It was incredibly obvious and yet people were still arguing about it. Absolutely ridiculous.