What is “any” life? Delimitations of the biographical in “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (2012)
Don Hertzfeld’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a biographical film, and yet it lacks the characteristics of such a kind of narrative: a past illuminated through the unifying lens of a singular individual, tied together into a crystallised totality. It is evidently not a non-fiction film, but even a fictional biography feigns a leap into the past where it pretends to find the scattered fragments of life ready-made. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a biography about Bill, but its style, with the stick figures that populate a usually white background, together with the way it is told in little vignettes, can’t shake the impression that Bill’s life does not precede the act of narration, but is born out of it. There is an emphatic character to the narrator’s voice who seems to evoke the little fragments that make up Bill’s life rather than summoning them from the past. He is not bringing back events that have been lost, he is pulling them out of the white background. This strange situation is reflected in the figure of Bill himself, who has no grasp of his own biography, as his medical condition – a brain tumour maybe – continuously prevents him from understanding who he is, from establishing the unity of what would be ‘a’ life. Just as the images of the film keep resurfacing and disappearing into the black screen, so does Bill’s life appear like a series of sketches that are less concerned about rendering a singular existence visible, and more about probing what the conditions of something like ‘a’ life are in the first place. There is a shift away from questions about potential meanings to be found in a concrete, lived life – as we’d expect it from a biographical film –, towards a probing of the limits of life as such, concerning not the meaning of a particular life that we illuminate – our own, for example – but the nature of life itself, which has a beginning and an end. This shift moves away from the question of “What is a life?”1placeholder – the question of what defines me, my unalterable essence, totality, that concerns the decisions, desires, and fears of the concrete individual; towards the question that asks, “What is any life?” – dealing with the scope of the human, its space of possibilities, the condition of the possibility of meaning, the metaphysical space of a human life, its boundaries, and its exterior. But there is not one such exterior to life, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day evokes them one by one, exploring the different ways that life touches a limit, and the corresponding ways we try to pull some meaning out of such a limit.
Now, when it comes to the question “What is any life?”, philosophy offers us a series of suggestions. The fragments that the narrator’s voice evokes in It’s Such a Beautiful Day reflect on them in a poetic way, but none of them are finally accepted. It’s as if, after being confronted with a limit, life was thrown back into the other direction, looking for a way to escape the impossible alternatives that it is forced into. Let us illuminate some of the limits evoked by the film.
(a) The first one that comes to mind is of course death as a temporal limitation, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a film that deals with death in many ways. We try to find some meaning in the fact that our lives will end at some point by focusing on the moment of death, which thereby becomes the point which illuminates retrospectively the totality of life; the philosophical attempt is then to become contemporary to this crucial moment by contemplating it, by bringing it into one’s present, so that life reveals itself in its beauty through this constant awareness. This age-old idea of the memento mori is still a definite part of existentialist thought, and intuitively so. However, this obsession with death, hypostatized into permanent anxiety and anticipation, is revealed for its banality in a scene in the middle of the film:
“He [Bill] pictures himself having trouble breathing and waking to a room full of concerned faces. He’d been terrified of dying his entire life, and as much as he tried not to think about it, death was always in the back of his head, around every corner and hovering on each horizon. […] And now, at the climax of all these years of worry, sleepless nights and denials, Bill finally finds himself staring his death in the face, surrounded by people he no longer recognizes and feels no closer attachment to than the thousands of relatives that had come before. And as the sun continues to set, he finally comes to realize the dumb irony, and how he’d been waiting for this moment his entire life. This stupid, awkward moment of death that had invaded and distracted so many days with stress and wasted time.”
The existentialist notion of a concentration and fulfilment of meaning in the last moment that leads life to a solemn conclusion is here exposed in its absurdity. Even the traditional closure of passing something on is denied here and replaced by regret, as the idea of death has overshadowed all pleasures of life. This persistent awareness of death, as an attempt to introduce meaning into one’s life, condemns the latter to waiting, it fails to create such concentration, because the instant of death ultimately is an instant among others; through estrangement from surviving family members, the loneliness of this moment is further emphasised, without managing to raise death to that sole thing that, according to Heidegger, is entirely one’s own. In that sense, even the survival of others, in the sense of continuing tradition or, as it is sometimes imagined, genetic material, cannot give meaning to one’s own life. Just as our ancestors are strangers to us, so are we strangers to them. In this rejection of the memento mori, one might read a naivety, a presentism that turns away from the awareness of death and speaks for a carefree life.
(b) However, deathlessness as the opposite of our imposed finitude, seems to be no better. At the end of the film, – spoilers ahead – the narrator does not let Bill die (even though it is clear at this point that he should), and turns the pessimistic ending, which still echoes through the fantastic continuation of Bill’s life, into a strange optimism. Bill does not die from his illness; indeed, he doesn’t ever die, so now, instead of being survived by everyone else, as is usually the case, he is the one who outlives all others and becomes not only the last human but the last living being that remains in the universe:
“He will spend hundreds of years travelling the world, learning all there is to know. He will learn every language; he will read every book. He will know every land. He will spend thousands of years creating stunning works of art. He will learn to meditate to control all pain, as war will be fought, and great loves found. And lost. And found. Lost. And found. And found. And found. And memories, built upon memories, until life runs on an endless loop. He will father hundreds of thousands of children, whose own exponential offspring he’ll slowly lose track of through the years. Whose millions of beautiful lives will all eventually be swept again from the earth. And still, Bill will continue, he will learn more about life than any being in history. But death will forever be a stranger to him. People will come and go, until names lose all meaning. Until people lose all meaning and vanish entirely from the world. And still, Bill will live on. […] Until the sun is long since gone. Until time loses all meaning, and the moment comes when he knows all of the positions of the stars. And sees them, whether his eyes are closed or open. Until he forgets his name and the place he’d once come from. He lives and he lives, until all of the lights go out.”
By poetically removing the temporal limitation of life, freedom from death itself is being tested as a possibility for meaning-making. What calls this ancient desire for immortality into question is not even the solitude of this vision, but the vastness into which life is thrown here. It is a direct confrontation with the cosmos, beyond our empirical limitations. The timelessness of Bill’s life does not seem to increase its significance, quite the contrary, all the things that we feel that we miss out on due to the short nature of our lives appear to shrink and disappear in the vastness. But this vastness itself does not become openness in light of the poetic dissolution of life’s limitations. In that sense, the smallness of our lives is strangely accompanied by a claustrophobic feeling that overcomes us when watching this scene. It is as if the universe that we populate, at least the way we imagine it to be in our daily perception, is too small for us, no matter how vast it turns out to be. Somehow, earthly existence itself is already estranged from meaning. While in our lives, our possibilities are limited due to our temporary nature, being released from it, so that all possibilities are open again, so that we can read all the books and study all the stars, does not offer any fulfilment.
Thus, while the idea that it is death that gives life meaning is refused in the first vignette, the freedom from death is no better. The moment of death does not give life an overarching totality, but immortality as such is no better, because the vastness that it opens up closes us off in an even more terrifying prison. Both vignettes can be associated with different life concepts, dogmas, and desires, which I have only pointed out selectively and will continue to do so in the following examples, where different ways of meaning-making are revealed in their banality.
(c) Above, we were able to distinguish between a concentration on the moment of death and a release from temporality; in the following two scenes, attempts to tie meaning to habit and experience are probed. The first scene occurs relatively early in the film:
“Bill dropped the keys on the counter and stared at them. Suddenly thinking of all the times he’d dropped his keys there before and how many days in his life were wasted repeating the same tasks and rituals in his apartment over and over again. But then he wondered, if, realistically, this was his life, and the unusual part was his time spent doing other things.”
A life is here considered as a quantitatively limited repetition of gestures, opening up the question of whether it is those habits that make up our lives, or rather the exceptional moments, as we sometimes like to believe. Neither answer seems satisfactory; the repeated gestures appear as wasted moments, while the exceptional moments are too rare, too few to be truly fulfilling. We obscure the banality of the habits by contrasting them with special memories, by imagining that the gestures are mere preparations for the latter, but that way we also obscure the dominant role that these habits occupy in our lives. The subsequent scene, occurring after Bill receives the news from his doctor that he doesn’t have much time left to live, deals with the almost automatic counter-reaction to abandon habits and the habitual perception of things:
“On the side of the road, he sees a woman’s tennis shoe filled with leaves, and it fills him with inexplicable sadness, he walks down his side-street and sees striking colours in the faces of the people around him, details in these beautiful brick walls and weeds that he must have passed every day but never noticed. […] And the world is clumsy and beautiful and new. And it’s as though he’s been sleep-walking, asleep for God knows how long, that something has violently shaken him awake. His bathmats are gorgeous. […] He’s never really appreciated these things, all this detail he’s never noticed, he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive… […] Isn’t everything amazing?”
This empathetic experience brings the intensity and beauty of the world and one’s own vitality into consciousness, but it proves to be somewhat ridiculous in the absurdity of the examples—the tennis shoe, the brick wall, the bathmat. Yet, if everything is beautiful – which it is –, then of course, this includes tennis shoes with leaves and bathmats. What makes this scene feel nevertheless wistful is its momentary nature and the impossibility of incorporating such experiences into one’s life, the momentary nature of such moments of joy. Indeed, as the previous scene implies, can such exceptional moments really establish the totality of a life? If this short moment of revelation is the only moment where Bill has truly lived, does that truly compensate for all that emptiness that the other experiences suddenly acquire? Even more so, this experience of everything being amazing, as the scene shows, is accompanied by the desire to breathe it all in, to grasp it all, and in that sense to grasp the ungraspable. If the tennis shoe, the brick wall and the bathmat are amazing, then aren’t all the other things that are outside our grasp even more so? But then, what is the difference between this short moment of awareness and the dullness of habit? Once again, limitation, here through the repetition of gestures, is played against the liberation from limits, through experience in its empathetic sense, and neither solution manages to truly satisfy. It seems then that neither the habitual nor the exceptional way of living manages to overcome the claustrophobic feeling of what ‘any’ life is.
(d) The philosophy that draws the most radical boundaries within life is radical materialism when it reduces human beings and their selves to the brain or brain states. The following scene refers to this in connection with the famous image of the ‘brain in a jar’. This also takes place quite early in the film:
“Bill daydreamed about all the brains in jars he used to see at school, how he used to wonder if there were still somehow pieces of individuals inside, scattered fragments of partial dreams or lost memories locked deep within that dead tissue, or whether this entire archive is immediately erased the moment that the body fails. 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 recognize as some of their parts, insulated in the shells of their skulls and lower middle-class houses, afraid of change, afraid of decisions, afraid of pain, stuck in traffic, listening to terrible music.”
Here, the ‘scientific’ limitation of the self to the brain is associated with an intentional self-limitation of everyday life. The existential fear arising from the fragility of the corporeal self leads to an intentional closing-off in one’s “brain-stem” and reflects a psychological state rather than a scientific truth. This sheds new light on what was elaborated above regarding habits, which can be understood as an attempt to find a certain security in a hostile world. Here we find expressed, albeit with irony about this anxiety, a certain sympathy arising from the insight into the hopelessness of it all. The radical presentism to which the brain, as purely material existence in the here and now, is condemned, inherently sentences it to a limited existence. But once again, it seems impossible to reach a truly outside perspective on this, one that, once assumed, doesn’t close itself off once again. In that sense, Bill here does not find any superiority to those poor souls stuck in traffic listening to bad music, and rather an empathy with their anxiety. Life itself is here reduced to self-preservation, and what else can it hope for in a society that reduces human beings to mere things? As Adorno says in Negative Dialectics, “[t]he only trouble with self-preservation is that we cannot help suspecting the life to which it attaches us of turning into something that makes us shudder: into a specter, a piece of the world of ghosts, which our waking consciousness perceives to be nonexistent” (364).
(e) Opposing the radical reduction to material presence is the exploration of Bill’s past, primarily addressed in the second chapter of the film. This not only includes Bill’s childhood but, above all, his family, plagued by mental illnesses. The view that what we are is determined by our past is encapsulated in the following scene:
“The guy in the next cubicle looked over and told Bill about a thing he saw on TV about identical twins who are separated at birth, but had individually grown up to be serial killers. It was as though they didn’t have any choice in what they turned into. ‘Genetics is pretty messed up,’ he said. At lunch he told Bill about a physics book he was reading about time. How the passing of time is just an illusion, because all of eternity is actually taking place at once. The past never vanishes away and the future has already happened. All of history is fixed and laid out, like an infinite landscape of simultaneous events that we simply happen to travel through in one direction.”
Here, too, a physical aspect, namely a certain conception of time, is linked to another, in this case, the genetic aspect, where genetics is understood as predestination (the reality is, of course, much more complex), and in that sense, equally called into question. Thus, what we have here is a juxtaposition of presentism with eternalism, which denies all changes and subsumes the present to predetermined processes. This doesn’t create the impression of eerie fragility, as is the case with the walking brain-stems, but rather that of an all-encompassing, unyielding firmness, which is no less claustrophobic: our lives aren’t ours from the very beginning. The mental problems that Bill inherits from his family seem to determine his fate, as do, to go one step further, his childhood memories. For instance, Bill’s mother, who suffered from anxieties, began to constantly bundle up Bill as a child in many layers of clothing, including gloves and a helmet, after the loss of her second son. Her fear that something might happen to Bill was compensated for with measures that not only hardly countered it but also likely led to a restriction of his vitality and perhaps even contributed to his character rigidity. The complete shaping of the self through external influences, whether physical, biological, or psychological, simultaneously externalises it entirely and, no less than crude materialism, leads to an empty immanence.
Furthermore, these often grotesque memories and the entire family history turn out to be potentially false, as Bill’s brain, compensating for memory loss due to illness, attempts to fill the gaps with invented stories (indeed those stories are more often than not fantastic). This attempt to find meaning in one’s own past fails precisely due to the fragility of memory, and it makes one wonder if all our memories are not attempts at meaning-making, often at the expense of truth. At the limit, we can be estranged from our own past, where even this imaginary connection is lost. This happens as Bill finds an old box full of photos, notes, and documents after his mother’s death:
“Scattered throughout the box were forgotten photos of himself as a young boy. He’d read once how each cell in the body replaces itself and dies as the years pass, how everyone is slowly reconstructed out of continuously changing pieces. It depressed him, how foreign the pictures seemed to him now, how his ridiculous ingrown cells had long ago stolen this happy dead kid’s identity and with his own life made a complete mess of it.”
Once again, a biological perspective is merged with another, here the perspective of one’s own memory. This challenges the view of a unified life-stream as well as a unified life story that begins with birth and ends with death. The hope of at least pulling together one’s own life internally is negated here, just as it was earlier in the face of fate directed from the outside. With the experience of becoming a stranger to oneself, there comes an inability to achieve a sense of wholeness within oneself. It is not only our ancestors that become estranged, but our own childhood as well.
(f) It is indeed often with the help of time and various ways of conceptualising it that we try to bestow some meaning onto our lives. But if the past, with its uncertain memories and questionable inheritances is unavailable, what about the future? When we put our hopes into the future, it is, often unconsciously, connected with the desire that it is our world that will persist, a world that we would recognise and that in that sense will have a place for us, even if we are long forgotten. This consolation is raised in a scene where Bill is watching a documentary:
“Bill watched part of a documentary program about a 5’000-year-old ice man that was found in Italy. Scientists explored its colon and everything on live television. Bill wondered, if the ice man could have ever imagined this would one day have happened to him.”
In a comical way, Hertzfeld confronts us with the fact that the future, if we go far enough, will necessarily be quite different from what we imagine (a theme that Hertzfeldt also addresses in his short film World of Tomorrow from 2015). Not only will we be forgotten, but the world that we’ve called our home will be replaced by others which lie far beyond our imagination. Due to this discontinuity of time, any frame we try to establish to make meaning possible, will fail to persist. Whatever we can conceive with our imagination is itself just a limited glance into the vastness of what once will be. This primarily concerns ways of thinking that ask us to find meaning in the works, ideas, and values that we pass on; just like the dying Bill no longer recognizes any of his family members, so will we not recognise ourselves in what is to come.
The dream of a (cultural) legacy is negated by this image of being displayed in front of the camera, even in the most private aspects (“explored its colon”), and by a purely scientific interest that has nothing to do with the life, hopes, and fears of that “ice man”. In its temporal extremes, this point concerns both the problem of the generational contract and the possibility of truth. Depending on how quickly the rupture sets in, it can lead to an inability to communicate one’s own experiences to one’s children, a loss of one’s own cultural values, or even the rupture of all that one holds to be true. In all of this, the future eludes our grasp and sets a temporal limit to the meaning of our actions.
(g) But questions about the future cannot be discarded so easily. What persists beyond our death is at least our body, and it is at the same time through the body that we are connected to this world. Concerns about what will happen to it after we die are thus of a paradoxical nature, as on the one hand, our bodies no longer concern us once we’ve left them, while on the other hand we still feel that it continues to be ours. This strange situation is mentioned in the beginning of the film when Bill meets his ex-girlfriend:
“He met his ex-girlfriend during her lunch break and then took a walk to the park. […] Mostly, they talked about death. They agreed that being buried seems too claustrophobic and Bill didn’t want to be cremated after he’d read that the intense heat boils fluids in the skull until your head explodes. He decided that he’d wanted his body shot off into space in a rocket ship.”
Can the continuation of the lifeless body that keeps exploring the universe through its rocket compensate for its constant unavailability during one’s lifetime? It is not only Bill’s seizures and his memory loss that raise these questions, but also the description of Bill’s neighbour in the hospital, whose communication with the outside world is reduced to five sentences spoken by the computer due to his paralysis, with the one that he uses the most being: “I am in pain.” But maybe it is precisely when we consider our bodies to be ‘just ours’ that it ceases to be relevant to us once we die, so that it is Bill’s constant estrangement from his body, which resists his control, that allows him to perceive a continuation of the body beyond his existence, a strange pleasure of the body in view of the stars that it gazes – somehow – from its rocket ship. But this image of the lifeless head floating in the universe is emphatically devoid of meaning. Indeed, to establish meaning through our bodies, we need to establish some sort of normalcy, some sort of constant inner connection that ties together our bodily and mental existence. But this reduces the body to its functionality, where it needs to be obedient to our desperate attempts to find something to grasp that, precisely, lies beyond it. Such an attempt can only be self-defeating.
This logic of neither-nor would lead to a nihilistic doctrine if it were presented as a systematic turning away from life. But such a back-and-forth, it is more reminiscent of Adorno’s negative dialectic, which, in reference to Beckett, paradoxically clings to a world that should not be:
“What is, [Beckett] says, is like a concentration camp. At one time he speaks of a lifelong death penalty. The only dawning hope is that there will be nothing any more. This, too, he rejects. From the fissure of inconsistency that comes about in this fashion, the image world of nothingness as something emerges to stabilize his poetry. The legacy of action in it is a carrying-on which seems stoical but is full of inaudible cries that things should be different. Such nihilism implies the contrary of identification with nothingness” (380-381, emphasis added).
In this regard, It’s such a Beautiful Day also can be read not as the expression of world-negation but rather as a desperate oscillation that repeatedly turns to new aspects of life in search of meaning. Its apparent cynicism is rather an unapologetic refusal to be seduced by consoling “positivities”: “The true nihilists are the ones who oppose nihilism with their more and more faded positivities, the ones who are thus conspiring with all extant malice, and eventually with the destructive principle itself. Thought honors itself by defending what is damned as nihilism” (ibid., 381). This despair that permeates the entire film opens up another perspective on this ‘any life’, which is no longer to be understood as a general territory demarcating what can be lived, but as something that eschews all fixations and all fixed differentiations, to the point where it even absorbs the author’s own life, a strange trance into which Bill, the author, and we enter as entities that are all as unfinished as some doodles on a white piece of paper. In this context, Bill is no longer a stick figure reduced to the basic elements of the body but is upheld in that processuality that also concerns the artistic creative process, in which creation and creator are not yet fully differentiated.
This brings us back to the impression that Bill’s biography is evoked and not summoned, without attaining the stability of a specific life that has been lived. Life itself resists such stabilisations, it is the probing and trying-out of various ways of existence, which can never be chosen, so that all that remains is to refuse to choose once and for all. This quest remains in negativity until the end and keeps confronting the claustrophobic feeling that arises each time a limit is reached. But as long as life is lived, it will bounce from such limits like a rubber ball, never quite allowing itself to become a finished product. As viewers, we are thus invited to participate in this quest, to leave those areas in which we thought we had found a definite meaning, “positivities” that in the end are always ideological and can be shaken up with some light humour and absurd reveries.
The vignette-like depiction of the fragments of Bill’s life is echoed by the narrative style and the technique of the film. Just as the singular events and thoughts appear from silence into which they once again fall, the white surface emerges and falls back into the black background, the blackness with which the film ends. The vignettes are small windows that emerge from this nothingness, only to disappear into it again. They indicate that our lives are constantly framed by this exterior, which is nothingness, and that life itself is a small island within it. The theme of exteriority is thus formally incorporated into the film, and the (almost) constant visibility of the frame contributes to its claustrophobic atmosphere. The white ground opposes the black non-ground and delineates that small area where life can move. The ability to oscillate back and forth between possibilities is always bound to a certain scope, and with it comes a glimmer of hope; what is sketched-out is not just the unfinished but also the potential, the becoming. It is not just Bill who searches for the meaning of his life, but also Hertzfeld, and so do we – while we are living, while we are ourselves potentialities surrounded by a vast blackness. However, It’s such a Beautiful Day insists that each such potential loses its attractional powers once it’s actualised, be it dreams of immortality or the adhesion to one’s moment of death. Every formulated possibility ceases to exist as such and is revealed as a dead end, dissolving again into the black nothingness. The film refuses to leave us with any definite answers, but what remains, at least, is the power of art to evoke – and not merely to summon – images of life, living fragments that affect us and that might restore some of the vitality that we’ve lost along the way. While the white speckles fall back into the blackness of the screen, for a short moment, a miracle might occur, and a pitiful stick-figure can affect us stronger than any divinely revealed meaning ever could.
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics, Routledge: London & New York, 2004.
A question I have approached in another essay discussing another animated film, Millenium Actress.