It seems unavoidable that, at some point or another, every human will question their existence. They will reluctantly rifle through their mind for the most enticing words to begin a film analysis and, in between the conjuring of superfluous, bombastic, pseudointellectual adjectives to fill their word count, will find themselves wondering what the point of all this is. This existential questioning is unique, inherent, and inescapable to human nature but has no good answer, and, as such, has been identified by philosophers as a paradoxical plague on humanity aptly dubbed ‘the absurd’. It’s such a beautiful day (2012), written, directed, animated and produced by the zany Don Hertzfeldt reflects the philosophical writings on the topic of the absurd. As with previous literature, Hertzfeldt first introduces the paradox of human absurdity and then moves to suggestions on how we as humans should respond to it. Importantly, Hertzfeldt navigates through absurdist philosophy by using content to articulate his ideas as well as stylistic choices, such as narration and animation style, to draw attention to key points of his stance on the absurd discourse.
The Absurd Defined
The notion of ‘the absurd’ was first developed by Albert Camus in his essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus (1955, p. 51). In Camus’ writing the human search for meaning is compared to the mythological Greek story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to a life of rolling a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom, and, likewise, Camus suggests that humans are condemned to struggle eternally in their search for meaning only to come up empty handed. Camus, being an atheist, believes that there is no divine external standard of ethics to guide humans, but, moreover, does not believe that any meaning can be found in the universe due to the sheer amount of information which makes certainty impossible. He suggests then, that the absurd arises from the contradictory nature of the human search for a meaning in life that is non-existent.
Camus’ development of the absurd birthed a philosophical field of thought which has since been built on by other philosophers. Thomas Nagel (1971, p.716) for example, responded to Camus by suggesting that the absurd is actually a result of the human search for meaning, which is impossible to justify regardless of it exists or not. That is, in contrast to Camus who suggests that a meaning in life is non-existent, Nagel believes that even if this meaning does exist it would always be susceptible to doubt. Similar to Camus’ suggestion, this contradiction dooms humans to a paradoxical search for meaning. These two entries into absurdist philosophy demonstrate the lack of unanimous agreement in the definition of the absurd, which suggests that further investigation is needed.
Despite the contention in the field of absurdist philosophy, the absurd has been left largely untouched by philosophers, but has continued to be developed by artists in the mediums of theatre and film. These absurdist dramas focusing their narratives on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world subject to any occurrence, no matter how illogical and devoid of meaning. One such modern absurdist film is It’s such a beautiful day.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
It’s such a beautiful day follows an animated stick figure named Bill as his mental and physical health deteriorates. The film is narrated with a third person voice-over, but as viewers follow Bill’s everyday actions it becomes more apparent that the narrator is Bill referring to himself in the third-person. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, Bill begins to question his existence and meaning of, not only his own behavior, but everything around him. As the film progresses Bill becomes less lucid due to the symptoms of his disease, and although his reality is becoming less clear, he continues to struggle with his existential dilemma. Bill seems to be the quintessential absurdist protagonist: the film begins with an onslaught of seemingly meaningless occurrences to which bill attributes meaning, but ultimately he becomes aware that his efforts to develop a meaningful life have been fruitless and time-wasting. Just as Nagel and Camus noted in defining the absurd, Bill is trapped in an inherent search for meaning which is contradicted with a lack of meaning to be found.
Hertzfeldt portrays each of these components (the search for meaning and the lack of meaning available) elegantly, without ever explicitly noting them. Indeed, the first words of the film exemplify this to a tee:
“The person greeted Bill as Bill mixed up the phrases “What’s up” with “How’s it going?” Confused, the person blurted out “Thanks” before he knew what he was saying. Words caught in Bill’s throat and he replied, “Weh.” They did a sort of awkward half turn, and then continued on now confident that the other was not gonna stop to talk. They never saw each other again, and a day later had each forgotten the whole thing.”
This opening narration demonstrates Bill’s desire to have meaningful interactions, but quickly juxtaposes this with a blatant lack of meaning. That is, Bill intended to get something out of this interaction, but when the viewer is told that the entire situation will never be remembered the pointlessness of the ordeal becomes clear.
The film relentlessly presents these types of moments to the viewers, as if to hit them over the head with inconsequential instances until they are screaming “why are you telling me this” and indeed, this seems to be the exact intention of Hertzfeldt. The narrator focuses on inconsequential sequences of bills life (e.g. viewers are shown a full minute of bill simply waiting at a bus stop), but almost no focus is given to portions of life humans typically find meaningful (e.g. receiving a terminal diagnosis). Ultimately, the answer to the question “why am I being shown this” is elucidated with the narrator’s insight into bills contemplation:
“Bill dropped his keys on the counter and stood there staring at them, 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 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.”
In other words, the viewer is being shown every part of bill’s life because the moments of “wasted time” and the moments which are typically perceived as significant hold equal meaning: none. This discordance between what humans typically find meaningful and what the film presents as meaningful brings into question the justification system that is typically used to support meaning finding. The viewer tries to figure out why they are being shown a number of particularly unimportant events until the realization dawns on them that they have no objective way of determining which events are meaningful or not.
This idea that it is impossible to find a good way of assigning meaning to life aligns perfectly with Nagel’s idea of the absurd. In the context of the film meaning is assigned to various aspects for different reasons, only to have the reasoning proved illogical. For example, the narrator spends a third of the film describing Bill’s family history, only to point out that the memories were falsified as a symptom of Bill’s illness. The viewer spends the time deciding that the memories must be meaningful to Bill if they have been so heavily engrained in him, only to find out that the memories were never real in the first place and thus the viewers initial reasoning is proven to be illogical. Hertzfeldt has therefore agreed with Nagel in suggesting that meaning deriving systems on their own cannot be justified, thus leading to the absurdity of the human condition.
Important to the films ability to draw the viewer towards their own existential questioning is the use of a third person subjective voice-over narrative. Due to the detached nature of the narrator, viewers are compelled to follow along with the objective narrator in the same judgements of Bill’s behaviors. Film theorists have pointed out that third person narrators are likely to provide guidance concerning what conclusions the viewers should draw and tend to voice the ideological agenda behind the film. Moreover, because of their remove from the story, are generally heavier on Labovian evaluation than first person narrators (Kozloff, 1981, p.81). This is essential to the absurdist notions of it’s such a beautiful day in that it allows viewers to sweep aside the emotional distractions and focus purely on the meaning value of each sequence which is often lamented by the narrator as meaningless.
The decentered approach to Bill’s life is exactly what absurdist philosophers suggest forces humans into the absurd. Nagel (1971, p. 726) notes that the life of a mouse is not absurd because he lacks the capacities for self-consciousness that would enable him to see that he is only a mouse. If the mouse did have that self-conscious capacity, his life would become absurd because he would be forced to return to his meagre mousy life, full of doubts that he was unable to answer. In it’s such a beautiful day viewers have this decentered view of Bill’s life via the third person narration which leads them to identify the meaninglessness of his daily events just as the self aware mouse would.
This decentered view is ripped to shreds as the viewer begins to realize that the narrator is actually Bill referring to himself in the third person. With this inversion of narration style, the viewer is placed into the shoes of bill and are forced to drudge through sequences that they have already established in their mind as meaningless with a now personal attachment to the absurd protagonist. Thus, this inversion effectively forces the absurd dilemma onto the viewer by first establishing objectively that Bill’s life is meaningless, and then switching to the subjective viewpoint of Bill, which forces viewers to empathize with Bill’s desire to find meaning. Now stuck battling with the absurdity of the human condition Bill, and by proxy the viewers, must seek a solution.
Responding to the absurd
Camus, Nagel, and Hertzfeldt focus the conclusion of their works on articulating solutions to the absurd dilemma. For Camus the solution is rebellion: he suggests that humans must be honest about the meaninglessness of the world, but not give up on a demand for meaning. This rebellion does not eliminate the absurd but it allows one to live with honesty, dignity and integrity. In contrast, Nagel feels that this response is melodramatic and claims that “shaking a fist at the world” (Nagel, 1971, p. 726) is entirely unnecessary. Rather, Nagel suggests that irony is the solution. In other words, one should understand that life may be completely meaningless, but continue to carry on your life with a “wry grin” (i.e. take life seriously while at the same time laugh at oneself because you know you’re taking it too seriously.) Both of these responses leave the absurd human with no escape from the absurd but rather provide suggestions for graceful managements of the dilemma. Interestingly, Hertzfeldt takes a different approach to the dilemma by demonstrating Bill’s complete escape from the absurd.
Upon Bill’s second bout with a near death experience he awakes with a dramatic shift in perspective. From this point forward in the film the narrator, now clearly identified as Bill, stops his constant application of meaning to events, but rather dictates the events as they occur. The titular line of the film marks this shift in Bill’s perspective:
“It’s kind of a really nice day. He decides to walk around the block. 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, alongside the bridge past the farmers’ market, and back up the main thoroughfare.”
Although Bill’s mind and body are quickly deteriorating, the viewer can’t help but take a deep sigh of relief here as Bill seems to be content for the first time in the film. Thus, the source of Bill’s escape from the absurd appears to be that he no longer cares to question existence and instead just exists by focuses on the present moment. Just like the mouse, who’s life is not absurd because he cannot search for meaning, Bill’s life is no longer absurd because he does not (or cannot due to his mental deterioration) care.
From It’s such a beautiful day it seems that Hertzfeldt disagrees with Camus and Nagel’s decision that it is impossible to escape the necessary search for meaning in life. Hertzfeldt suggests that a focus on the present moment experience provides not only an escape from the search for meaning, but also simultaneously provides a source of meaning. In Bill’s final days he goes to meet his father for the first time and is overcome with the beauty of the moment, even though he has no understanding of what is happening or the meaning that it entails.
“And when it’s time for Bill to leave, he stands and says something beautiful to him. And neither of them understand what he means exactly, but the old man begins to cry anyway, and they will never see each other again.”
This moment is a direct reflection of the opening words of the film which construct a meaningful encounter and then paint it as meaningless because it is forgotten. Here, in his moments with his father, the narrator notes again that that the encounter will be forgotten, but instead of painting the moment as useless the narrator describes an immensely powerful moment made only more powerful because it exists in the present moment. Thus, it seems that Bill not only has stopped caring about the meaning of events, but has managed to experience beautifully meaningful moments by simply experiencing them.
Hertzfeldt demonstrates the escape from absurdity with a number of drastic shifts in content and style. As mentioned above, the content shifts as the narrator places all focus onto present moment awareness, but more apparent to the viewer are the drastic shifts in animation style. Importantly, for the first time in the film, color and detail is added to bill’s world. This shift in animation is so drastic that viewers can’t help but feel as if they have escaped the dreary world of stick figures, an affect clearly experienced by Bill. This technique is not new to film, in-fact scholars have pointed out that the transition from black and white to color in the Wizard of Oz marks Dorothy’s departure from the boredom and barrenness of Kansas to the euphoric newly discovered Oz (Gilbert, 2006, p. 15-16). Similar to how Dorothy was brought to a colorful new world by a tornado, Bill was brought to his own Oz via his near death experience and the resulting shift in perspective.
It is clear that It’s such a beautiful day not only reflects philosophical writings on the absurd but also contributes to the state of literature by providing an alternative solution to the dilemma. Specifically, Hertzfeldt uses narrative content to articulate his definition and response to the absurd and moreover, uses stylistic elements (third-person narration and shifts in color) to effectively lead the viewer to his conclusions. If we can learn anything from Bill it is that life is weird, confusing and especially nonsensical, but despite all this nonsense – well – it is still really such a beautiful day. After all, isn’t everything amazing?
Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays (trans: O’Brien, J.)(pp. 51–65).
Gillis, B. (2006). A Journey down the Yellow Brick Road: What Oz Can Teach Students about Literary Techniques. Voices from the Middle, 14(2), 14-21.
Hertzfeldt, D. (Director). (2012). It’s Such a Beautiful Day [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Cinemad Presents.
Kozloff, S. (1989). Invisible storytellers: voice-over narration in American fiction film. Univ of California Press.
Nagel, T. (1971). The absurd. The Journal of Philosophy, 68(20), 716-727.