Newsletter 68: The Genius of Don Hertzfeldt

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here’s one from August 2017, about the filmmaker and animator Don Hertzfeldt. I ended up seeing “The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts,” the film I’m previewing in this newsletter, and it tore me inside out just like I’d expected it to. You can watch it here.

Yesterday, filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt announced — or seemed to announce — a sequel to his Oscar-nominated short film “World of Tomorrow,” called “The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts.” If you don’t know Hertzfeldt, he’s an Austin-based animator who early on in his career worked with Mike Judge but has peeled off to become a one-man studio, subsequently making three of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

The first is called “The Meaning of Life,” is a 12-minute short, entirely hand-animated by Hertzfeldt, that’s roughly about how human beings will always be caught up in the same vain, petty, pedestrian squabbles for centuries to come, even as we evolve into all sorts of wild, fascinating creatures. You can watch it here.

The second was his first big hit, the feature film It’s Such a Beautiful Day, about a man with a mysterious disease that causes him frightening, painful visions but also keeps him, right with us, hanging on to sanity and life as long as he can. Compiled from three short films Hertzfeldt made about the same man, Bill, it is one of the most profound and sad and funny and heartbreaking movies I’ve ever seen.

But “World of Tomorrow,” which came out two years ago, is even better than both of them.

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The story of “World of Tomorrow” packs a lot into 15 minutes. A little girl named Emily is visited by a future version of herself, 227 years in the future. This version of Emily is a third generation clone from a future in which people — particularly wealthy people — can upload their memories into their clones for generations and generations, essentially living forever. This sort of immortality, however, brings mostly sadness, loneliness and, more than anything, an overpowering nostalgia for lost memories of the past. As the four-year-old Emily — or “Emily Prime,” as she is called — blinks and only faintly comprehends everything she’s hearing, Future Emily tells us of this technologically advanced future that has made being human feel that much more distant and elusive; she notes that at her current point of time, almost all recent historical records are simply of people staring at their screens, trying to relive their own pasts. She finds love, she loses love, she grows, she regresses, and more than anything, she just wants to go back to being the child she once was, able to live in the moment, not paralyzed in fear for the future.

I find the film overwhelming, and I watch it once a month, at least, just to keep myself centered. The world constantly seems spiraling out of control. There is evil, out there, always around but more prevalent than ever. There is danger everywhere you look. If I am not careful, I will be paralyzed by it. I find myself both romanticizing the past and growing more and more mortified by the future. But I am probably wrong on both counts, and even if I’m not, there is little to nothing I can do about either. The best I can do is exist in the now, to try to be alive and alert and present, to appreciate the life I have and the people I love, to try to make their world better so that mine can be as well. The world we have has all sorts of problems, cascading more and more every day, and it is on us to work to make it better, however we can. But it is still our world. We exist, and that’s a miracle that “World of Tomorrow” reminds us of how truly precious it is.

When older Emily leaves Emily Prime at the end of the film, she tells her:

Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.

“Live well and live broadly.” I can’t have a better hope for myself, my loved ones and the flawed, stupid, angry world we screw up on a regular basis. I can’t believe Don Hertzfeldt is making another one. I need it here, right now, this second.

If you have Netflix, you can watch “World of Tomorrow” any time you desire. I have it always bookmarked on my computer, for whenever I need it. I find myself needing it often. I suspect you might too.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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