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Bitter Films: Volume 1
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, © 2007

Format: Movie
By:   Don Hertzfeldt
Genre:   Animated Shorts
Released:   November 11, 2006 (DVD release)
Review Date:   January 30, 2007
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

A man asking women out continually gets rejected, say by daggers to the eyes or cannibalism.

A cartoon rabbit is sadistically manipulated by a student artist.

A man has his eyes stolen by an alien, then walks into a yield sign.

These are things you see in bitter films, specifically Bitter Films Volume 1: 1995-2005: Animated Shorts by Don Hertzfeldt.

I'm not bitter, and I like these films. And they're not bitter eith --

Who am I kidding? Make no mistake, these animated films (cartoons, for you plebes) are bitter. If you don't like bitters (come on! It's what all the cool kids are drinking!) then you may find the cartoons a turn-off. I'd say that's unlikely, though, since Don Hertzfeldt's short cartoons are also funny, the bitterness flung so far to the extreme that laughter is the only result. (And who doesn't like to see kids being beaten up by balloons?)

For your delectation, The Bitter Ingredients:

Ah, L'Amour


Lily and Jim

Billy's Balloon


The Meaning of Life

It is almost impossible to ruin these cartoons through summary. To tell you that Genre involves the rendering of a porno disaster film doesn't spoil the humor in seeing it actually take place. Hertzfeldt's art style is a large part (all?) of that reason: his drawings seem simple: line figure drawings. You might remember their Cro-Magnon ancestors from your own childhood. Men are oval oblongs and other redundancies, while women are triangle-shaped. But instead of simple, let's say clean. Watching the animations, you quickly come to appreciate the skill involved in the drawings: it's especially amazing, almost disconcerting, to see a 2-D figure turn in three dimensions for the first time.

As the timeline progresses (follow the ingredients above for earliest to most recent creation) you can see Hertzfeldt pushing himself and the limits of his craft -- -- by which I mean his film equipment. The Meaning of Life is the apogee of his efforts so far. (There's a new film, Everything Will be OK, that I expect to do more, better, faster, harder, and longer, but I haven't seen it yet) (oh, and excuse the Daft Punk reference).

The Meaning of Life, a hand-filmed animated cartoon film thingie, involved one scene of stars moving through the galaxy where nearly each small point of light had to be individually moved for each frame in order to create the illusion of depth. He doesn't use computers -- -- all the effects being created "in camera", i.e. while filming one frame at a time. Mostly these completely manual special effects are undetectable because they are so well done. Luckily, you can witness for yourself some of the physical effects in Rejected, such as the crinkling and moving of the paper under the camera and the ripping of holes in the paper "background".

A number of you might already be familiar with Rejected. See, one of the reasons that Hertzfeldt is so bitter is because, at one time, you could find Rejected easily on the internet. This provided free publicity for Hertzfeldt and accrued him fans, however it didn't do much for him in the way of money. This is the way I was infected with the Rejected virus and I did my best to spread it to others in the same fashion. (Forgive me, Don.) Of course, most of these films were completed before Rejected, so maybe Hertzfeldt is just bitter. Either way, the bitterness is welcome, bringing an acerbic, yet hopeful view to life that makes itself known even in, well, only two of the films: Lily and Jim and The Meaning of Life. And both of those pull hope out of despairing worldviews, i.e.: The world may be hopeless, as may happiness, but there are moments of beauty, there are connections to be made.

There's a moment in the retrospective booklet when Hertzfeldt says, referring to Lily and Jim, that it was the first time he realized he didn't "always have to do some big dumb punch-line." Both Rejected and The Meaning of Life edge further away from one-note jokes -- a comment that might be aimed at Ah, L'Amour and Genre -- which strangely has made it more difficult for me to show the more sophisticated shorts confidently. Instead of knowing there's a joke, that whoever I show the films to will laugh, I have to face that these are real art, which means that there is real beauty and much, much more at stake.


Here's where one would normally put the DVD extras, but everything on this DVD is extra, including the fact that the cartoons are finally in a collected (archival, even) form. This isn't a direct-to-DVD project as these animated shorts have been shown in festivals the world over (I've always wanted to use that phrase) and so your only previous chance to see these shorts would be to travel to the current festival they're playing at or to watch a pirated version online (see above)..

There are thirteen extras included on the DVD, including the new animations for the various menu screens. The entire thing has a handcrafted, overpacked feel, and all the extras are good . . . except for the commentary for Lily and Jim, a reunion commentary of Robert May and Karin Anger that is pretty much useless, even if they warn as it begins that the commentary will be useless and they have nothing to say.

Everything else is great, though, especially the Animation Show cartoons, the Bitter Films Archives, and Watching Grass Grow. Hertzfeldt's animations are such a pleasure for me and, as he improves and complicates his work, each takes more and more time to complete, so it makes me ecstatic to have a completely "extra" cartoon. Especially one that involves a war between robots and fuzzy things.

The Bitter Films Archives follows the production of each cartoon on the DVD and provides background material, production shots, storyboards, notes, and, often, earlier cartoons that were the inspiration for the finished material.

The highlight for me, though, is Watching Grass Grow, a documentary of a very small part of the production process for The Meaning of Life. Sure, all it is is watching Hertzfeldt painstakingly animate various scenes of the final film, but the effect of the time-lapse of him drawing and re-drawing is hypnotic. Even the "soundtrack" -- mostly bits of whatever sound was in the environment at the time of filming, alternating with more traditional orchestral fare -- -adds to the fascination.

There is an amazing amount of information and trivia both on the DVD and Don's website, www.bitterfilms.com . Check it out, or face an attack of giant robots. Or a fuzzy creature whose anus is bleeding while, yes, everybody else laughs, dances, and has a good time.

Except the fuzzy creature.

Don't be the fuzzy creature.

The Animations Themselves: 10 out of 10

The DVD Extras: 10 out of 10

RevSF Staff Writer Andrew Kozma’s spoon is too big. If only that were a euphemism.

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