The Meaning of Life

Despite being overshadowed by the two very different masterpieces he released on either side of it, Don Hertzfeldt's The Meaning of Life is still the kind of film most animators go their whole career hoping to create—funny, thoughtful, cynical and gorgeous in its own odd way.

A crowd of stick-people each lost in their own private worlds.

The five-year gap between Don Hertzfeldt's breakthrough film, Rejected, and his 2005 follow-up The Meaning of Life, is still the longest break between films in the acclaimed indie animator's nearly-30-year career. Rejected was the culmination of Hertzfeldt's early career, elevating the gross-out humour and surreal digressions of the Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted school of indie animation to a level that even the Academy Awards couldn't ignore. It's easy to imagine Hertzfeldt struggling with what to do next; once you've convinced the Oscars to nominate a short where one of the characters screams about their bleeding anus, where is there left to go?

It's not hard to imagine the stretch leading up to the release of The Meaning of Life as coming from a place of uncertainty. Even the film's title and premise play into that idea. Most of us don't tend to wonder what it all means when you're in a comfortable place. The big questions tend to come when you're adrift and searching for an anchor, and there's no bigger question than that of humanity's place in the universe. Even if it's tackled indirectly, with a healthy dose of absurdity, this is still a film that is grasping for something.

The truth is, though, that the five years between films wasn't an issue of direction as much as ambition. Despite his stick-figure aesthetic, Hertzfeldt has always been an ambitious animator — it's fair to say Rejected owes its Oscar nom more to its technically inventive third act than its polarizing sense of humour — and The Meaning of Life saw him taking that ambition to a new level. The film makes good use of Hertzfeldt's simplified drawing style, but it also adds complex sequences of cosmic vistas, subtly shifting background colours, and other visual elements that took months of careful planning and execution. As with all his films up until 2015's World of Tomorrow, Meaning of Life was captured entirely under camera, and those shots with their multi-planed movement and complex lighting pushed Hertzfeldt to his limits.

As for what the film has to say about life, well, that's more ambiguous. In keeping with Hertzfeldt's "Bitter Films" brand, the main sequence seems quite cynical. After struggling from the primordial muck, humans spend their time repeating banal, anxious, or paranoid phrases, a cacophony of voices saying nothing at all. We're petty, vain, angry, self-obsessed, and, eventually, dead.

Then, into outer space. The sun and planets swirl away. An infinity of stars float by in a cosmic ballet — Hertzfeldt's musical choices, as always, are impeccable. An unimaginable amount of time passes, and we return to Earth. It's still noisy, still disconnected and frantic, even as the lifeforms become increasingly alien, the stick-like drawings forcing us to flesh out their unlikely anatomies. Life continues in ever-changing forms, without any obvious purpose.

Then, the last segment returns to the question of the title. At least we assume it does, given that it's in an alien language with no subtitles. The impression, though, is that "meaning" is a silly question. That life just is, in the same way that the universe just is. Meaning of life? Bah. Look at the stars. Listen to the symphony. There's struggle, and there's beauty, and both just exist. Isn't that enough?

Meaning of Life could be seen as a middle ground between Hertzfeldt's early comedic shorts and the more narratively and philosophically ambitious films that followed, namely the Everything Will Be OK trilogy and the World of Tomorrow series. Easy as it is to call it just a transitional piece, coming as it does between two very different masterpieces, that does it a disservice. Seen on its own merits, it's the kind of film most animators go their whole career hoping to create—funny, thoughtful, cynical and gorgeous in its own unique way.

THE MEANING OF LIFE

dir: Don Hertzfeldt

syn: Evolution on Earth over the course of a billion years.

2005

Hertzfeldt's making-of essay at bitterfilms.com is so much more thoughtful and comprehensive than we could ever be. If you're interested in the film, you need to read it.