Credit: Don Hertzfeldt/Bitter Films
by Zach Lewis Featured Film Spotlight

ME — Don Hertzfeldt

June 14, 2024

Since 2011, animator and director Don Hertzfeldt has focused on one topic: memory. In the tripartite It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the loss of memory is equated with the loss of personhood or death itself; in the World of Tomorrow trilogy, memories of dead people are injected into clones, burdening them with “another’s” responsibilities and the Lockean questions of identity (Are we merely just a collection of memories? Who are we when these memories fail?); and 2021’s On Memory, as one may guess from the name, tackled the subject head-on, reflecting on the little deaths and little divorcements from reality caused by the little bits of memory loss we all experience. This “memory cycle” of Hertzfeldt’s career also felt like a period of Romantic mourning, as purposefully saccharine voiceover was given the tone of a poetry reading when certain syllables or words were emphasized to play up a sense of grandeur in the quotidian; also Romantic were the images: vast digital landscapes of the imagination, the harshness of infinite black space, but also flowers and eyes and grass and brief moments of hands touching while the bass of a largely classical score reaches a crescendo. At one point, two stick figures even mirror Friedrich’s Wanderer. Here was unapologetically emotion-forward animation that toyed with the philosophical questions science fiction used to tackle, and, by some miracle, it was also very funny.

ME, Hertzfeldt’s latest film, conjures up those questions of identity left in the World of Tomorrow series or the autobiographical voice of On Memory, at least in terms of its title. But here, no ironic-sincere voiceovers guide us, the Hertzfeldian stick-people have been replaced with bean-shaped equivalents, and memory is forgotten. Consequently, the director is moving past his modus operandi with predictably mixed results.

Since there is no voiceover, Hertzfeldt allows the narrative to play out with only abstract visual guidance. The beans talk to each other in Sims-like speech bubbles, accompanied with basic hieroglyphs to let us know if they’re worried or lonely (the only two emotions in the world of ME). While such abstraction lends itself to broad interpretation, a few concrete events happen: a bean-husband gains massive (but ungratifying) success for having invented something like the Internet (but mostly Zoom), a bean-wife gives birth to an eyeball who floats off the Earth and inflates to the size of a galaxy, all while a pandemic and a militaristic government ruin the public life of the other beans. So, the beans stay inside on devices hooked to each other with large tubes (an early Internet joke) until these machines destroy their users in a series of worldwide collisions as the lonely beans become immediately, violently connected.

By moving past his concerns about memory, Hertzfeldt has stumbled across the subject that is simultaneously the most important spiritual issue of our time and, sadly, the most blasé subject of our time: alienation and technology. Hertzfeldt’s wordless images — the exhaustion on the faces of the bean users, their violent deaths, the all-seeing galaxy-shaped eye — do little more than the “phone bad” arguments we not only know but tell ourselves day after day when logging on to damn well anything at this point. Most allegorical representations of the damage we’ve done ourselves pales in comparison to just using the device. Where Hertzfeldt’s jokes or anecdotes or poetic refrains or stories-within-stories once acted as a prism to refract our questions and concerns about memory, here the too-familiar images beat us with what we already know like a light stick, a blunt force instrument more annoying than powerful.

So thankfully, a single image more than makes up for all these shortcomings. At the end of the world, Hertzfeldt reveals that all of the tubes have met at a single destination: one nervous system. It sings from Mozart’s “Requieum Aeternum” toward the black heavens just as Jesus quoted Psalms with his last breath on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.” The lone figure bears the recorded memory of humanity, as videos in a phone’s vertical aspect ratio form behind it, recounting sunsets, the moon, smiles, and, with a change of aspect ratio back to 4:3, Hollywood’s many “The End”s. This is that charming, almost clownish beauty that Hertzfeldt has mastered; and he even breaks his usual flat, still frame to show us the figure’s suffering from several dramatic angles, a formal move worthy of an audible gasp from any Hertzfeldt acolyte. Images like this, the ones that make one laugh through tears, the ones that wonderfully balance the poison of irony with the balm of sincerity, have made Hertzfeldt this generation’s paragon animator.

DIRECTOR: Don Hertzfeldt;  DISTRIBUTOR: Bitter Films;  IN THEATERS: May 30;  RUNTIME: 22 min.