For this week’s Short Friday I’ve selected another of my all time favourite shorts, Don Hertzfelt’s Rejected, one of the most famous, important and influential examples of the art form ever made.
I mentioned briefly in my last piece how the rise of internet video site has led to a resurgence in interest in short film-making, but despite the revival there are still very few directors who work exclusively in the short form who have attained the kind of respect and following that is afforded to their feature-length counterparts. Don Hertzfeldt, however, is unique – a genuine auteur, who writes, directs, produces, voices, and hand animates every frame of every film, he has built up a huge following amongst animation fans, college students, stoners, and hardcore cineastes alike, whilst almost completely avoiding the internet video boom: firstly, by dint of his early films being produced before the rise of YouTube, and secondly, by actively seeking to stamp out the online bootlegging that resulted in his initial cult following. All this while producing some of the most challenging and obtuse animated films ever made, at an output rate that would make Terrance Malick tap his feet, look at his watch, and implore “Jesus, come ON already!”.
I don’t think the influence of Rejected can be overestimated. One of the most important voices in both animation and comedy in the 21st century has been the American programming block Adult Swim, and I would argue that almost their entire aesthetic can be traced back to Hertfeldt’s early work: in particular, shows like Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Robot Chicken and Frisky Dingo owe a great deal tonally to Rejected in particular. Other disciples of Hertzfelt include internet cartoons such as Salad Fingers, and the New York art/animation/comedy collective PFFR, responsible for the brilliantly warped Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel.
It’s all there: the intense surrealism, the random ultra-violence, the gross-out revulsion used as a punch-line, the rigid commitment to the non-sequitur. These are the elements that make up the first five minutes of Rejected, and it’s a formula that we’ve come to be familiar with through Adult Swim and the like.
It’s these first five minutes that are the most famous – they provide all of the quotes and memes that you may have heard, like “Ma SPOON is too big!”, and “I am the queeeen of France…” And don’t get me wrong: this section is really, really funny – my favourite moment is the inexplicable vacuum cleaner noise that follows “I am a BANANA!”
But what elevates Rejected to the status of a masterpiece in my eyes is its closing moments, where the tone shifts abruptly from weird comedy to full blown existential horror. I’ve read reports of supposed huge fans of the film switching off once this section begins, which I find completely baffling – not only are the final few minutes astonishing from a technical standpoint, but it’s the natural conclusion to the story: a mentally unstable artist attempts to make something with commercial appeal that also adheres to his artistic principles. When he fails miserably, it results in a complete creative breakdown, an ink-and-paper apocalypse that culminates with one of the most haunting final images of any film, be it short or feature-length, animated, live-action or otherwise.
I’ve occasionally wondered why Hertzfelt’s simplistic line animations possess the huge emotional impact that they do – there’s an interesting theory in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics that posits that the more simplistic a drawing, the more likely you are to identify with it. This is because when looking ath the faces of other people, you realise their features in incredible detail; every line, wrinkle, blemish etc. When picturing your own face, however, unless you have a mirror to hand you have to rely on your mind’s eye, which only picks out the most distinguishing features – eyes, nose, mouth, hair – then roughly fills in the rest, in much the same way that a cartoonist appropriates real life. Therefore there’s an inherent power and universal quality to stick figures and cartoons that affects us almost on a subconscious level – nobody has harnessed this unsettling feeling better than Hertzfelt in his short films.
Which might be an overly contemplative and pretentious way to end a piece on a cartoon that features a crudely-drawn cloud screaming “My anus is bleeding!” while the screen fills up with blood. But there we go. That’s Rejected for you. It’s as exciting, disturbing and relevant as it ever was.