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Given the way he made his feature-length debut It’s Such a Beautiful Day — by releasing three chapters as each was completed, then packaging them as one magnum opus — it will not surprise Don Hertzfeldt’s devoted fans that he’s chasing 2015’s Oscar-nominated The World of Tomorrow with a second installment. As with that last slow-assembling masterpiece, World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts retains enough of the whimsy and humor of the first section to intrigue newcomers, while deepening its questions about memory and what constitutes an individual consciousness. Technical experiments from the last film are expanded upon here, enriching the film’s free-floating science fiction world without abandoning the hand-drawn figures for which he is known.
To be clear, this is not necessarily part two of a trilogy that will become a feature. In a thoughtful Q&A after the film’s Fantastic Fest debut, Hertzfeldt (who relocated here to Austin a few years ago) acknowledged there will “probably” be more, but he teased the possibility of a Boyhood-like project that might follow the film’s protagonist Emily from age four onward for an unspecified span. In either case, the groundwork exists for a brain-teasing fiction that matches the auteur’s Bill trilogy for poignancy while expanding its philosophical scope and technical palette.
Episode One was built using audio recordings Hertzfeldt made of his niece, then 4 years old. The bulk of Emily’s lines in Episode Two were recorded a year later, and a 5-year-old’s imagination proves an ideal foil for that of an older man who spends his working life in solitude, musing about the meaning of life and drawing funny stick figures. For newcomers: Emily is a toddler who, at the start of the last film, is visited by a time-traveling clone of herself from the future. This adult clone reveals some of the disturbing twists humanity’s path has taken as science made a sort of immortality possible, at least for the rich. The first film ends with the clone returning to her home (and certain doom) in the future, promising not to see Emily again.
True to her word, that clone does not return here. Instead, as Emily sits on her floor drawing, she gets a visit from “an incomplete backup copy of Third-generation Emily” who intends to fulfill her life’s mission by mind-melding with the little girl. The exchange will let this “Emily Six” retrieve precious memories that were lost over the course of decades; but it also lets Emily Prime, and us, look inside Six’s strange and sad mental world. There’s a vast bog, for instance, in which little broken shiny things sit covered in muck. “That is a glimmer of hope,” Six tells Emily when she extracts one from the pond. “Put it back.”
The existential horror of Hertzfeldt’s imagined world balances well with Emily’s adorable ad-libs. While summarizing what Six reveals would be fruitless here, one dead-on invention is a trio of “memory tourists” — later-generation clones who time-travel back to their biological source, watching (and taking selfies with) crucial moments in Emily’s life.
As in the last film, Hertzfeldt continues to explore ways to use computer-developed imagery as environments for his organically produced characters to inhabit. Cloud-tank imagery and roiling glitchy rainbows decorate future worlds whose physicality is hard to understand and, in a post-digital age, perhaps irrelevant.
Though its specifics are quite different and it introduces new ways for us to be frightened of this not-very-implausible future, this film echoes the emotional structure of its predecessor, exposing its uncomprehending heroine to her future and then returning her, more or less unfazed, to the present. How differently would things go if Hertzfeldt were to revisit this scenario with a protagonist of 8, or 15, or 23? We can imagine what a Hollywood screenwriter would do with a young adult forced to “remember” a future she is doomed to experience via a series of increasingly flawed clones. It’s a safe bet that we can’t imagine how it will look through the eyes of Don Hertzfeldt.
Production company: Bitter Films
Cast: Julia Pott, Winona Mae
Director-screenwriter-editor: Don Hertzfeldt
Venue: Fantastic Fest
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