Greil Marcus once asked his readers to imagine Carlos Santana “going through his the-pain-of-the-universe-is-in-my-guitar routine, with a ukulele,” and it’s a good analogy for what Don Hertzfeldt does with animation. Hertzfeldt’s early short films like “Lily and Jim” and “Billy’s Balloon” lured viewers in with their minimalist, almost crude stick-figure artwork and then hit them with emotions ranging from deep discomfort to profound dread, as if a second-grade assembly had suddenly turned into a Harold Pinter play. With “Rejected,” he embraced full-throttle existential terror; the film, which starts out as a goofy gag, starts to disassemble itself as it goes, and your mind falls apart along with it.
In Everything Will Be OK, a quasi-feature composed of three shorts, the first of which is also called “Everything Will Be OK,” Hertzfeldt took on that kind of deterioration directly, using increasingly sophisticated film techniques without losing the elemental quality at the core of his style. And though he has shifted to digital animation with his latest movies, World of Tomorrow and World of Tomorrow, Episode Two—the first is on Netflix, the latter has just been released on demand—they’re still deceptive in their simplicity, plopping skeletal, 2-D characters in the middle of geometric and cosmological landscapes that constantly shift under their feet.
World of Tomorrow, Episode Two is subtitled “The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts,” and like the first, it features Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, as a child named Emily and the British actress Julia Pott as one of her clones from the future. In Episode Two, Emily Prime, as the future Emilys call her, is visited by Emily 6 (Pott), one of a long line of Emily clones whose bodies have been used as repositories for the original Emily’s transplanted memories. With Emily 6, however, the transplant didn’t quite take; she’s an incomplete copy, a damaged replica. She’s come back from the future, where they still haven’t quite mastered time travel—or even how to pronounce the words “time travel”—to graft young Emily’s memories onto hers, but she doesn’t exactly get the child’s consent, and as she begins the process, she warns her that merging their minds may be a traumatic process: “I have a suffered a great deal, and my subconscious is not a pleasant place.”
It’s not easy to describe what happens after that. As with the first film, Hertzfeldt constructed the story around audio recordings of his niece at play, but whereas with the first he was main dealing with the adorable burblings of a four-year-old, he found that repeating the process a year later, “I was facing down long, rambling monologues from a small crazy person.” The world of World of Tomorrow was already one of abrupt leaps in time and space, of offhand predictions of doom and fleeting but intense bursts of sentiment—the first film’s “We loved each other as if we were both originals” floors me with its beauty every time I watch—and that sense of disjuncture is only heightened by the fragmented way its narrative was assembled. What seem to be absurdist asides, like Emily 6’s reference to “my experimental sister, who lived in a tube in the stars,” accrue both meaning and feeling as we go along, and a statement as simple as “I am glad we were alive at the same time” takes on almost overwhelming significance.
As moving and occasionally frightening as Episode Two can be—imagine the “I can feel my mind going” sequence from 2001, only from HAL 9000’s point of view—it’s also incredibly, sometimes painfully, funny. A conversation between Emily Prime and a similarly aged version of Emily 6 plays out like a cosmic version of the mirror scene from Duck Soup, and the appearance of “memory tourists” who tromp through Emily Prime’s mind with the equivalent of muddy boots on serves as a wry commentary on the compulsion to document precious moments instead of actually living them.
That sounds like a lot to pack into 22 minutes, and it is; I’ve seen Episode Two four times now and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Five bucks might seem like a steep price to rent a short film for a week, and I could appeal to your superego and point out that Hertzfeldt is a true independent in a culture increasingly short on them, and that you’d be contributing to the miracle of his continued existence. But let’s put it in self-interested terms instead: You’ll need, and want, to watch Episode Two again and again to fully absorb its strange wonder. I know I will.