The past decade of movies included several cosmic explorations of lunacy, from “Punch-Drunk Love” to “Grizzly Man,” but none impacted me quite as much as Don Hertzfeldt’s mesmerizing animated short film, “Rejected,” made in 2000. (You can see it embedded below.) The premise is incredibly simple: An animator continually fails to create consumer-friendly TV commercials as he quickly loses his mind. But there’s brilliance coursing through this fundamental strangeness. Hertzfeldt crams riotous absurdity and profound epistemological inquiry into a trippy shot of comedic inspiration. In less than 10 minutes, he hurls through a series of endlessly quotable non sequitur vignettes (“Mah spoon is too big!”) as his rudimentary characters grapple with their absurdly untenable existence. It’s sheer madness in bite-size chunks of hilarity (with a keen anti-consumerist message to boot), delivered entirely by way of stick figures less complicated than the earliest cave paintings.
That simplicity — which Hertzfeldt has replicated in subsequent shorts while gradually advancing his style — makes the rapid progression of oddities in “Rejected” feel more like classic slapstick comedy than anything produced in contemporary animation. Pixar continues to lead the charge on that front (I would be remiss not to single out “Ratatouille” as one of the best American movies since 2000), but Hertzfeldt’s one-man-band approach in “Rejected” anticipated a new era of grassroots creative expression (see: YouTube, among others) and delivered a sharp reprimand to anyone finding success in the commercial world. That’s a level of insight that no corporate product can possibly reach. I saw (and continue to see) genuine artistic freedom in Hertzfeldt’s nutty portrayal of art and commerce coming to blows. The world would be a much better place if we all heeded his warning.
Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.