Digging Deeper

Flix Mix: Steven Spoerl Soundtracks World of Tomorrow

September 29, 2016

Steven Spoerl of Heartbreaking Bravery soundtracked World of Tomorrow for our latest Flix Mix!

Combining our love of gluing our eyeballs to the continuous stream of content on Netflix and swell tunes, we’ve created a new feature where music people we love make their own soundtrack to their favorite Netflix selection. Steven Spoerl writes with an honesty and depth that is rare in music journalism anymore. His writing is equally a form of art, capturing sounds and their performance in a whirl of all the right words. His blog, Heartbreaking Bravery, is about to reach its 1000th post so it’s the perfect time to start reading if you haven’t before. It’s one of the places I always trust to find a new perspective on something I already loved or just to find something new. Here’s how he filled the existential void in Don Hertzfeldt’s/Emily’s World of Tomorrow:

For the majority of my life, I’ve been drawn to film as much as I’ve been drawn to music. Film, more than any other medium, is the most all-encompassing art form in existence. A great film, for me and for many others, is typically defined by excellent performances in an exhaustively long list of on and off screen talent.

Everyone from the director to the key grip has control over a function which can elevate a film. All of that being said, a film doesn’t have to be flashy to be a masterpiece. In many cases, my favorite films — an exhaustively long list of a different kind — have been repeatedly described as unassuming.

When Shana approached me to participate in this project, it didn’t take long for my excitement to turn to dread. Part of the reason why my favorite films occupy such a central part of my life is because of my admiration for the decision-making that went into the film, including the decisions made by the music supervisor. For that reason, I decided against the nightmare of tackling a film I consider perfect and relentlessly recommend to anyone who will listen (Short Term 12) and opted to expand on my favorite film of last year.

Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow is a film that boasts an impressive runtime of 16 minutes. It’s a film that uses stick figures as the central protagonists. It’s also a film that’s teeming with challenging ideas, existential dread, empathetic warmth, and its emotional weight lands with an impact that likely wouldn’t be dissimilar to an anvil that was dropped from the top of the Burj Khalifa.

Following Hertzfeldt’s emotionally shattering triptych It’s Such A Beautiful Day, his latest piece returns to confronting mortality, what it means to be human, our malleable significance, and why memory is so essential. While, by any measure, it’s a devastating and frequently bleak glimpse at a realistic, acutely-realized future, Hertzfeldt manages to anchor the whole thing with a calm, reassuring smile and a levity that keeps the film vibrant.

The narrative of the film centers on a young girl, Emily (endearingly voiced by Hertzfeldt’s own four year-old niece, Winona Mae) who’s paid an unexpected visit by a third-generation, time-traveling clone of herself. The inquisitive Emily — who is then referred to only as Emily Prime — is taken into the future, where she’s told stories that illustrate both the world’s future state and the depression-addled existence of her clone.

It’s a cerebral, complex film that’s suffused with more ideas and feeling than some directors can fit into a filmography; there’s an incredible amount of density to what Hertzfeldt accomplishes in such a remarkably short time. World of Tomorrow is also the latest in a recent string of examples of Hertzfeldt doing enough to make the term “auteur” look entirely insufficient.

Film Twitter had a meltdown when World of Tomorrow didn’t pick up the Oscar last year for the Animated Short category but Hertzfeldt, as usual, refused to participate in campaigning. His contempt for industry politics is something that I’ve identified with for years and it’s already clear that Hertzfeldt’s refusal to acquiesce to outside expectations won’t diminish the longevity of his work; Rolling Stone recently ranked World of Tomorrow as the 10th greatest animated film of all time (one of many high-profile accolades).

I chose to soundtrack World of Tomorrow because Hertzfeldt’s work has always had an air of postmodernism but he’s continuously favored musical selections of a bygone era, utilizing the compositions of Beethoven, Gliere, and Strauss (admittedly, to great effect). Expanding on that sense of postmodernism seemed like a natural continuation of the film’s spirit. It provided me with an opportunity to examine the film at greater length and re-contextualize the ten incredible pieces of music that can be found below.
1. Fred Thomas – “Thesis (Lear)”

“Thesis (Lear)” emphasizes the sounds of disintegration and decay, while still finding a way to convey a sense of damaged hope. The tone of the song is decidedly mournful but it sets up All AreSaved, a record that examines mortality and the human condition with the same kind of detached objectivity that Hertzfeldt lends to World of Tomorrow.

2. Eskimeaux – “I Admit I’m Scared”

While World of Tomorrow’s greatest strength could be ceaselessly debated, it’d be hard to argue against the dryly comic naivety of Emily Prime. The character’s most prominent trait is a sense of curiosity and wonder that’s rooted in the same kind of innocence and vulnerability that marks Eskimeaux’s finest work. Moreover, the record “I Admit I’m Scared” was taken from (O.K.) was comprised of songs that were intended to be self-addresses, mirroring the conversational pattern of the Emilys.

3. Strange Ranger – “Through Your Head”

A sense of loss and longing courses through every second of “Through Your Head”, from its defeated opening to its sudden, fractured ending. Evoking the works of Erik Satie, it’s defined by its commitment to melancholy. In its final moments, “Through Your Head” fully commits to an ideology that’s rooted in both unpredictability and impermanence, two of World of Tomorrow’s most compelling thematic angles.

4. Eluvium – “An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death”

At one point in World of Tomorrow, Emily confides the following to Emily Prime as she reflects on the death of her partner, David: “I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss. But sometimes, I sit in a chair, late at night, and quietly feel very bad. When the night is at its most quiet, I can hear Death. I am very proud of my sadness, because it means that I am more alive.” It’s a staggering moment that Emily Prime recognizes more fully when Emily brings her into several memories involving David, which Emily Prime initially mistakes as her own.

5. Nicole Dollanganger – “A Marvelous Persona”

One of World of Tomorrow’s most impressive feats is establishing a meditative tone while it pushes the narrative forward at a rapid pace. A large part of this is thanks to the character of Emily Prime, who injects a lightness into World of Tomorrow’s overwhelming existential angst that buoys the film’s nuanced worldview. Emily Prime’s matter-of-fact reasoning and responses alleviate the film’s heavy subject matter without diminishing its importance. In some ways, by introducing those themes to a child, World of Tomorrow’s impending future becomes even more terrifying.

6. Wolfs – “Leading Me Back to You”

Before “Leading Me Back to You” became a pivotal point of All Dogs’ outstanding Kicking Every Day, guitarist/vocalist Maryn Jones had been performing it in another project, Wolfs. A spiritual ancestor to All Dogs – reflective of Emily Prime’s relationship to Emily – the song deals heavily with the idea of both history repeating itself and time existing in a loop. The inescapable sadness of the narrative makes it a fitting companion piece for World of Tomorrow.

7. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – “The Mother”

One of the most heartrending moments of World of Tomorrow tackles a familial theme, as Emily explains her core reasoning of her visit to Emily Prime. After explaining how memories have come to be viewed as art in the future, Emily extracts a memory to provide her comfort as her present state navigates life as her world hurtles towards a fiery end. Emily Prime makes it clear what the memory contains as it exits her control: “This is… this is me. And Mommy. This is me and Mommy walking. This is me and Mommy walking.”

8. Dilly Dally – “Burned by the Cold”

In World of Tomorrow’s second major setpiece involving Emily’s personal life, we follow her to the moon, where she programmed robots. It’s the first of repeated instances where Hertzfeldt establishes the future as markedly more cold than the present. Intriguingly, the ancient past is also depicted as having an Arctic environment, where several people experimenting with time travel have wound up, only to freeze to death shortly after their arrival. It’s an elegant metaphor for the depression that Emily’s faced and “Burned by the Cold” touches on both of those recurring themes beautifully.

9. Tenement – “Theme of the Cuckoo”

At a cursory glance, World of Tomorrow would likely present Emily as mentally unstable, as it traces her romantic ties to inanimate objects and non-human life forms. A closer look reveals the deep compassion that Hertzfeldt’s granted his most fully-realized characters. Even with all of their imperfections, there’s a lingering nature of a deep-seated empathy. Similarly, “Theme of the Cuckoo” may sound like it’s falling apart at the seams but it’s an inarguably complete work, even as it plays with the idea of conventional structure.

10. Okkervil River – “A Glow”

“A Glow”, in the context of the record it calls home, appears as more of an epilogue than a finale. Black Sheep Boy, a concept album loosely based around Tim Hardin’s battle with heroin addiction, is another example of a narrative that treats an unimaginably damaged character with a bottomless well of empathy and compassion. It also serves as a reminder to embrace every bit of life imaginable because it’s something that can disappear in an instant.

With that in mind, I’ll leave this piece by reiterating the last piece of advice provided to Emily Prime, which is advice worth committing to memory: “Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.”

Follow Steven Spoerl on Twitter and go watch World of Tomorrow on Netflix!

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