Waltz with Bashir
aka Vals im Bashir
First screened and reviewed in October 2008
Director: Ari Folman. Animated. Voice Cast: Ari Folman, Mickey Leon, Dror Harazi, Shmuel Frenkel, Ori Sivan, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronnie Dayag, Yehezkel Lazarov, Zahava Solomon. Screenplay: Ari Folman.

Twitter Capsule: Style doesn't always serve it. End upset me. Still, an imposing vision of history and memory haunting each other.

VOR:   One of the year's riskiest endeavors, and for many among the most admired. Both the confrontation with open-wound history and the innovative style make this singularly provocative.

Photo © 2008 Brigit Folman Film Gang/Les Films d'Ici/
Sony Pictures Classics
Surely with each new WALL•E and Persepolis, two films evincing marked cultural specificity but also universal reach, two films dotingly rendered by witty graphic artists with more on their minds than just cosmetic magnificence, we draw closer to the premiere of the first top-flight, year's-best, animal-free, outside-the-box animated masterpiece for adults—one that scores with critics and attracts a massive audience and safeguards future filmmakers from having the first question posed in Q&A forever be, "So why did you choose to animate this story?" Animation won't just be an end in itself or a flashy badge of commodity distinction or a means of making more broadly palatable a film preoccupied with contentious or exotic subjects. Animated features of the type I am imagining, synthesizing huge and valuable breakthroughs already happening at many levels of the market, will honor or even awaken the deep moral and intellectual content of their material without diluting or distracting from it. As a result, it will be as clear to audiences as to critics and filmmakers that animation isn't a "genre" or a pragmatist's tool for reaching desirable demographics but a sturdy, distinctive context for thought and expression, and a boon to any story with necessarily outlandish or hallucinatory or anti-mimetic visions at its heart. Imagine how much, say, Blindness might have benefited from being hand-drawn, and thus more inventive with its white-sickness effects, and also more far-reaching in its tonal registers, from horror to despair to tenuous relief.

Waltz with Bashir represents another honorable stride toward this gestating breakthrough in adult animation, though I'm as disappointed as I am pleased to call it "honorable." Somehow in the film's first image, as a clutch of 26 furious canines race through the city of a combat survivor's nightmare, I sensed that Bashir would approach but not attain either the force or the subtlety I was hoping to see in it. The scenario itself is a bit contrived and arbitrary as a starter for this story. Before one has ventured further into the narrative, though, it's impossible to feel that way. As a viewer, you go with the traffic flow of writer-director Ari Folman's images, and if anything, it's much to the film's credit that Folman adopts such a circuitous route of speedways, detours, bottlenecks, and pit-stops as he wends his way toward a deeper reckoning with his own experience of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This isn't a film with just one thing to say, nor one with a steady, overarching grasp of exactly what it wants to say. In fact, for all of the fastidious work that Folman and his crew have poured for so many years into interviewing their subjects, animating these scenes, and then joining and timing these sequences so that the nested testimonies of diverse speakers cohere as a single work, Waltz with Bashir still preserves an air of the restive, guttural, unarticulated thought.

Again, I see this as an advantage. As Folman digs into his own memories, several of them buried for years, built upon perceptions he frequently disavowed even 25 years ago while he was experiencing them, one hears in his words and detects among his friends and absorbs from his most oft-repeated, totemic shots that Bashir is not a film at ease with its story. The key subjects of the film continue to enervate the film: war, psychology, camaraderie, collectivity. They haven't been cutened into the sort of child's-journal adorability that rendered parts of Persepolis a bit suspect, not least when the screenplay hung itself up on compressed, Iran for Dummies monologues designed to orient (fine) and assuage (hmmm...) the audience, presumed to be ignorant of even basic Iranian history. Waltz with Bashir lacks the youthful, plucky spirit that makes Persepolis such a treat, and which provides such evocative counterpoint to the more heartbreaking passages of dictatorship and drift. Still, however much animation remains a youth-friendly mode (and my students love Persepolis), Bashir is unmistakably an adult's film. It speaks as much to an Away from Her audience as it does to a Marjane Satrapi fan in its self-conscious worrying over painful, kaleidoscopic memories that are only sometimes grasped, and only sometimes there for the grasping. When Bashir is witty or even funny, as sometimes happens, it's usually because the middle-aged voices of Ari, his friends, his former comrades, and at least one psychological "expert" have the wry wisdom of the middle-aged, as well as the self-deprecating humor of people who are finally bumping against some complicated truths that have haunted them for half of their lives.

So, amid all this attention to memory, and given the film's laudable willingness to make memory confrontational and elusive, formidably personal even as one attempts to make it public, why can't I remember more of the movie? I saw it only three days ago, and I have retained incredibly little of the film, aside from the images that Folman guarantees we won't forget: spaghetti-thin soldiers emerging naked from the sea, and then donning their soldier's uniforms in silhouette; the flat, almost pasty red of the arterial spray when a soldier is assassinated; an evocative performance of Public Image Ltd.s "This Is Not a Love Song"; the haunted canvas of young Ari Folman's haunted and beady-eyed face. The images, even these privileged images, have not become my images; the film's powers to edify me or to welcome me into its crucibles of thought and history seem more limited than I would have guessed. The culprit, I think, is not the fact that Folman employs animation, which is a sensible and even an inspired tactic given the scope of what he's trying to put across, but the style of animation that he adopts, care of head animator David Polonsky. I was surpised even as Bashir played out that Folman and Polonsky had embraced such a hard, thick, occasionally brute style of strong black lines, narrow palettes, and deep chiaroscuro contrasts, all hinting at a starkness and bluntness of memory that everything else about the film contests. The animators sometimes offer scrupulously, even ostentatiously "realistic" surfaces, like those of posters lining a sidewalk or of glassy reflections on the chassis of a moving vehicle. These somtimes distracted me from the visual, thematic, and narrative kernels of the scene, even when the point was to conjure Folman's own intensity of focus. I don't mean to downplay how much of Bashir is stylized as nightmare or fantasy, but unlike a film such as Richard Linklater's Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly, Bashir hasn't fully seized the opportunity to stretch or blur its lines, to transmogrify forms, to haul out the hidden ids or metaphoric chains lying within or behind its illustrations. In fact, Folman has been quite conservative with his animation: Waltz with Bashir looks most often like a graphic novel, proceeding from panel to panel and amassing its force from geometry and mise-en-scène, rather than eveoke the constant, diaphanous, exploitable movement of an animated film.

I'm glad Waltz with Bashir will surely invite lots of viewers. You watch it once and know instantly it'll be around for a while. Responses to its style are bound to be personal, but sitting in the theater, I had a hard time aligning the voiceover meditations on uncertainty, distortion, and disavowal with the taut, fussed-over, "finished" quality of the animation. And now it's the general look of the film that I remember, those goldenrods and oranges and blacks, those frightening streets and wide open beaches and hand-rendered "backlighting," more than I do the particulars of the movie's story, or the specifics of Folman's epiphanies or his friends' personalities. This amnesia is least pronounced with regard to two crucial sequences, but the upshot isn't good in either case. One of these is the central, titular sequence when a frustrated infantry soldier grabs a colleague's weapon and fires with crazy-dancer abandon at the faceless snipers of Beirut, pockmarking bullets into the hazy, strong-jawed portraits of the assassinated would-be president Bashir Geyamel that adorn the sides of several buildings. What can I say? This image, flagged by the film's title and made expansive within the film through dilated time and emphatic music, didn't fundamentally persuade me. The delirious gunman's exaggerated movements played like a poor, herky-jerky imitation of the sublime, beautiful-scary fluidity described by the narration. For visceral impact, the moment can't compete with more peripheral impressions, like the cowed and terrified news cameraman who is crawling on his hands and knees past the vulnerable, makeshift trench of Israeli soldiers, just a few steps ahead of the upright and seemingly fearless journalist Ron Ben-Yishai striding behind him with perfect posture.

The other sequence you can't forget from Waltz with Bashir is the dénouement, after Christian Phalangists massacre a horde of Palestinian refugees. Folman is grief-stricken by the distilled, repellent glimpse of a dead five-year-old girl, her curls spilling through a hole in the mound of Palestinian victims, her eyes closed and her hand raised in the haunting, permanent pose of the defenseless. Folman, first through verbal elaboration and then slowly through visual illustration, conveys this image and communicates something admirably close to its devastating impact on him. But then, as Bashir ends, the film drops its mode of animation and concludes with slightly corroded news footage of the actual event, full of desecrated bodies and their travestied surroundings, and ending with the iconic sight of the actual girl, before a cut or maybe a fade to black. The power of the "actual" image, filtered of course through some journalist's camera and now again through our projectionist's, not only overwhelms Folman's stylized diorama of that particular moment but threatens to obliterate huge swaths of his film. He doffs his entire representational strategy as though it's been a clever, ornamented curtain all this while over something we must now acknowledge as a "real" truth. I don't impugn the supercession of reality over fantasy as a journalistic and, sometimes, an ethical principle. But what's to become of art in this context, if we cap a fruitful 80 minutes of exploring the quandaries of memory and representation with an all-in genuflection to the trumping hand of Truth? I don't like it when biopics pull this maneuver (forget Angela and Anthony, here's Tina Turner and Tricky Dick as you already knew them!) and the price, I think, is even costlier to Waltz with Bashir. Too much of the film dissipated for me almost in the instant of its own summarizing gesture, as though someone had merely been stalling or prevaricating for 80 minutes when I thought we were living out the heart of our conversation. If Folman began with this image, would he still have a movie?

Frankly the answer is yes: he would still have a cogent portrait of the frights and dehumanizing tensions of war, a bold push against the limits of what an adult audience accepts from animated forms, and a characterization of Folman and his interlocutors that yields a fuller, more offhandedly recognizable, more humane picture than we almost ever get of intellectuals conceding and lamenting their limitations. Since Waltz with Bashir is at some level a talking-heads documentary with illustrated re-enactments, I appreciated that neither in the moment nor on the whole does anyone in Folman's film come across as an inassailable expert, or as a person without doubts. Certainly I found the film preferable to the shimmering but empty Beaufort, also about the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, with its hoary tendency to execute its characters immediately following big, personality-revealing monologues. Beaufort intended a version of realism, however poetically heightened, that Waltz with Bashir largely defers and yet it couldn't offer a convincing historical, ideological, or even an architectural structure for the people, places, and ideas the movie should have been about.

Bashir is a huge step in a better direction and an appopriately sobering document that clearly had a major impact on its enormous, Centerpiece Gala audience. Festival buddy Tim Robey will also tell you that I blacked out for about a minute in the middle and snored myself awake—the dread problem of festival exhaustion and dementia, where you're seeing too much in too concentrated a period—so I may not have been the most receptive, absorbent viewer during the middle ten minutes or so of Waltz with Bashir.) Still, I'll have to see Waltz with Bashir again if I want to recapture its visions even from the sequences when I was bolt upright and dead awake. Or perhaps, in keeping with the film's own ideas, these visions will resurface just when I thought I'd lost them. In either case, they didn't stick, and worse, they were bluntly replaced at the film's own finish line with an incongruously different, almost censoriously "real" approach to the same material. Now, instead of boxing with the problems of memory and forgetting, as Bashir adeptly does for well over an hour, I'm simply proving vulnerable to those same problems. Experiencing amnesia is less illuminating, I feel sure, than thinking about amnesia, about where it comes from and what it is. Concepts and questions are sometimes more instructive than a direct experience of the "real" thing. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Foreign Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director (Documentary)
Writers Guild of America: Best Screenplay (Documentary)
Los Angeles Film Critics Circle: Best Animated Feature
National Society of Film Critics: Best Picture
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Foreign Language Film
European Film Awards: Best Original Score (Max Richter)

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