Thursday, March 19, 2009

Waltz With Bashir (2008)


“To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of 'government'; they create desolation and call it peace.”

—Tacitus

There is a single, indelible moment—among many others—in Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir that has lingered ever since the screen finally faded out. An Israeli soldier has run away from Palestinians who have shot down his fellow Israeli soldiers as they ran off toward the Mediterranean Sea from an ambush. This one Israeli soldier has hidden from the group of Palestinians—who successfully scared off an Israeli tank, which retreated from the scene—for hours on the Lebanese beach. Finally, as night descends on the Middle East, the Israeli begins to crawl like an animal to the water. Slipping into the soothingly lush Mediterranean water, the Israeli drifts far out, then turns leftward (southward), hoping to swim back to friendly territory. For what seems like an eternity, the soldier is a lone, solitary figure literally amidst a sea—not of turmoil as in most films (live-action and animated alike), but of refuge, of salvation, of escape. As the now-older man explains the remarkable story of his experience in the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon, speaking of the sea and how he used it to rescue himself, Folman's animated sea, with the geographically correct shoreline landmass appearing in the distance like a disquietingly ominous sleeping beast, simply overwhelms the screen. It is unlike anything recently seen in a cinema—including the using of Hurricane Katrina for the sake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's final elegiac shot—and is some of the most tremendously effective suspense in quite some time.

It became apparent, as the scene unfolded, that Folman was, on a comparatively microcosmic level, doing here what he was endeavoring to for the film entire: he was inverting all expectations, all biases, all conventions, all predispositions. This includes the most innately inherent—mere, nebulous beliefs considered in purely ocular compositions. The sea has been and continues to be frequently utilized in literature, poetry, painting, drawing, sculpture and cinema to connote tumult and danger. The open water has been made to look like a horrible place to be, including in works that exploit common fear of the unknown like Jaws. Like many a tantalizing visage, the sea seems to forever obscure its more mysterious and frightening traits, including the many living things which call it home. In Waltz With Bashir, however, after (literally) bringing to the surface a huge, naked and voluptuously beautiful woman who comes to the aid of another Israeli soldier from the depths of the sea, Folman revisits the sea and extrapolates the sea's connection to people, and vice versa. Essaying migration, war and exodus, Folman mercurially pivots his film's myriad themes through the ever-present proximity of the sea to the bloodying of the Middle Eastern soil.

Indeed, the film's protagonist, Ari Folman himself (his 1982 self animated), slowly ascends with two fellow naked Israeli soldiers from the Mediterranean, like three separate forms of life moving to survive, lifting themselves out of the primordial liquid, and finally walking upright to the treacherous land before them. The animation is stark and gorgeous, with an orange-tinged yellow penumbra from the sky lighting the entire imposing (and recurring) scene. This is supremely confident, spare animated filmmaking and almost perceptively obtuse in its singular objective. Many a film has stated as vociferously as possible—“war is awful”—but Folman takes an incisively richer perspective (his own) and allows it to remain, writ small.

In another inversion of cliché, it is Folman himself who cannot remember the specter that must have been so unspeakably horrible he has suppressed it. This is a tortured soldier, yes, but his dreams are not of the actual atrocities and barbarities of “war”; the aforementioned ascension out of the peaceful, serene and tranquil into the most ungodly inferno is what he remembers, all he has allowed himself to retain. As he interviews one Israeli army friend after another, and pieces begin to slowly stick to one another and congeal, the film meticulously bridges the gaps between individuals' respective memories into one massive, oneiric painting. The accounts are all delivered through the voices of the disparate former soldiers, and though music is repeatedly used to great effect, the Hebrew language, with its guttural piquancy and ancient, embedded wisdom, supplies an accomplished auditory soundtrack all by itself.

The visuals are pulsating and powerfully pieced together. The animation is never less than wholly expert in its gradations of color—from the aquamarine blues and greens of the nighttime sojourns to the sea, to the dirty, dusty browns of so many buildings and devastated roads. Buildings and people are in scale, but frequently placed together in surreal panels that accentuate the individual over the setting but never at the expense of the film's haunting verisimilitude. The characters' faces are haunting—often jaundiced and visibly tormented. One character who has an affinity for petuly oil (used by him so that his men could always know where he was) looks like a bald, nearly emotionless gargoyle.

Waltz With Bashir has doubtless been compared to Rashomon and rightly so—the picture's competing memorial visions abundantly endow the proceedings with an intoxicating legerdemain of narrative and documentary filmmaking itself (which Folman has pursued before in Israel). Pregnant pauses in dialogue are unusually discomfiting; former soldiers, who have largely succeeded in moving past the deplorable experience, occasionally struggle to continue their stories, or have selectively edited out certain events too psychologically punishing. (Folman, fascinatingly, has done this more than anyone else.) One soldier's nightmare of twenty-six dogs demanding vengeance for having been killed by an Israeli soldier inaugurates the filmic action. Folman's inquiry into the self, into the mind, and into those with whom he shares an ineffable bond, is one of a consummately Judaic moral imperative. Just as the fear that each particle of memory may be inassimilable and useless to the whole pervades the film's most fiercely unnerved core, Folman manages to continue onward.

What finally bubbles to the surface of that alluring, seductively glistening sea is not an animated figure but a voice birthed from conscience. Not since Steven Spielberg's Munich has the Biblical pursual of Jewish ends at the expense of Jewish ideals been so cinematically palpable. The loss of righteousness for the Jewish State in permitting the 1982 genocide to take place was a heinously personal loss of righteousness for those who were charged with carrying it out. In vanquishing the ambiguously defined “enemy,” the victors in this case—firing flares and controlling the perimeters of the refugee camps for the proxy fighting force of Christian Phalangists—were in many ways the spiritual losers. The massacre of Sabra and Shatila, Folman finally reveals in a denouement of shockingly pained sorrow, may have butchered innocent Palestinians, but it left an eternal wound on the nation of Israel and himself.

31 comments:

Harold said...

Wow. I'm just floored by this most poetic and beautiful essay, Alexander. I thought well of the film but now I'm truly blown away by your piece on it!! Amazing. I'm gonna have to keep thinking about this one for awhile. Just great work, though. You were born to analyze cinema.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you, Harold. You're far too kind. But thank you in any case. Much appreciated.

I saw this film two weeks ago yesterday and it has most vividly remained with me.

mc said...

I must see this film. Some months back I had read an article that gave me some interest in this film. And, your essay has made it a must. Thanks for your work.

Alexander Coleman said...

You're most welcome, mc! Yes, you and everyone else must see this.

Matthew Lucas said...

Having just seen the Oscar winning "Departures," it has only reinforced my belief that this was the rightful Oscar winner this past year.

The image of the three men rising from the water was one of the most indelible cinematic images of last year (how did AMPAS miss this in both the animation AND documentary montages...were they embarrassed that they snubbed it on both counts?).

Anyway, it's a stunning film.

Alexander Coleman said...

I have not seen Departures but I agree with you on everything you say about Waltz With Bashir, Matthew. Thank you for the excellent comment. Yes, this was one of the highlights of 2008 with so many remarkable, lasting images. Fantastic--and yes, stunning--film.

Sam Juliano said...

I am not to be counted as one of this film's fans, though I do recognize I am in a severe minority.

The so-called massacres of the palistians that are the centralissue in this narrative is not brought up until the film is about an hour old. Th ereplacement method for the "rotoscope" animation that was effective in Linklater's WAKING LIFE is a seeming re-drawing of pictures (of the interviews) to have them envision wartime attrocities. The results are disjointed and do nothing to bring this film together both psycholically and emotionally. In fact, until teh last scene, it's alienating and distancing. The film is a series of monochromatic abstractions that work to mitigate against the very themes that make it on paper a work of urgency. The issues surrounding the massacre have apparently been sorted out, so there's neither any political agenda here, other than to mirror the current dire state of mid-east relations. WALTZ WITH BASHIR did nothing to deepen one's sadness. It was largely an exercise in tedium.

Regardless with this severe disagreement, the review is extraordinary and some of teh sensory sentences are simply stunning. These two paragraphs are a lesson in how to write effectively and beyond:

"The visuals are pulsating and powerfully pieced together. The animation is never less than wholly expert in its gradations of color—from the aquamarine blues and greens of the nighttime sojourns to the sea, to the dirty, dusty browns of so many buildings and devastated roads. Buildings and people are in scale, but frequently placed together in surreal panels that accentuate the individual over the setting but never at the expense of the film's haunting verisimilitude. The characters' faces are haunting—often jaundiced and visibly tormented. One character who has an affinity for petuly oil (used by him so that his men could always know where he was) looks like a bald, nearly emotionless gargoyle."

"This includes the most innately inherent—mere, nebulous beliefs considered in purely ocular compositions. The sea has been and continues to be frequently utilized in literature, poetry, painting, drawing, sculpture and cinema to connote tumult and danger. The open water has been made to look like a horrible place to be, including in works that exploit common fear of the unknown like Jaws."

Anyway as far as this being compared to RASHOMON is style, form or resonance, well....I won't go there......LOL.

Stupendous review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Interesting take on the film, Sam. You're most certainly in the severe minority this time, but as I just got through saying in the Watchmen thread you're never afraid of that.

Where we certainly part ways is that I firmly believe (as should be obvious by the review) that the various interviews and vignettes did bring the overall picture (and, in more ways than one, the cliched "big picture") together psychologically and emotionally. I'll concede that the film has certain blind alleys--and the occasional episode feels a bit disjointed from the rest of the components, but there again I credit Folman for making his picture fully organic and not simply a didactic hammer.

Nevertheless, I think there is some surprising overlap in our respective views, Sam; I do concur that the film takes on a distancing stance of sorts until its (I thought very cathartic) conclusion. The Rashomon comparison is apt insofar as it goes, but naturally the Kurosawa film is a legendary classic, and truly revolutionary, whereas Waltz With Bashir is an accomplished cinematic essay utilizing very similar narrative tools.

Thank you very much for the tremendously kind comment, though, Sam. As always I'm touched and thankful. We can't always agree--indeed, sometimes it's most interesting when we don't! Thanks again.

Laetitia said...

This movie made me cry SO MUCH. The ending killed me. Thankk you for this unbelievable, brilliant review, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you for the wonderful comment, Laetitia. The ending was overpowering for me as well. Some may complain that it was, in a way, a "cheat"--but I disagree. (Partly because what we see has already been animated; so when we see more typical documentary footage, it hits at least twice as hard.)

Again, I suggest everyone see this film. I'm not one to recommend films based on their subject matter--but if you have a film saying something important and doing so in an artistically riveting fashion, I say, hurray for it. Thank you again, Laetitia.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, I just watched Waltz With Bashir, and I marvel at how brilliantly you have evoked in prose the profoundly visual imagery from this haunting film, and I am one with you on your reverence for its power and how it develops its thesis.

The intriguing exploration of memory and how young men in war deal with the trauma of their experience is deftly handled and convincingly elaborated.

darkcitydame4e.com said...

Bonjour! Alexander, and Bonjour! Tony,
Here goes another one for the record books...I haven't watched
this film yet, but Alexander your very interesting review of this film and Tony's ringing endorsement...will most definitely, send this Mademoiselle in the direction of Amazon.com etc, etc, etc... to seek this film out to watch.

(My right pointer finger pointing to my right temple...as I repeat these words..."Waltz With Bashir(2008)."

Merci!
Dcd ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so very much, Tony. I am personally touched by your remarkably kind comment. And I am so very pleased that we agree about this film's haunting thesis, as you describe it. I've seen quite a number of films recently and this is one of the few which has remained with me in vividly recurring detail. A truly important film in my estimation in so many ways. Thank you once again, my friend.

Dark City Dame, Bonjour! :-) I'm very happy to see that you are going to seek this one out! I cannot wait (but alas, I will) to hear what you think. Thank you as well for your very kind statement about my review, and as you know any film which Tony and I praise must be worth seeing! :-) Thank you again. Merci!

darkcitydame4e.com said...

Bonjour! A.C.,
I just check the availability of this film over there on Amazon.com
..Oh! it haven't been released on
dvd yet, but I have linked Amazon.com website in order for you to read Amazon.com customers, opinions about this film. Btw,
11 of 13 Amazon.com, customer(s) gave this film the thumb-up!...Which is great,but I'am so glad that there are 2 opposing views, because you(I) get to read the "negative" view(s) as well.

Merci!
Dcd ;-D


http://www.amazon.com/Waltz-With-Bashir/dp/B001KVZ6AM/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1237747829&sr=8-1

Alexander Coleman said...

That is terrific, Dark City Dame, thank you for supplying the link and information about that! I'm sure it'll be available on DVD before too long. Thanks again.

Daniel Getahun said...

I couldn't help but think of this movie as I came across this story today. Terrible stuff, and hard to watch either in live action or animation.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Daniel. Thank you for that link.

duncan pampers said...

is this the movie with a blue naked guy

Alexander Coleman said...

Nope. This one's better because it has a naked blue woman. No, it's actually better for many other reasons.

Anonymous said...

This movie hit me hard. Very tough experience seeing this one.

Your review made me think of it in purely visual terms. I really love what you wrote.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, it is a tough film, Anonymous. Thank you for the very kind comment. Much appreciated. I'm glad to hear you found the review helpful.

tim watts said...

I just came home from this. Harrowing experience. Strange to say but your review actually soothed me after coming from that. Beautiful work, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tim. Yes, this film was overpowering to me as well. I'm glad to hear you found the review so worthwhile; I'm a little humbled by your comment, honestly. Thank you very much.

Moshe said...

The best film of last year in my opinion. THis is the best review I've read about it.

Tremendous job.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Moshe. I'm truly overwhelmed by your comment. Thanks again.

The Cinema Guy said...

First off Mr. Coleman, another excellent, insightful essay, and welcome back. Apologies, also, for commenting on this film so long after its theatrical release… While there is very little doubt about the stylistic merits of the film, and while Folman clearly has searing, important things to say about the nature of war, memory, post-traumatic stress, heroism, etc., even in these days of Michael Moore, recreations, and “creative non-fiction,” producing a documentary of any kind charges the creator with some inherent journalistic responsibility. Is using animation, as well as the device of lost memory (regardless of how “true” this may be in terms of Folman’s literal life experience), a convenient way of distancing himself from these responsibilities or, perhaps, a stylistic choice that allows the freedom necessary to take a crack at the way dreams and memory mutate and shift in our sub-conscience? Certainly, Folman discusses cowardice and culpability, and his refusal to mythologize the war experience, as well as the various recollections of his friends and fellow soldiers, combine to add up to a kind of plaintive anti-war paean. That much is not in doubt, however, the fact that Palestinians were in Lebanon in the first place as a direct result of the establishment of the Israeli state; and the fact that the Israeli’s were completely in charge of the camps and actually physically transported the Christian Phalanges into them, are not explicitly noted. On the other hand, Folman neither lists other atrocities (some committed by the PLO), gets into the long, complicated history involved in this conflict, nor does he attempt to list the many factions and splinter groups attached to this fifteen year war, or debate the social justice questions surrounding the history of the middle east in general. As you beautifully state, he unveils a personal documenting of his own experience - "Folman takes an incisively richer perspective (his own), and allows it to remain, whit small" - one widened by the information provided by those around him, and ultimately evolving into a cogent universal statement. And in acknowledging the faulty nature of memory, I suppose he is simultaneously conceding the shame and pain that leads individuals to “forget” in order to go on with their lives. I am not criticizing or questioning the validity of the film or Folman’s methodology, simply wondering whether he had a responsibility (if he, in fact, did not) to seek out the families of those killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, individual Christian Phalanges involved in said massacres, Israeli officials from the period?... Perhaps, considering the filmmaker’s ethnicity, and the country from where this is being produced, making a film with a narrower perspective – one that, by the way, is certainly imbued with a sense of contrition, and is clearly not dedicated to playing apologist, might be task enough, and perhaps even all the more effective and artful because it is so personal?

Alexander Coleman said...

Cinema Guy,

Hello! As always you bring forth a tremendous array of thoughts and points, and with a persistently questioning viewpoint, which I find quite rewarding when viewing cinema, or anything, for that matter. Cinema seems to be the purest subject matter for such a dialogue, Socratic or otherwise, since the same celluloid affects people in so many different, unique ways, and all in the timespan of single frames placed together in rapid succession.

In any event, yes, you bring up many worthwhile points and questions here. I agree that the memory loss "device"--and I hope that does not read as me interpreting it as a cynical ploy or manner in which Folman could achieve the kind of nearly ambivalent posturing without allowing his hands to become any dirtier through the arguably necessary recollection of these historic artifacts, whether they be thoughts, people, etceteras.

I do not believe that Folman must seek out the families of the victims of the atrocities, though it may be said that his quest to discover the truth through his correspondence and various meetings with his old IDF army colleagues is indicative of a man who wants to go only so far to retrieve the truth.

That said, I think this is perfectly logical and, dramatically speaking, functions quite well for the film. Folman's trouble is internal, and his aforementioned "quest" has everything to do with the self, in so many ways: he simply wants to remember. (A good and valuable point, too, questioning how much of this memory loss is the result of isolated psychological and even subconscious "shielding.")

What I'm attempting to say, however--in a terribly long-winded manner, ha--is that I view Waltz With Bashir as the stronger film for its apparent honesty in its protagonist's goal (or "hero's journey" as they would probably refer to it in a screenwriting class).

Nevertheless, you bring up many exciting thoughts, and I have only slightly touched upon one or two of those, so if anyone else would like to contribute, I would love to see what others think. Or perhaps you could continue your line of thinking, Cinema Guy.

Oh, and there is no reason to apologize for bringing up a long-dormant thread or review! I love to return to films months and indeed years after first viewing (and writing about) them. So I surely appreciate your comment.

Alexander Coleman said...

"...and perhaps even all the more effective and artful because it is so personal?"

To sum up my above thoughts, I would state, yes, I believe this is accurate.

The Cinema Guy said...

Perhaps my questions are cynical in nature, although I think they are based on some desire to get "the whole truth" from documentary - something that is actually not possible, as no matter what pains are undertaken, every film has an agenda, and a point of view, and there is no such thing as purely unbiased reportage. Perhaps this is as true as it gets, and perhaps that very point might even be an essential element of the essence of the film (as it is in another film you note, Rashomon), that the "truth" IS illusory, and very much a matter of perception and personal experience, and Folman's choices - animation, dreams, memory, are in on sense, an "honest" way of saying as much.

Alexander Coleman said...

I wholeheartedly concur with you, Cinema Guy, that aspirations of complete unbiased coverage or memory is futile, and that, too, is one of my favorite attributes of Waltz With Bashir. The entire "history" is almost literally viewed through the prism of memory, and the (as you note) illusory conceptualization of truth.

I agree that the animation as "fourth wall," so to speak, plays a significant part in establishing the expansive "gray area" between truth and memory, with their respective myriad avatars and representations.

Thank you again for these stimulating thoughts.

blogcar said...

Wow. I'm just floored by this most poetic and beautiful essay, Alexander. I thought well of the film but now I'm truly blown away by your piece on it!! Amazing. I'm gonna have to keep thinking about this one for awhile. Just great work, though. You were born to analyze cinema.
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