Friday, January 23, 2009

VALS IM BASHIR (WALTZ WITH BASHIR): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast (voices): Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Dror Harazi, Mickey Leon
Director: Ari Folman
Country: Israel
Language: Hebrew
Runtime: 90 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: Animation, Drama, War, Biography

        The opening frame is a view from a curb. We see litter spread around. We see the medium-storied buildings painted in the same shade of gray surrounding us, their uniformity betrayed only by their exposure to sunlight. And we see the sky drenched in monochrome yellow. And we seem to be already running away. Suddenly wild stray dogs start running after us. They have ferocious eyes, with the kind of gleaming yellow that reminds of something burning. Rabid is how their skin looks and saliva seems to be dripping. We run.
        The next edit, and the subjective viewpoint shifts to an objective one, and we are now seeing the action rather than enduring it. The pack of dogs is running through the street and everything that stands in its way. Chairs, tables, people. We witness this stampede from every which angle, from up close to a bird’s eye-view. The dogs stop below a window on the second or third floor, and start barking. They seem to be dogs no more but wolves. We see a man looking down from the window, and we learn it is a recurring dream of Boaz Rein-Buskila (Mickey Leon’s voice), a soldier of the IDF during the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Why we are provided with angles that seem to align alongside a descriptive third-person tone (like the ill-advised edits above) is what reined in the first signs of disappointment within me.
        Never mind. Mr. Rein is in conversation with Mr. Folman himself, sitting in a bar, and he says he has been having this nightmare for 20 years now. And it seems this long a time frame hasn’t lent any sort of healing effect. It is a cold windy rainy night and Mr. Folman, who was himself involved in the conflict, leaves his good friend to himself. The conversation though stirs up repressed memories of a traumatic event he was involved when he was still 19, and he sets out to heal his own recollections by making a documentary on it.
        The problem is it isn’t a documentary in the first place, and that is not even the fundamental flaw here. Waltz with Bashir is being described as a documentary of some sort, and if Mr. Folman intended it that way I guess he made a bloody mess out of it. The goof up sticks out like a sore thumb within the first ten minutes, with the staging of a conversation at a bar and a conversation at a shrink friend’s place at 0630 feeling highly awkward. You see, these scenes with their quiet emotions are intended to be real and natural, but if we describe the film as a documentary, than all this is being staged and that kind of drains the emotion out of it. As if we’re watching a role-play, where the artifice can never draw our feelings. That is why I wish to concede it to Mr. Folman by citing it isn’t a documentary per se but an autobiography employing the style of one. We see interviews with soldiers, and we see conversations with friends, and it is quite apparent that what Mr. Folman intends to narrate is the making of the documentary rather than the documentary itself. I convinced myself with that and I was able to move on.
        But only upto a point. As I said there’s a deeper flaw that the film just doesn’t recover from. That’s the choice of the medium, as in choosing animation as the form of expression, which feels gimmicky for the most part. I kept debating with myself during the entire length over this choice, with the film’s imagery and mise-en-scene providing fodder for the argument. I sought to convince myself that it indeed was the right choice but I just couldn’t find am argument worthy enough. Right after the film I rushed to find the reason from Mr. Folman himself and this is what he says, which is more or less what he has to say considering I have poured over three separate interviews –
Actually, there was no other way. We had to do it in animation, or not do it at all. I had some experience with animation in my previous show, which was a documentary called The Material that Love Is Made of, a five hour documentary, which was basically about love… So I was having ideas about making this film [Waltz with Bashir] and I wanted to explore what I did in the previous documentary. From the very beginning, when I imagined the characters, I imagined them drawn, and animated.
Source: GreenCine – Ari Folman: “Animation, or Not at all.

        As I suspected, no reason at all. It is more of a gimmick than the actual utilization of the potential of a medium, and the advantages it offers. You know, like a fancy idea. Now, I believe the basic principle of animation, or cartoons for that matter, is irony. Satire, for which cartoons are so often used, works on the principle of irony. Drawing the apparent power of an image isn’t necessarily animation’s premier forte. For that we have photography, as in live images, because real images have much more gravity to them then cartoons. Animation is sought to draw caricatures, and hence manipulate the inherent meaning of an image. Of course, the animated form is spectacular when it comes to painting other worldly images, like the Grave of the Fireflies, which draws its magic from its medium of choice. Persepolis, the film to which Waltz with Bashir is being likened to, worked on that very principle. That is, not stating the apparent.
        Consider the predicament the film states here, and the message at its heart. It is a typical middlebrow film, mind you, and much in the tradition it seeks to spread the politically correct message that war is hell. There is a video interview of him at the New York Film Festival right here. Now I guess we ought to admit this much we have been desensitized to standard issue war images of mayhem and destruction. There have simply too many of them. It is quite a challenge to make us feel the dread and disgust that an anti-war film intends, though it is made easy by the ready usage of kitsch. Now, there’re only two effective ways of going about it. Either challenge yourself and say something new, or take the easy way out the say it in a different manner. The way Waltz with Bashir works is to pull an aesthetic layer on these images – of bombed buildings, of wailing women, of mutilated bodies, of pools of blood. And in the process it somehow loses the gravity.
        Now there’s another reason the film is in possession of. Much of it deals with the nightmares, hallucinations, dreams and fragmented memories. And some of them, like the 26 dog chase, or a mermaid-esque larger than life woman might not be possible in live action, probably due to budgetary considerations. Though I’m not sure where Mr. Folman stands, and I really have no idea if he was under budgetary constraints. But look at what Tim Burton does, and Terry Gilliam. Or even David Fincher who seems to be dealing with something similar in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I remember Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and how magnificently fantastical it was, at a cost of only $15 million. See, it is very easy to create the contrasting effect between dreams and live action. Often filmmakers employ soft focus techniques, but there are other more creative options too. What I intend to say is I’m not at all convinced that Waltz with Bashir wasn’t possible in live action. Okay, a few images might have had to be compromised, but imagine the beauty that would have been brought by those live version of some of these high-contrast images here.
        This is a beautiful film to look at, and there is some truly awesome imagery at work here. But I think of that cold rainy windy encounter with Mr. Rein, and it feels something straight out of a noir tale, with its hugely expressionistic palette. You see the film, and imagine it in a live action feature, and try convincing yourself that this isn’t an opportunity lost. I believe you would fail. Why am I so certain? Because there’s an image of young Mr. Folman floating in the water, with his face half-submerged, reminding us of that iconic image from Apocalypse Now. For all the artifice and contrast, this one here isn’t nearly as mystifying. Moreover it kinda undermines the present, the interviews and all, so that everything – hallucinations, nightmares, dreams, and reality – are all the same with only variations in the tinge. Why not use a contrast between live action and animation, as in presenting the present as is real and do the flashbacks and other stuff as it has been done, and actually state your ambitions, rather than merely pretending. Watching animations do an approximation of the real-life people, right down to the little mannerisms, made me cringe the same way (though to a lesser degree) I do when I see those puppets of every which body on NDTV.
        The actual content, the human story, is pretty much rhetorical and often feels artificial. I’m not sure the film has any political statements to make, other than to state the politically correct. But of course, the script and its structure is simply unconvincing. What the film intends to do is to use the excavation of repressed memories to learn the truth behind a horrible historical event, so that learning it and piecing it together, bit by bit will present the complete picture as a revelation. A personal memoir leading to an historical truth. And the problem is it feels like a strategy, a clever ploy, rather than an honest introspection. Every soldier spoken to seems to be exactly at the desired vantage point to further the story, and unlike most successful documentaries which successfully conceal their artifice with a good script, this one doesn’t.
        As I speak of the structure, I am reminded of Rang De Basanti, which also was a film that drew some sort of leverage from the past to further the present. The brilliance there was that both the past and present felt immediate. That was an ambitious film, and importantly drew a clear contrast between the past and the present, and with astonishing genius and craft blended the past and the perception of the past. With his choice of animation, the director has taken the easy way out, in the hope that it stands out. Stand out it did. And I’m sitting here unconvinced ruing the opportunity lost.

1 comment:

Srikanth said...

I was skeptic of the animation in the beginning, but the final real lifeimage convinced me that it was a pretty good choice - something like a fantasical subjective account evolving into an objective one (though a bit drastic).

I never knew it was called a docu and that helped :)

my review here