Alexandra Lange | Essays

Battle Lines

Perhaps this blog is too schizophrenic, but so is our Netflix queue. Of an evening I crave entertainment but am usually disappointed by the ersatz fun of comedy and romantic comedy, so after a few irritating evenings with the stars, we return to better films, usually from abroad and usually depressing. Waltz With Bashir was one of these. I read the reviews, I was interested in its use of animation, my mom recommended, but did I want to watch it of a Thursday night? Not really. And this may be why independent cinema has it so hard nowadays.

The bottom line is, Waltz With Bashir is excellent. Everyone should see it. If I became restive in the middle, it was partly out of my own ignorance, for without knowing the history of the Lebanon War, I did not know what the big reveal would be. There is no way for me to say anything terribly intelligent about this movies, as it is one of those documentaries that brings home my ignorance of other parts of the world.

What I can say is that director and protagonist Ari Folman makes amazing use of animation to tell a most unfunny tale of recovered memory and national guilt. After Maus, it is not a complete surprise to see tragedy in comic form, and as a story about contemporary Israel, it is also no surprise that the Holocaust enters in. In Maus, the transformation of Nazis into cats, Jews into mice immediately altered our expectations of the story. In Waltz With Bashir, the dogs stand in only for other dogs, but the animation gives you much more to look at than your average documentary, with stylized shifts in space and time, saturated colors, and thick black lines always lapping at the edges of faces and landscapes.

Since the movie is about a dream and mostly consists of flashbacks, the animation also makes structural sense, since no man is seeing anything in real time but in his mind’s eye, and the mind tends to stylize, reorder, edit. Folman’s psychologist friend in the fim basically tells that dreams, evasive or not, are still real. So the animation puts flashback, dream, repressed memory, narrative all on the same plane.

My only question was whether what’s happening in the now of the film, mostly Folman’s interviews with people that were with him in Beirut on the nights in question, June 16 to 18, 1982, the nights of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, should be “real.” There are a few awkward segments where a talking head, sitting PBS-style against a blank wall, has been animated and it seems strange to have such a dull and obviously documentary shot animated. But at the same time, the animation relaxes and detaches you, so that in the final moments we and the Ari Folman of today, see what he saw in 1982 in grainy amateur video, it makes it that much more powerful, cutting through the aestheticization of film-making.

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