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Waltz with Bashir

December 14, 2008

Charitably viewed, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is very close to being a flawless work of cinematic art.  Its subject matter is relentlessly ‘serious’ and ‘important’, its visuals are not only stylish but arresting and its structure is a genuinely inventive demonstration of the links between psychoanalysis and detective stories.  However, beneath the veneer of artistically slick visuals and introspection lies a film which, uncharitably viewed, is not only confused but actively confusing.

The film begins with an arresting scene in which a pack of wild dogs run through the streets leaving chaos and terror behind them.  They eventually stop beneath the window of a friend of the film maker Ari Folman.  In a bar, the dog-attractor explains that he has been having this same dream for years and he suspects that it is inspired by his time in the IDF when he had to shoot the guard dogs before his squad moved into a town.  Upon asking Folman if he has any similar dreams, Folman responds by saying that the war and ensuing massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian paramilitaries are simply not present in his system.  However, soon after he begins a recurring dream about him and two other soldiers floating in the sea as yellow flares light up a city.  Upon seeing the flares, the young men walk out of the sea and climb into their uniforms.  Concerned about this apparent memory resurfacing, Folman shows up on the doorstep of another of his friends, a therapist, and asks him what to do.  The therapist suggests tracking down the other people in the dream and the other people present at the time in the hope that they will help Folman’s memories return to him.  The rest of the film is made up of interviews with Folman’s friends and a few other people who share their memories of the war and the massacre, gradually helping Folman to remember his time in Lebanon.

It is difficult to talk about Waltz with Bashir without heaping praise upon the talents of its animators.  The initial scene with the pack of dogs is brilliantly intense and perfectly directed.  Also note-worthy is the eeriness of Folman’s dream in which three young soldiers drag themselves out of the water and plod nakedly up the beach towards a cityscape lit up by yellow flares.  However, while the composition and execution of these scenes are undeniably memorable, the film’s true genius is in the continuously destabilising effect that its visuals have upon the audience.

All throughout Waltz with Bashir, Folman switches between different levels of ‘realism’.  For example, one scene is purely fantastical and features a giant woman stepping out of the sea and picking up a soldier and swimming away with him in what must surely be a tip of the hat to Moebius’ artwork for Jodorowsky’s Incal.  From there we move to rotoscaped interview footage in which people have been filmed talking and someone has traced over the film in order to make it look like animation (a technique used in Bakshi’s adaptation of The Lord of The Rings [1978]).  So we move from the fantastical to the weirdly realistic.  But Folman’s manipulations do not end there.  In one scene, Folman recalls walking through Beirut airport and being surprised by how normal everything seemed inside the building up until he realised that, actually, he had been hallucinating the normality as the airport was in ruins; visions of visions about dreams within dreams.  However, it is important to note that Waltz with Bashir’s ontological playfulness is not simply a matter of stylish trippy visuals and complex layers of framing, it is present in every aspect of the film from unrealistically cool 80s punk nightclubs (because nobody ever listened to Kajagoogoo) to camera angles that would be impossible to shoot from in the real world (an idea that also pops up in Michael Haneke’s Hidden [2005]).  Indeed, it is as though Folman is intent upon keeping his audience off guard and unprepared for what might pop up next; is this scene Folman talking to us?  is it someone else?  is it a dream?  is it reality?  is it speculation?  Waltz with Bashir is never on an even metaphysical footing.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the way in which Folman makes use of rotoscaping.

Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) made extensive use of the technique as a means of stressing the hallucinatory quality of Dick’s vision and the blurring of the line between reality and dream that comes with drug use.  However, Folman makes a far more intricate use of the same technique by blending it with more traditional techniques, sometimes within the same image.  For example, in one scene we might have a crudely animated figure dressed in an overcoat that flaps in the wind with enough realism to suggest that the image was rotoscaped.  Then, in another scene, the figures might well be animated in a realistic fashion except for their facial features that remain cartoonishly inanimate.  The effect of this protean animation style is that you are never sure what it is you are looking at.  It is as though Folman has strapped you into a roller-coaster that speeds up and down the uncanny valley leaving you forever unsure as to the reality of the figures you are looking at.

Linklater received plenty of praise for his use of rotoscaping and Folman’s deployment of it is arguably even more impressive.  However, the difference between Folman and Philip K. Dick is that Dick’s toying with ontology always felt deliberate.  Waltz with Bashir, by contrast, feels utterly out of control.

In one early scene, a friend of Folman asks him whether films can serve as therapy.  The implied answer, of course, is that they can because if they could not then Folman’s friend would not be appearing on our screens asking about that very possibility.  The film initially presents itself as a therapeutic exercise; an attempt by Folman to uncover his repressed memories.  However, despite making it clear, in very heavy-handed terms, what the film is about, Folman then proceeds to allow that very thread to slip between his fingers.

While the film certainly devotes time to some of Folman’s recovered memories, it devotes equal time to the memories of others including Folman’s friends and a TV journalist who was in Beirut at the time.  This need not be a problem in and of itself.  Indeed, part of the therapeutic method laid out at the beginning of the film is that Folman should compare his memories to those of others.  However, Folman somehow manages to lose track of which exact question it is that he is trying to answer.  Indeed, regarding the issue of the reality of Folman’s dream, one of the three soldiers categorically denies being on that beach and Folman seems reluctant to press the issue.  The situation worsens the further into the film you get as the later stages of the film shift from therapy to history and starts to focus upon the extent of the Israel Defense Force’s involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre and, in particular, whether then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon turned a blind eye to it.  This section of the film works rather well and it builds to a moving climax as the film’s final scenes are real-world footage of the aftermath of the massacre.  However, it is not completely clear what this has to do with therapy.  Is Folman suggesting that Israelis have forgotten the part they played in what some have called an act of genocide?  if he is then he is leaving rather a lot unsaid.

This is the point at which the director’s intentions become paramount.  If taken either as a journey into Folman’s memory or into Israel’s collective memory then the film is strangely elusive in that it fails to make any clear point or even to adopt anything approaching a coherent viewpoint.  As unsatisfying and confusing as this more mainstream documentarian reading of the film might be, it does feel somewhat uncharitable.

I think it is better to see the film as an extended exploration of an idea suggested early on in the film.  After Folman meets with his therapist friend, he asks whether his dream actually happened and the therapist describes a psychological study that took pictures of people as children and then transferred them to a photo of a fun fair.  When asked if they remembered that particular day, a shocking majority said that they remembered it very clearly despite the fact that it never happened.  Memory is an active, evolving thing the therapist explains.  Indeed, one of the problems with the idea of a repressed memory is that it is possible for therapists to unintentionally plant memories in people’s minds by attempting to ‘uncover’ them.  This phenomenon is what lies behind the satanic abuse scares of the early 1990s.

The idea of false memory could be said to be central to a proper understanding of Waltz with Bashir.  If we take the film’s strange shift from therapy to history to be (a) an expression of the idea that it is possible to have memories of events that never took place and (b) an exploration of the way in which history can be constructed thanks to the fallible and plastic nature of human memory then the film’s framing issues and destabilising visuals take on a more profound and cohesive meaning.  The film refuses to provide any clear answers about Folman’s dream or the historical facts as it realises that there is no clear line between any of the different epistemological and ontological postures that the film adopts.  Just as the visuals never settle down to a fixed level of realism, the same is true of the film’s arguments and content.  Human memory is an imperfect and weirdly recursive storage device that cannot easily be sifted for truth.

Of course, the obvious response to this idea is ‘So What?’.  The fact that documentarians frequently mistake their beliefs for reality should be obvious to anyone who has watched the works of Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald or Nick Broomfield.  While I may applaud the style with which Waltz with Bashir makes its arguments, I cannot help but think that more could have been made of the subject matter regardless of whether one views the film through charitable or uncharitable eyes.

12 Comments
  1. December 14, 2008 8:48 pm

    Interesting take. I enjoyed the film very much for the most part, but wasn’t sure about the final shift into documentary footage. Nic’s argument was along the lines of yours, that it marked the point — implicitly, the first point — at which the shift from reconstruction to fact could legitimately be made; that all that comes before the shift is contingent and disputable, whereas what comes after, the reality of the atrocity itself, is the thing that’s inarguable. I find that convincing, I just don’t know that it was necessary.

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  2. December 14, 2008 10:29 pm

    Yeah, I think that the atrocity is set up as a pole of unarguable fact and it is set against the opening dream, which is the only sequence in the film without any direct link to reality. So everything in between is neither fully real nor fully a dream.

    I’ll be interested to hear the director’s commentary because while I think there’s something clever going on with the levels of reality, I’m not sure that the two levels of the film actually interact all that well or in a coherent fashion. Which is a shame.

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  3. December 15, 2008 3:43 pm

    Interesting stuff. For me, a work must stand or fall on its own merits, authorial/directorial comments and explanations may add interest but if the work requires them in order to function it’s fundamentally flawed. To avoid any confusion by the way, that’s not an argument for accessibility in any way.

    That said, it does sound interesting, the slow coalescing of fantasy to reality with all the myriad places between those equally unobtainable locations.

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  4. December 16, 2008 9:59 am

    I think when it comes to confusing reality with fiction I think that authorial intent does come into it. For example, Michael Moore’s films invariably blur the line between fact and politically expedient lie but they are presented as being true (meaning that Moore is either incompetent or has diminished levels of intellectual honesty).

    In the case of Waltz with Bashir, if the confusion is intentional then the film is very clever indeed as the visuals do support that line of argument in a way that vastly overshadows something like Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. But if the intention was to make a film about the massacre and about him trying to uncover his own memories then the confusion of reality and fact comes from muddle-headedness and the link between themes and visuals is largely my own creation as a critic.

    It is undeniably an interesting film but I am still very much in two minds about it.

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  5. December 16, 2008 12:21 pm

    Not sure I wholly agree. Moore’s work is often manipulative and inaccurate. I don’t think I care, or more importantly that it actually matters, whether that is through incompetence or dishonesty, either way the work as a piece of documentary film-making remains fatally flawed.

    The difficulty with author intent is that it’s ultimately unknowable and we can’t necessarily trust what the author says. An author may claim one intent, to avoid the embarassment of admitting another unsuccessful intent, or may even not wholly understand their own intent or not be honest with themselves about it (or may have many, not necessarily congruent, intents).

    Moore may, and on occasion I think has, claim his intent was to make a political point when I suspect in fact he simply didn’t check his material for accuracy properly. We can’t know, and we can’t tell by his stated intent, what his actual intent was (particularly once we suspect dishonesty as a possible component of that intent).

    At the end of the day, the only certain thing we have is the work itself, which exists in the world. If the author needs an expression of intent for the work to operate as intended, then surely they should build that expression into the work. If they do not, and their intent is unclear, then we have no reliable means of determining intent and so are left regarding the work itself on its own merits.

    With respect to Folman, even if his intent were to make a film about the massacre and his memories, but inadvertently and unintentionally he in fact made a film about the shifting nature of memory and how we construct reality, then the work may be greater than it was intended to be. His work may therefore surpass his intent, through unconscious ability or even mere chance.

    Tricky stuff intent, I don’t personally trust it, a blank canvas with an essay in the sales brochure remains a blank canvas (though arguably at that point the essay is the true work).

    My other concern with intent is that good intent coupled with bad work can lead to that work being better received than it actually merits. I blogged Tobacco Road recently, the Erskine Caldwell depression era novel. I strongly suspect the intent was a noble one, but I think the work is not a success. The difficulty with looking to intent is it makes it harder to criticise the work, but good intent does not excuse bad work.

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  6. December 16, 2008 1:44 pm

    The view you’re expressing is far more common in literary circles than it is in cinematic ones. When writing about film it is quite common to stick very closely to the intensions of the director and this way of looking at film underpins auteur theory with its cult of the director.

    I think to a certain extent this is a convenient fiction. Auteur theory is the product not of academia but of film magazines and by perpetuating this vision of film, it allows one to write about film more easily AND it creates a culture in which directors have a bit more creative leaway instead of being treated as administrators who work for the producers.

    It is interesting in and of itself that auteur theory has kept going in an endeavour where the director is CLEARLY not the only creative force whereas in areas such as fiction where the author plays a much clearer role, the idea has lost some of its popularity.

    My problem here is that I am unsure as to which metric to use to evaluate the film. Technically, it is superb and well worth watching purely for this particular area. However, move beyond this and the film is so indecisive and inconclusive as to what it says and where it stands that it is difficult to praise it or take serious issue with it as pulling it up on any particular point is like nailing jelly to a wall.

    The more I think of it, the more this fluidity seems less a strength and more a weakness. Even if we take the film as a therapeutic personal documentary then it is inadequately focused. If we take it as a straighter documentary about a massacre then it is not sufficiently analytical and if one takes it as a philosophical tract then it is merely repeating the same largely uninteresting postmodernist line about social construction that dominated academic criticism throughout the 1990s. Yes it’s an effective demonstration of these ideas but it seems ridiculous to me to make a film about as huge an issue as an act of ethnic cleansing with the only point being a merely technical exercise in illustrating a rather banal philosophical point.

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  7. December 16, 2008 1:57 pm

    Interesting, I reveal my biases and predispositions I see, coming as I do from a more literary background than cinematic.

    I’m suspicious of the cult of the director, as you say they are not the sole creative force, and although I applaud to a degree anything which elevates the director beyond mere administrator and agent of the producers they are also not the only meaningful creative input behind the cameras.

    But then, popular criticism and culture often simplifies creative inputs. When bands are discussed the singer is interviewed, rarely the drummer. In comics, writers gain fame while their artist co-collaborators (who are absolutely as vital, sometimes more so, to the final work) get backroomed. Alan Moore gets the credit for From Hell or V for Vendetta but neither would be what it is without the artistic vision expressed in it (plus I don’t really rate Moore, but I digress).

    In a film like this I suspect directorial vision is more central, but generally auteur theory is I think a convenient fiction packaging the messy reality of the actual creative process. Plus, as you say, it makes writing magazine articles easier and I suspect it lowers the barriers to discussion since we can discuss the director and the cast and ignore say the cinematographer or the production designer (neither of which I could personally speak to on any film I own come to think of it).

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  8. December 16, 2008 5:51 pm

    I think that all criticism, to one extent or another, relies upon the critic taking up artificial postures whether for political, theoretical or expedient reasons.

    Auteur theory stems from the historical roots of film writing in that it allows for technical discussion of the film-making process whilst also treating the film as a single unified text. The Director is a handy thing to focus on as you effectively lay the blame for the project at his feet; you talk about his vision but you also talk about his camera work and so on. I’m not sure that this is a question of simplification or accessibility as much as it is a question of what is actually possible.

    If you view a film as the result of creative input from dozens of people, some of whom may have wildly different ideas about what they’re trying to achieve then you either have to write a weird biography of the film detailing the thoughts of each assistant DP OR you deprive them all of agency and write simply about the text. Auteur theory is an attempt, in some ways, to do both; it’s a way to talk about a film as a single entity whilst also allowing for agency on the parts of the people contributing to the project.

    So it’s not so much a question of dumbing down as it is a question of doing two incompatible things at once :-)

    …and don’t get me started on Alan Moore. Or Grant Morrison. Or Warren Ellis.

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  9. December 18, 2008 3:38 pm

    You don’t like Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis? What kind of a monster are you?

    I’ll give you Moore, hugely overrated in my view and far too fond nowadays of ripping off other people’s creative works and then complaining when Hollywood pays him for the same privilege.

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  10. December 18, 2008 9:36 pm

    When I read The Invisibles I thought that Grant Morrison was over-rated. However, when I saw him give this talk :

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=IdlVyAC55g4

    I realised he was not only over-rated but also an unbearably smug cunt on a level rarely encountered outside of a Conservative Party conference.

    The fact that he casts HIMSELF as the biggest badass in The Invisibles says pretty much all you need to know about him.

    Ellis I just think is over-rated. Transmet, Planetary and The Authority are all fairly adequate but I think their stature is only impressive when compared to the utter drivel that passes for writing in most comics. If you encountered something like Transmet in a book you’d think it was derivative, self-indulgent and directionless (a comic about politics with no actual political content to it). The Authority is politically naive and lazy… it goes a certain distance deconstructing ideas in desperate need of deconstruction but it is all quite shallow and you still have to wade through endless childish fistfights. In other words, it’s mostly empty posturing. Planetary is on a similar level, elements of postmodernity are introduced but the end result are hardly groundbreaking.

    Moore’s something of a hypocrite for the reasons you suggest but I don’t really expect logical consistency from a man who considers himself to be a wizard. My main problem with his writing is that he badly needs an editor. The last League of Extraordinary Gentleman was practically unreadable and From Hell was actually improved by the film as it cut out the hundreds of pages of self-indulgent and largely empty waffle.

    I really struggle with comics as a field as it seems to be filled with these bloated egos that are hailed by all and sundry as absolute geniuses while, in reality, they’re really nothing much to write home about.

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  11. December 19, 2008 10:46 am

    It’s off the topic of this blog entry, but in comics the stuff I find interesting is more people like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips with their Criminal series, currently the best title I follow and not a trace of spandex. In all honesty, I think the supers genre in comics is moribund and overly insular, I wouldn’t personally recommend anything in that line. Empty power fantasies for the most part.

    Ellis is better for stuff like Fell, which is lower key than The Authority and better for it. Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country is good, but a bit too obviously taken from the old (and superlative) tv series The Sandbaggers and the changing of artist for each story damages continuity of expression badly. Titles like The Walking Dead, Y the Last Man, Fables are all also interesting and don’t have this peculiar cult of personality attached.

    As a rule, comic writers seem to become far less interesting the moment they get their own section in the comic shop.

    There is also of course some excellent independent work, I’ve read recently the first volume of the three volume work Bluesman, a story about an itinerant Blues musician in the 1920s who gets inadvertently mixed up in a race crime – intelligent and serious stuff with art that works well with the theme.

    Like many fields, if you’re not into the medium and you’ve heard of the work, it’s probably not that good…

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