I Don't Remember, I Don't Recall
2008 // Israel // Ari Folman // November 23, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - Waltz with Bashir's curious species—an animated documentary—serves to lure the viewer by means of sheer novelty, but it also emerges as a brilliant mating of form and function. Director Ari Folman adeptly employs the elements of a bold, compelling visual style to delve the rank sinkholes of memory and culpability, surfacing with artifacts that run from bizarre to disturbing to appalling. Via color, contrast, and motion, Waltz with Bashir tackles the sheer uncanniness of warfare, the slippery character of recollection, and the sway that remorse holds over our personal narratives. Never mind that such matters have been taken up by numerous film-makers before. Folman brings both a bruised and jittery aura of the personal—the film is, after all, partly the tale of his own experiences from the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war—and a stunning instinct for the pairing of image and mood. The veterans Folman interviews are haunted by their wartime memories, which are blazing in their intensity but usually bereft of soaring wisdom. In the same way, the film burns vivid moments into the viewer's mind, all while striking a slightly bemused, off-handed tone of hollow-eyed cynicism. Folman rejects the notion of war as a noble construct, plunging with grim familiarity into its surreal, monstrous facility for tangling morality and crystallizing animal instincts.
Folman begins with a terrifying dream as recounted to him by an acquaintance and fellow veteran, in which a pack of slavering hounds marauds through the streets, leaving chaos in its wake. The director's friend, a ex-sniper, explains that the dream relates to a wartime experience where he was tasked to shoot watchdogs, lest they alert their masters of the Israelis' approach. Folman muses on a memory of his own, a persistent vision that haunts the film. He and two other soldiers are skinny-dipping on the beach in bombed-out Beirut, their machine guns slung over their shoulders, the sky illuminated with slowly falling flares. This strange, solitary vision is the only memory that Folman has of the 1982 war, and he is baffled by it. Why was he swimming? Who were the men he was with? The mystery of the beach and the director's exploration of his voided recollections serve as totems for the film's broader examination of the confluence of war and memory.
Goaded by this enigma, Folman talks with numerous veterans (some friends, some not), as well as journalists, scholars, and a psychologist. He lets his interviewees speak freely, occasionally posing a question that hints at his own vexations. One doesn't sense that Folman expects any sudden revelation or even a coherent thesis to emerge from his efforts. Rather, by probing the memories of others, the director seems to be hoping that something in his own mental cellars will rattle loose. The hallucinatory anecdotes that populate Waltz with Bashir—a blend of (mostly) factual memories and weird dreamscapes—share a mood of surreal awe, bloody urgency, and spiritual solitude. Fear and madness are the thematic through-lines that connect the disparate experiences of Folman's subjects, mirroring the director's own memory and lending the film a tone of expectant dread. With striking delicacy given its wild energy, the film murmurs of the horrors to come. Even viewers unfamiliar--as I was--with the 1982 war and its unspeakable fruits will shift in their seats, sensing that Something Bad is approaching. Not unlike a pack of yipping hounds.
I haven't yet mentioned Waltz with Bashir's striking look, which, despite its superficial resemblance to the digital tracing of interpolated rotoscoping, was apparently achieved with original Flash animation. Never mind the technique, however, as the effect is what truly amazes. Folman's masterful control of mood is attained through his animators' wondrous vistas and compelling figures, each a meticulously colored paper-doll composed of of riotous hues and slashes of India ink blackness. "Comic-like" is the descriptor that springs to mind, but this undersells the pivotal role that motion plays in sculpting the film's atmosphere. The "camera" pans, swoops, and spins, defying the film's cut-out aesthetic. Employing both blurred, buzzing speed and the signature sluggishness of nightmares, Folman highlights the contrasts and incongruities that germinate between soldier and civilian, safety and peril, politics and reality. This is the essential triumph of Waltz with Bashir: Folman's discovery of a potent and haunting means to convey themes as old as The Iliad. His approach captures both the bleak simplicity and existential intricacies of warfare in a manner that instills them with the vividness of a bad acid trip, albeit one whose neon grotesqueries eventually dissolve into a newsreel reality that is no less horrifying.