Friday, February 13, 2009
Review: "Waltz with Bashir"
For 20 years now, we've enjoyed a second Golden Age of Animation, starting with "The Little Mermaid" and right up through "Wall-E," which was my favorite film from 2008. What I liked most about "Wall-E" was that it wore the clothes of a kiddie film -- cute robot, lots of whiz-bang action -- but it had a lot of sobering things to say about mankind. It employed cutting-edge technology to subtly demonstrate how dependent on gadgets we as a society have become.
I think we're starting to see the beginnings of a new shift in animation, toward movies that are thoroughly adult in subject matter, with no pretense at being appropriate for little kids. Oh, there was stuff like this in the past -- "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Metal" -- but they had juvenile sensibilities, replete with sex and violence. They were still cartoonish, in other words.
A couple years ago "Persepolis" made a big splash for its first-person depiction of the life of Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran around the time of the revolution, went to study in France, and returned home again. I liked it but was not blown away by it. The full potential of adult animation had yet to be tapped, I thought.
I believe "Waltz with Bashir" has reached that new threshold. This Israeli movie, written and directed by Ari Folman, is also a first-person account of traumatic events that took place in the Middle East. In this case, Folman attempts to reconstruct his missing memories of the Lebanon War more than 25 years ago by interviewing some of his old comrades.
Right from the start, the animation style grabs you by the throat. A pack of slavering dogs bursts out of an alley and hurtles down the street. The animation looks intentionally unsophisticated, like cut-out drawings that are being slowly moved around. Folman and his chief animator, Yoni Goodman, shot interviews with real people on video, then animated them using traditional animation, Flash animation and 3-D techniques.
In news stories written about this movie, it's been referred to as "an animated documentary," but I'm not sure that description really fits. If it was just straight reporting of the events surrounding the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, I might buy that. But the whole premise of the movie is about how memory is unreliable, and is blotted out or reconstructed in different ways by our brain's attempts at rationalization. "Waltz" is essentially an exploration of the consciousness.
The dogs from the opening sequence are a dream of one of Folman's ex-comrades. When he talks with Folman about how the Israeli war in Lebanon changed him, Folman professes not to remember much of anything about his time as a 19-year-old soldier.
Troubled by this, he sets about interviewing more than a dozen people, who describe their own memories of that time. Sometimes they contradict each other -- Folman's only really clear memory is of swimming in the sea with a friend named Carmi, but Carmi insists he was never there. The interviews include grunts, officers and even a television journalist who stumbled across the carnage.
Folman resists turning the war sequences into an indictment of Israeli militarism, or Muslim and Christian extremists. Although the war action is what's on the surface, the undercurrents of this movie are all about the tricky workings of the mind. You get the sense Folman would have undertaken this journey to reclaim his memories even if the gap included events that took place outside of war. It's the loss that haunts him, not just the terrible experiences themselves.
"Waltz with Bashir" is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, but not, interestingly, in the Best Animated Film category. I'm guessing the filmmakers decided on that strategy. Theoretically, it could also have been nominated for Best Documentary.
Ultimately, "Waltz" defies categorization, as it represents a watershed in the artistry of animated film. Let's hope some enterprising American filmmakers, having seen what this movie and "Persepolis" have done, will also decide to leave cartoons behind and make animated movies for adults.
3.5 stars out of four