With its literal facade, film is a pristine quantifier of certain realities, as well as a clunky forum for exploring intangible things like memory and the soul. What it shows is at some level unassailable, and denies interpretation: a chair is a chair, a tree a tree, and for the most part – particularly in motion pictures – action is certain. Its great virtue is showing things happening: Eadweard Muybridge’s galluping horse, the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), the overwhelming impetus of modern cinema as a whole. What it is not good at, from a mechanical standpoint, is casting light on how experience shapes us. What makes us who we are as individuals. Most films, then, provide backstory that gives a character personal purpose, a reason for strong action, and a clear goal, as a bullheaded (but efficient) solution to the alternative: that watching action as we actually live it would offer terrifyingly little closure or purpose for our wayward lives. In this way, understanding a film need not strain the bounds of basic observation.
Up til now, the closest I’ve ever seen a film come to representing memory as a transient vapor would be Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 (2004): jagged, full of color and shape but such fleeting detail. Fluid and impressionist, Wong captures time and experience out of the corner of his eye, as roaches darting across the kitchen counter: a few he catches and squashes, but most get away under the toaster, half-seen in a glance. Richard Linklater tries something similar in Waking Life (2001), this time building an entire film out of floating, animated gestures, little snatches of scenes befitting his main character’s dreamy semi-consciousness. But it’s the animation that sets the film alight: elusive pseudo-shapes, defined by color and form instead of detail, and entirely free to wobble and distort at will. Both films abolish the illusion of observed reality that film so easily conjures, and the next logical progression would seem to be Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.
I’ve heard that Folman has never worked with animation before this film, and if it’s true, it’s my opinion that he’s found a wildly effective style that lifelong animators should envy. Formally, his animation is not overwhelming or advanced, mostly three or four layers composited into largely static frames. And after a spellbinding opening sequence featuring a pack of dogs tearing through city streets, Folman settles on talking heads for a while. But slowly his method shows itself. Even in these chatty scenes, specific moody details appear: rain, cigarette smoke, breath in a snowy field. Eyes peer. Folman builds these scenes out of natural, subtle behavior, as his characters (a filmmaker, ostensibly Folman, and his various wartime buddies) do shots in a bar, smoke, pause in speech to collect their memories, observe each other. The details are critical for setting up what follows, and what makes Waltz with Bashir an enormously powerful emotional experience.
When Folman slips into the half-formed memories of the Israeli-Palestinian war, screen time passes much slower than dream time; attention darts from one exploding tank to another, and bullets drop bodies with messy, indistinct bursts of gore. A sniper shoots a tank commander through the throat; the man standing beside him can’t understand why he’s slumped over and not moving even as both of them are sprayed with his blood. Spatial confusion sets in; a boy fires an RPG through a sun-dappled forest. The soldiers acknowledge that it is a boy, and destroy him with gunfire. Another soldier finds himself the sole survivor of an ambush, and he swims to safety in the calm, dark Mediterranean, under cover of night and the soul-wrenching isolation that accompanies him. Bashir acquires a meditative dreaminess on par with its clearest ancestor, Apocalypse Now (1979). As the story’s filmmaker struggles to recollect curiously absent memories from the war, a fragmented, druggy flow comes over the film, and for a time all narrative pretense drifts away as we march, huddle, and float with these characters in their own ill-focused, impressionistic memories. Which are all too often not their own, or vary from one another’s.
To be sure, Folman is animating things happening, but he adds a further layer that confounds a simplistic interpretation of observation: that we are most definitely watching a film. Acknowledging a film’s filmness from within has the capacity to uproot a motion picture from a place of storytelling and replant it in the realm of highest art, bestowing a greater sense of purpose on film as a unique art form. It speaks to us with strengths – and weaknesses – as nothing else can, and Folman asks us to consider that a film is neither reality nor truth, but rather a depiction of moving image, full of its maker’s opinions and elipses, and utterly crafted toward a broader design.
Folman’s protagonist, a filmmaker, has somehow blocked out his memories of war, and spends the film in discussion with his old friends. Their stories are to us what they are to him: vague illustrations replete with impressions of emotional memory: tracers zipping through fields; haunted, empty streets; a row of men executed by machine gun against a wall. But then there is a reporter, whom the soldiers witness walking calmly through gunfire as his cameraman crouches in terror. The reporter has no fear, completely insulated from danger by his camera. A psychiatrist offers the filmmaker the story of a soldier who brought his camera with him during the war, and only began to feel fear after his camera broke. And masterfully, Folman includes a small touch criticizing the truth in the act of filming, when one of the protagonist’s buddies gives him permission to illustrate his child at play – but with drawings, not a camera.
One final gracenote in Bashir arrives at the very end, and coming as it does after such loving attention to the way our dreams and memories reveal themselves to us, it is startling, profoundly disturbing, and beautifully justified, giving absolution to the suffering and reflection of Folman’s characters. War films are incredibly hard, it seems, to make anew, as Hollywood fetishizes dismemberment and softer films focus on conventional character development, with war as backstory. Folman sifts Waltz with Bashir down to our tangible disturbance in failing to grasp what lingers in our subconscious – and eventually, I believe, in the closing shots, to what’s necessarily destroyed should we ever grasp it: the reason for making art at all.