Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sullen Shoegaze: Thoughts on "Waltz With Bashir"

Waltz With Bashir opens in New York next week.

A few year's ago Chris Landreth's Ryan received mad acclaim. It's a highly flawed film, many were willing to overlook its shortcomings because they connected with it on some level -its a film about the fragile consciousness of filmmakers, about the precipice of insanity and failure. It never comes fully around to any profound revelation. Revelation was unnecessary, its audience -animators and Oscar voters -already shared the same inner knowledge.

Those who are moved by Waltz With Bashir, and there are many, are products of a similar effect. They are invested in the subject matter and accept the material as successful as long as it doesn't undermine their beliefs. Waltz With Bashir might question one's point of view about Israeli-Arab relations, but it ultimately reinforces what, in America at least, is most viewers' perspective.

And those of us who don't share this common ground? It's a film that would go unnoticed if not for the technique. It's not a bad film, it just isn't extraordinary. For an animated film it has merits beyond the typical cat and a mouse story. As such, it's "good for the medium" -showing creative possibilities outside the norm can achieve a degree of critical success.

I moderated a panel in Ottawa that included David Polonsky, the art director. He spoke about how the format (and subsequent marketing) of the film has helped it to stand out from the other Israeli conflict documentaries (there are many, apparently).

Animation is used as a gimmick. A highly successful gimmick, turning what would otherwise be a standard talking-head documentary of conflict and recovered past into a buzzworthy award-winner. In this regard, animation strengthens the picture and makes it significantly better. More entertaining, more universal.

The gimmick is further extended by claiming the film as "documentary". "Animated documentary" is a hot term, its also an oxymoron that discredits both the process of animation and the form/process of documentary.

External denominators can be overlooked. Marketing ploys can be ignored.

On screen Waltz With Bashir presents itself as a first person narrative of exploration. It's tone and pacing are similar to the autobiographical comics of the 1990s -Joe Sacco's Palestine, David B.'s Epileptic, David Collier. Here is where technique fails.

Documentary, in its essence, gives us an understanding of an individual or group's situation in the world. It gives us connection and personal insight. Animation, as a technique, inherently removes the personal connection between speaker and audience. The act of creating a new visual universe with illustrated characterizations erects a fortified barrier between the words spoken on screen and the heartstrings of the theatergoer.

In the comic books that share similar cadence with the film this barrier doesn't exist.

In comic books, the reader communes directly with the artist. In animation, the process removes authorship from the product.

This barrier is not impenetrable, obviously. Accomplished character animation breaches the barrier. Humane and appealing design help with the connection. An effective soundtrack steers the audience's reactions. A deft understanding of the subtleties of human nature can make up for the natural relationship lost by replacing living humans with artistic replicas. Waltz with Bashir fails to exploit the strengths of animation to compensate for the technique's shortcomings.

The animation to begin the film is effective -a pack of wild dogs storming through a city.

A promising beginning. This sequence also features the film's first missed opportunity. The dogs are terrifying (just look at them). In one shot they race passed a mother cradling her toddler in fear. She cowers -get this -facing the oncoming horde. What could have been a moving and insightful shot -if only she had her back to the dogs -is reduced to an exercise in screen direction and motion dynamics. A simple thing, but indicative of a lifelessness that permeates Waltz with Bashir.

Waltz with Bashir explores territory that's not altogether unfamiliar to the animated feature.

Paul Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory, last year's remarkable Persepolis, even Waking Life -all touch upon some of the same themes. Waltz With Bashir lacks the same deftness as those films. Unfair, true, as those three rank amongst the great achievements of the medium.

The title scene has a harried soldier dancing and shooting amongst posters of the slain Christian leader Bashir Gemayel as machine gun fire passes him. It's supposed to be moving, I guess. It's trying very hard to be transcendent. If you don't have that built-in connection to the material, the impulse to care, the filmmaking in Waltz With Bashir won't give you any reason to feel connected.

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