Sunday, September 20, 2009

Admirable Failure

Waltz With Bashir (2008) made a lot of noise last year as the "first animated documentary" (I am not equipped to support or refute that claim.) Both the choice to animate the film and the choice to persist in calling it a documentary seem perverse. The film is about the quest by director Ari Folman to recapture a lost memory around a genocidal massacre that took place during the war between Israel and Lebanon in 1982. True, there is no "constructed narrative" as would be expected in a non-documentary. Nonetheless, it is an extremely subjective movie, not relying on the strength of its materials, as a documentary would, but assembling them to recreate a mood, a feeling an emotion. Sadly, the animation, which is intended to heighten and universalize these events seems to flatten and trivialize them. It is an interesting animation technique--not rotoscoped, but faces and bodies split out into many separate components which do not change shape or size, but only their relationship to each other using a computer software program.

Folman asks what difference it makes whether we view the digitized face of someone, re-created on our screens by the arrangement of pixels or whether it is drawn. The fact is, it makes a tremendous difference. First, and most obviously, with film or video there is no intervening intelligence between the interviewee's face and the image created; second, there are these things called micro-expressions. They flit across our faces too quickly to be consciously registered, but we see them, just the same, and they show what we really mean and what we really feel. The camera can capture them, but animation just bulldozes over them.

The resulting film is flat, languid, with endless images of slowly drifting soldiers and dreamy hip music. Genocide becomes a fashionable bore. The last minute of the film uses actual video of the survivors of the massacre. It is more interesting, real, telling and vivid than the 81 minutes that have preceded it. Folman explodes his own thesis with the use of this footage.

And I'm tired of Israelis just finding out and feeling guilty that their government has used the memory of the Holocaust to justify acting like thugs and beasts to the Palestinian Arabs. Wake up--the memory of suffering carries responsibility, not license.

It is possible that an interesting and important film will be made with computer cut-out animation. This one isn't it.

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