Dreams Like Life

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:15

    Not content to turn history into a clinical account, animator and documentary filmmaker Ari Folman both mythologizes and records his search for longforgotten memories of being a soldier in Israel’s first war with Lebanon in the 1980s in Waltz with Bashir. Not an animated biography, nor a cartoon documentary, Folman’s Waltz takes therapist Ori Sivan’s testimony of the “dynamic” nature of memories—“If some details are missing, memory fills the holes with things that never happened”—and creates an awesome hybrid of fact and personal fiction.

    Waltz is likewise “alive,” refusing to be cowed by the stultifying assumption of documentary filmmaking that reifies the testimony of talking heads. Folman makes his lay experts look compelling and human by refusing to shoot them up against a wall of absolute credibility, and they know it. He celebrates both the strength and the gaps of their stories and treats them with real respect rather than unimpeachable pieces of crumbling parchment paper. Carmi Cna’an, a friend and fellow ex-soldier, explains cryptically, “To this day, I escape into sleep and hallucinate.”This is shortly after he teases Folman by relating the “practical” reasons he had for entering the military, namely because he feared he was “the only nerd good at chess and math but with masculinity (i.e. libidinal) problems.”

    While Folman treats his experts’ testimony with great respect, candor and humor, he knows that by now the unreality of the group’s memories have already seamlessly coupled with their vivid reminiscences. As a result, he combines the terror of being in a warzone with the shock of stress-induced fantasies: Cna’an witnesses the ship he’s stationed on (“The Love Boat”) overlayed atop a gigantic nude woman doing the backstroke.

    Folman relishes making the big small and vice versa, perfectly capturing the mutability of emotions the events recall. It’s a credit to his skill as a storyteller that his hilariously specific approximation of the pornography that was being watched while Beirut was under siege—complete with plumber, dog, two women and an inordinately large monkey wrench—feels like a warm embellishment and not a Herzogian putdown.

    Waltz’s look is equally stirring. Although Folman’s style looks distinctly like the kind of rotoscoping technology used in A Scanner Darkly, he actively eschewed the impersonal technique. Instead, after filming sequences on videotape, he drew up storyboards, then prepared animatics—composed of cutouts of the live actors—and then subsequently broke those down into 3,500 individual key frames. As a result, his film looks like a strange combination of Hergé and Charles Burns’ distinct styles, canvassing inky, richly detailed landscapes with cartoons that think they’re human.

    Best of all, his characters don’t try to imitate the natural look or movements of the material actors that they’re based on. Folman’s creations are like 3-D shadow puppets that only look real in silhouette form.When they move, it’s clear that they’re not meant to just be human. As memories and figments of

    people, they’ve moved beyond those limitations as inhabitants of an extrasensory and necessarily incomplete dream world. It’s what the documentary form has sorely lacked, the kind of aesthetic skepticism that self-deprecatingly embraces the impossibility of an empirical snapshot and as a result, creates something new and startling altogether.

    Folman doesn’t conflate dreams with memories however but rather playfully asks where one stops and the other begins. In trying to stay true to the imaginative spirit of both, his fusion of interviews with reimagined recreations of events gives equal prominence to both oneiric and factual hallmarks.

    He knows that he doesn’t have to make the ambush of Israeli soldiers plowing through Lebanon hyper-realistic for it to be real; and he doesn’t have to resort to overwhelming surrealism to be dream-like. As a product of laudatory experimentation, the scene just happens to be both.

    -- Waltz with Bashir Directed by Ari Folman At Lincoln Plaza & Landmark Sunshine Theaters Running Time: 87