Thursday, October 29, 2009

Musing Pictures: Waltz with Bashir

I have occasionally explored the challenges of historical depiction in this blog, particularly in the context of depictions of the Holocaust on screen. "Waltz with Bashir", the Israeli contender for last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, addresses these challenges openly.
To remind you: historical depictions on film, especially 're-enacted history', are never the same as the experience itself. As a re-teller of history, a filmmaker must decide between historical accuracy and emotional impact.
We have seen how "Schindler's List" depicts a fictionalized version of a Holocaust that really happened, with an emphasis on transcending the history to achieve an emotional impact for those who were not there to feel it directly. We have also seen how "Inglourious Basterds" represents a fictionalized version of the Holocaust that did not happen, freely transforming fiction in to emotional memory.

"Waltz with Bashir" takes yet another approach. The narrative that the film presents is not only a historical narrative, but it is woven out of memories of the people who were there. The film is structured and presented like a documentary. There are interviews with various people who experienced first-hand Israel's war in Lebanon in the early '80s. There is footage from the field. There are sections that would be called 're-enactments' had this been a History Channel special. But this is different in a profound way. In "Waltz with Bashir", the interviews are animated. They are cartoons, roughly sketched impressions of the people whose experiences the film recalls from the depths of memory. Perhaps more significantly, the glimpses we are provided of the war itself are interwoven animations of both direct recollections of the war and remembered dreams and visions. The film opens with what turns out to be a dream sequence, recalled by a friend of the filmmaker's, twenty years after the war. We see the dream, then the conversation in which it comes up. At one point, someone points out that dreams and visions are real - they may not be literal, but they carry truths within them that history books do not.

So, the film treats the ravaged memories of war with as much or more seriousness as the sanitized records of history. Although the film revolves around the filmmaker's search for his own memories, and for the truth behind them, the ultimate lesson is that the most painful memories themselves can be suppressed, and the only key to unlocking their secrets is to treat them as a part of the history itself.

Ultimately, "Waltz with Bashir" is an ode to subjective memory. In a world of objective documents, films and photographs that 'prove' events, a film that could have visually differentiated between historical fact and imagined dream represents them on equal footing. Dreams, memories and history share a format. We can not sort them out because they are all equally a part of the events they describe.


For a convenient list of Israeli films, visit

Friday, October 16, 2009

Musing Pictures: Where the Wild Things Are

In the context of the trend I referenced in earlier posts (more films about aging in this new retirement boom era), a mainstream film about a child's maturation makes for an interesting counterpoint. "Where the Wild Things Are", Spike Jonze's adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children's book, is at once a celebration of a child's imagination, and a cautionary tale about growing up too soon. In his imaginary world, the film's central figure, Max (Max Records), is crowned king, and learns, over time, that leadership is far more than parties and grand plans. When he falters and fails in his grown-up role, he returns to his childhood a bit more grateful for it.

There are, of course, many films about kids growing up. For decades, this was Hollywood's dominant theme, from the baby boom to generation X. Children were urged not to grow up too fast, and grown-ups were urged to re-discover their inner child (the Tom Hanks film, "Big"(1988) is perhaps the neatest encapsulation of this idea).

Looking at these two themes back-to-back -- the wish for a safe and happy childhood versus the need for a noble and dignified old age -- makes me realize just how similar they are. Both involve a person's progression from one distinct stage of life to the next. With childhood, the future is embraced, but often it does not embrace back. As for old age, that future is feared and shunned, but it can not be avoided. In one case, a return to childhood is seen as laudable, but also as an all-too-brief reprieve from the harrowing experiences of the real world. In the other, a return to pre-elderly life is dangerous, irresponsible, and often fatal.

Ironically, with the economy where it is, many retirees are forced to work, to earn a bit more money in order to keep themselves afloat. Our films seem to be urging them on to a noble, quiet, peaceful denouement, but our economy is dragging them back, ill-equipped, to their prime.

How will this cultural dilemma manifest itself in the cinema of the next few years? Which way will the movies push our retiring parents? Will they realign with the needs of a tough economy, or will they present the idyllic, peaceful, retirement that they have begun to suggest?


Musing Pictures: The Wrestler

A brief observation that Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" (2008) is yet another film in the very recent wave of films about growing old. Specifically, it is a film that explores the tension between the dignities and indignities of growing older. Whereas other films seem to evoke a certain noble resignation to old age (characters coming to peace with their weakening bodies and lengthening lifespans), this film depicts that dignity and its loss, as the central character (Randy "The Ram" Robinson, earning an Oscar for Mickey Rourke) tries to accept his slow disintegration, and eventually gives up, refusing to "act his age", stubbornly clinging to a youthfulness that his body can no longer sustain.

It is perhaps not surprising that the film is about a man who does not successfully transition to elderliness -- the film is directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose other films (including "Pi" (1998) and "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) dwell deeply in to the failures of their central characters.

Hollywood once taught us that youth, even in old age, was king. Grandparents who learned how to play again were the ones we cheered, the ones we applauded for. Now that audiences are older, we're looking at age slightly differently. The heroes are those who can climb up and out of the prime of their lives, to a dignified, self-assured sunset. I imagine this new view will dominate much of cinema over the next decade. We'll see how it then transforms our culture (when life starts imitating the art that imitates it)


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Musing Pictures: Psycho (1960)

I recently took the time to watch this classic Hitchcock thriller again, in the context of a screenwriting course I'm taking at Hopkins. I won't write much on it, since so much has already been written, but I'd like to focus on one scene.

Early in the film, Marion crane steals forty thousand dollars from her employer, and skips town. After driving West through the desert for several hours, she pulls over to the side of the road, to catch a bit of sleep. In the morning, she is woken up by a startling knock on the window. A police officer has a few questions for her.

The scene is very suspenseful, but unlike other moments in the film which generate suspense through subtle and often subconscious manipulation, this scene's suspense emerges out of a very clear dissonance between perspectives.

I've written elsewhere about Hitchcock's particular methods of inspiring suspense, but it's a topic that is always worth exploring. It's not for nothing that he is known as the "master of suspense", after all.

This particular scene contains three perspectives, or subjective points from which it is seen. Marion, of course, provides one, and the police officer provides another. The third, of course, is our own, as the detached-yet-engaged audience, observing the scene without being within it.

Marion's mind seems fairly clear to us. She must be nervous, and her reaction to the officer betrays her fears of being followed, or of being caught. We don't know what the officer is thinking (the windows to his soul, his eyes, are obscured by very dark sunglasses). Marion must be feeling a lot of guilt. The arrival of a police officer inspires her first to start the motor of her car. It is only a moment later, once she has come out of her sleep a bit more, that she realizes that he's not necessarily there because of the money she stole, and she plays along (albeit nervously).

Our perspective tends to follow Marion's. We see much of the first act of the film through her point of view. Her initial panic is our initial panic. But we can see the scene from outside of her car. We can see that she's parked quite unusually on the side of the road, and that as such, there's another reason for the police officer to be there. We can see before she does that if she stays calm, and says the right things, she can survive the encounter.

We feel this, so we don't quite share Marion's panic, but we also don't know for certain that the police officer isn't a threat. On the contrary, when Marion behaves suspiciously, we recognize the suspiciousness of her behavior, and are made uneasy by the police officer's unchanged expression. Did he notice? Did he pick up on anything? We pick up on the slip-ups because we know Marion is guilty of theft. We are made uneasy by the police officer's apparent lack of response. This sets us on edge, and lays the groundwork for the scene's most suspenseful aspect.

Because we can see Marion's mistakes more clearly than she can, it is natural that we would want to warn her about them, or at least to reprimand her for slipping up, so she doesn't do it again. It's the "no, don't say that!" or "don't do that!" sensation. Since we can not actually reach in to the film to affect Marion's behavior, we are left biting our nails, hoping she figures it out herself.

By the end of the scene, Marion is driving away, but since the police officer's face remains impassive, we are still left with the question of whether or not her escape is complete. On one hand, we wished just a moment ago that we could reach in to the film and warn Marion to watch her words and actions, and on the other hand, we're now left without enough information to know if there's a need for caution or not. Over the course of the scene, we're shuttled back and forth between knowing what the danger is without being able to address it, and being on that fine razor's edge between the dangerous and the safe.

When watching Hitchcock films, it's often worthwhile to track what we, as viewers, know over the course of the film. The dissonance between our observations and the observations of the characters with which we identify is at the heart of Hitchcock's scheme. He was named "Master of Suspense" because of his keen understanding of how to balance the delivery of these two types of information.