Knife-sharpening on lumps of coal: Some notes on Waltz with Bashir, Wendy and Lucy, and Wall-E

waltzbashirImpossible to follow, and even less possible to admire or to give a damn about, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir waltzes in on the theme of what happens to young men, doltish, subservient, and carefree, once they’ve become haunted, middle-aged men, no longer able to live with or justify the horrors they perpetuated in their youth. Folman doesn’t really develop that, however; instead, he’s made a convoluted cartoon “documentary” about the lingering after-effects of the Israeli-Lebanon war of the early 1980s. For the first half-hour or so, the movie has just enough stunning imagery to distract from the foxholes in Folman’s storytelling.

For example, two veterans sit in a bar in the present day, one relating his recurrent nightmares from the war; behind them, a gentle rain pattern falls within a window’s boxy silhouette. Outside, when the men embrace in farewell, the rain has turned to pelting snow. One drives off, leaving his friend facing a cordoned-off large body of dark blue water, the waves lapping toward him, which triggers the memory/flashback of these men as gaunt soldiers emerging from below the waves, naked except for dog tags, advancing like damaged gods on a shore of apocalyptically bright, joyless yellow. Folman here imparts an epic sense of tragedy, particularly in the point-of-view stemming from a supine male form that floats along on the water’s surface, the soldier’s legs and feet lolling in the waves. The writer-producer-director unfortunately returns to this flashback three times (at least) so that the rawness gradually loses its force.

What burdens the movie beyond comprehensibility, however, lies in Folman’s choice to frame the narrative self-referentially. He’s a character in it, as well, and there were times, in his subsequent conversations with other former Israeli military or interviews with psychiatrists, when I couldn’t discern whether he was telling his own story or Boaz’s (the man in the bar in the opening sequence) or a blend of the two. At one point, Folman holds up a photograph of Boaz, claiming that it’s himself in the picture. This kind of dislocation goes on incessantly, in one shape or another. When the visuals cease to be intriguing, and they do, once the movie settles into a series of battle scenes, my mind wandered and wondered: Why is Waltz with Bashir being told in this manner and for whom? What, if anything, is the political context? (If it’s meant to be a critique of Ariel Sharon, who was Israel’s Minister of Defense during the conflict portrayed, it’s an awfully flaccid one.) Suffice to say that once you begin to question the picture, it’s basically over, except that it goes on and on.

There are intermittent grace notes. A Satie piano piece trills through a sun-shadowed forest as armed soldiers stealthily cross the terrain. Someone unexpectedly fires at a tank, and the men, almost balletically, fall to the ground in a single, formal motion. Be that as it may, for every such moment, Folman also subjects us to lengthy, porn-movie-within-the-movie digressions—disgusting, laborious scenes of enlistees watching a naughty, presumably Jewish plumber have his way with a Fraulein.

After a while, I tuned the movie out, until its ending jolted me awake. Waltz with Bashir undoubtedly has a powerful finish, yet it’s the kind of attention-grabbing finale that not only shakes you out of the preceding torpor, it will—for a viewer susceptible to displays of devastation—flummox you into believing that the movie is great, or that the ending somehow atones for what a mess it’s been up to that moment. I, for one, can’t help but feel that Folman uses the slaughter of the Palestinian refugees in Beirut somewhat promiscuously—their suffering and the carnage gives his film a punch that it wouldn’t otherwise have. He integrates archival footage with animation skillfully, editing the sequence for maximum impact, which doesn’t diminish my hesitations. The wailing stampede of mass grief, the lamentations of kerchiefed mothers whose children have been chopped up by Christian militia—Folman stops this in mid-cry, but not before implying that Boaz, who witnesses the women pouring from the refugee camps into the narrow streets, has had his first stirrings of consciousness. And that brings us full circle to the bad dreams that will plague him two decades onward, but because nothing in the movie appears to have been thought out and none of the onscreen personae are three-dimensional personalities, all we can come away with is the shock of those final images.

Waltz with Bashir opens in New York on December 26, presumably as an antidote to our surfeit of Christmas cheer. Everything from the timing of its distribution to its title seems suspect. Folman doesn’t represent the Lebanese at all and relegates the country’s short-lived leader, Bashir Gemayel, who was appointed by Minister Sharon, to a face on a poster. “Bashir was to them what David Bowie was to me,” a soldier opines, “totally erotic.” The comparison paints some kind of sketch, only not enough.

wendylucy

Umberto D for idiots: That was my first reaction to Kelly Reichardt’s Portland-filmed Wendy and Lucy, an 80-minute compendium of American indie clichés that borrows liberally from—and I use this phrase with some degree of irony—the “cinematic language” of Gus Van Sant, which is rather like Robin Hood stealing from the poor to give to the poor. Wendy and Lucy opens on the wrong side of the train tracks. An immobile boxcar bears the signage, “Golden West Service,” but of course Reichardt’s West, exactly like Van Sant’s, will be gray and blanched out rather than golden. Reichardt—the press kit provided by the film’s distributor, Oscilloscope Pictures, refers to her as “one of the most highly-regarded auteurs of current cinema” (nothing falsely modest in that, now is there?)—goes out of her way to portray the Pacific Northwest as flat, banal, and desiccated. She trots out the same wrongheaded visual denials of the region’s beauty that Van Sant has reveled in (egregious sins that have coalesced into a signature) at least since Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho and more recently revived in such monuments to improbable ugliness as Paranoid Park and Last Days. (Perhaps if one spends all of one’s time loitering at the intersection of 82nd and Powell, one cannot help but view the world through the prism of a dopey downer. If Van Sant and his pampered Portland acolytes truly wanted to indulge in total misery, they ought to try spending a month in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn—that would send them screaming back to the Douglas firs in practically no time.)

Michelle Williams, her hair cut short, dyed dark brown, and unwashed for weeks on end (per the director’s orders), plays Wendy, an impecunious drifter from the Midwest with plans to drive to Alaska and rake in big bucks at a fish cannery. Lucy, a gorgeous canine with a short tan coat, plays Lucy, Wendy’s cherished dog and only major possession, aside from a maroon, junker Honda with Indiana plates. The real-life Lucy belongs to Reichardt; it’s understandable that the director would want to use her own pooch, but . . . if Williams had to go without shampooing her hair in order to look sufficiently bedraggled, why then does her character’s dog appear so healthy and well-fed? Wouldn’t some emaciated, half-starved mutt from the pound have been truer to the highly regarded auteur’s vision of poverty? There’s an especially ponderous close-up of a huge feedbag of dog chow, with almost nothing left in it, being emptied into a bowl. Wendy shakes out the few remaining kernels, as Lucy whimpers and whines—it just isn’t adequate to sustain an active, sprightly pup.

In the beginning, Reichardt treats us to slow, wide-angle tracking shots of Wendy and Lucy romping through the woods one afternoon playing catch. But these aren’t beautiful. Besides the de rigueur grainy photography, woman and dog are framed from a stalker’s perspective (although nothing, mercifully, comes of this) as Reichardt scores the footage to a track of Williams’s vaguely sinister humming. (This particular marriage of sound and image suggests that the picture will be Rosemary’s Baby for wood sprites.)

Although she has around seven hundred dollars, seemingly enough for a frugal road trip from Oregon to Alaska, Wendy sleeps in her car and changes her panties in a filling station restroom. She scavenges cans for the bottle deposit, but being an essentially bourgeois girl beneath her trendy, new-waif trappings, she can’t bear to wait in line with all the genuinely nasty bums. And then Wendy, even though she has cash, shoplifts at a grocery store for dog food. She’s promptly caught, arrested, driven off in a police car, has her mug shot and fingerprints taken, and ends up in the slammer. After a while, she’s released. When she returns to the grocery store where Lucy was leashed to a post, the dog is no longer there. Wendy spends the rest of the movie searching for her lost pup. Throughout this, Wendy’s meant to engage our sympathies, a la Masina in Nights of Cabiria. We’re to feel horror at her plight, a plight that was entirely avoidable and altogether of her own making, but I, perhaps needless to spell out, couldn’t.

Williams valiantly gives this self-conscious, bad-time movie the old school try; the actress deploys none of her usual mannerisms, but Wendy isn’t a character—she’s a Rorschach-y stockpile of liberal humanism done in by the Bush economy—thus, Williams has nowhere to go on this tour of the forlorn and lugubrious, except to fret anxiously. (Williams, at a post-screening Q&A for the film at Scandinavia House, told us that Reichardt asked her to study Bresson before the shoot.)

There’s one visually dazzling composition that manages to break through the director’s inert, literal style: When Wendy enters a phone booth (calling home to beg for money), Reichardt isolates Williams in the booth on the left of the screen, photographing her through the glass, which reflects flashing red lights on the top far left of the frame as well as the constant zoom of ongoing headlights elsewhere. Reichardt splits the screen very nearly down the middle, either with the edge of the booth or a pole to the right of it, creating in this other half a metallic blue exterior. The visualization works tidily to show how boxed in Wendy is, but more importantly, it gives our eyes something to see.

Wendy has recurring conversations with an elderly, pony-tailed security guard (Walter Dalton), who sympathetically allows her the use of his cell phone, so that she can keep checking in at the dog pound for news of Lucy’s admittance. He’s friendly without being too friendly, yet Reichardt urinates on even this mild note of decency by having the man, in his final scene, hand Wendy a wad of cash, telling her not to argue, just accept it. After he’s gone, Wendy counts the bills—he’s given her a measly six dollars. Doesn’t Reichardt know how insulting it is to travesty her one humane figure into a cheap fool? Her bullshit movie never bypasses an excuse to wallow in pity. It’s phoniness masquerading as hard truth.

wall-e

I missed Wall-E during its heavily hyped theatrical run, yet with the advent of its DVD debut in late November, I had no more rationale for sparing myself from one of the most beloved films of 2008, possibly ever, if one swallows the corporate double-speak that passes for commentary and criticism in the New York Times. This is the sort of thing that A.O. Scott and Frank Rich gobble up as if it were a bag of Tofutti Cuties, so it must be wonderful. Au contraire.

Hideous from the get-go, Wall-E announces in the very first scene that the writer-director, Andrew Stanton, knows nothing about setting images to music. Some fairly nice opening “shots” of planets viewed from the perspective of deep space are drained of their interstellar potency by Stanton’s insistence on scoring the montage to Jerry Herman’s tenth-rate show tune, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” with its inane lyrics (“There’s lots of world out there”) warbled by an awful male voice, redolent of Broadway’s distorted notions of folksy banjo pickers, that sounds like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks going through puberty. Not only is the song horribly written and sung, it’s further nudged along to fingernail-on-a-blackboard status by shrill orchestration that calls for the entire woodwind section to be pitched at the level of tin whistles.

Meanwhile, the visuals have descended from starry space to the brown desert of Earth, reminding us that Pixar animation has never produced anything that wasn’t astoundingly ugly. Pixar, to me, has always resembled a high-white, airbrushed type of Claymation, minus any of that technique’s primitive charm. Wall-E, despite the rapturous oozing about its “cinematic poetry” from staff critics, is as devoid of grace or beauty as any Pixar product, and “product” is all this bore amounts to, with its formulaic script, its endless explosions that happen for no especial reason, and its perfunctory, unearned, wholly unconvincing sentiment that’s somehow supposed to grub up our hearts with sticky gummy bears. This saga of a motorized trash compactor who wheels through our barren, unpopulated planet, discovering the detritus of civilization, rarely reaches beyond the Same Old Crap, repackaged here to appeal both to eco-chic and futurist-dystopian sensibilities.

The lone moment that didn’t repel me arrived early on, when the lonely Wall-E, absorbed in a videotape of Hello, Dolly!, observes the commingling of paramours’ hands—their touch reflects in his guileless, binocular-shaped eyes; it’s impossible not to feel a twinge of E.T. emotional blackmail as this animated creature responds so yearningly to romance. It’s mildly amusing, furthermore, to see our robotic sanitation engineer simulate song-and-dance perambulations using a trash can lid the way a man in evening clothes might doff a top hat. But the movie’s efforts at slapstick aren’t so much pitiful as they are pitiable. There’s something peculiarly mirthless about staging pratfalls in a trash dump: How much more begrimed can this poor little metal box’s life become? Runaway shopping carts advancing in waves across an empty grocery store, ready to impale our sensitive hero into a glass wall, failed to extract a smile from me; nota bene, it is just not funny to watch iron pilings roll on top of and crush the object with whom this idiot movie all but demands we sympathize. Wall-E goes through masochistic efforts to please a ghostly female android, a total bitch named Eve, who may or may not be some type of demolitions expert (to judge by the frequency with which she blows things to fiery smithereens), and within the first 23 minutes I’d had enough. By 32 minutes, I felt the picture had exhausted its dim possibilities, yet on it bloviated for another hour, taking a turn for the grotesque in the form of lazy fatties lounging in the perennially 72° Fahrenheit cocoon of a space colony, their sickening faces and porcine dimensions making it highly desirable to push the “stop” button.

It isn’t that Wall-E’s heavy-handed fantasy of environmental doom represents an inaccurate forecast of where we’re getting to as a culture, it’s this: There’s a quality of desperation laminating the entire enterprise, from the tired jokes to the jimmied-up suspense tactics we’re subjected to ad infinitum in the name of “entertainment.”

“It’s a Kubrick movie for kids,” an ex-friend of mine glibly explained to me in the not too distant past, by way of relating how his ostensibly adorable child had flocked to see Wall-E no fewer than four times, suckering daddy under its spell on the final go-round. I suppose a schizophrenic with no taste might easily be narcotized into adopting such a zeitgeist-y point of view, yet I find nothing vaguely reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (or any other Kubrick film) inside this Disney piece of farm equipment retail. Nor did I locate a trace of what The Portland Mercury’s Erik Henriksen, in a blog entry partially titled, “Why America Hates Itself,” refers to as a “vicious sense of satire.” Far from being one of the more perspicacious movies of 2008, Wall-E stands out as one of the schmuckiest. And no amount of obscene phone call hosannas from New York’s counterfeit intellectuals, comparing this dreck to Tati or to Kubrick or to whomever, can deodorize this horrible film’s acrid stench of gunpowder and rotting banana peels. – NPT

December 7, 2008

Advertisements