Sunday, December 28, 2008

Recent Viewings: Waltz with Bashir, The Secret of the Grain and American Teen

As in a handful of films I discussed in a recent essay (Fearless, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I've Loved You So Long), the operating principle at play in Ari Folman's animated semi-doc Waltz with Bashir is to dance around the circumstances of a central event in the main character's past, teasing the audience with hints about the incident's particulars. While structuring a narrative around the delayed revelation of a single event may occasionally prove a useful strategy, ensuring the audience's continued interest by playing with its (implied) curiosity, it can also be presumptuous, the director cynically banking on the viewer's personal engagement with the film's narrative to deliver a calculated bit of "all is revealed" plotting with the force false of revelation.

But more than most movies that make a big production out of their delayed reveal, Bashir's project seems to necessitate such an approach. As both an act of memory and a reflection on the way memory operates, Folman's film is built around the process of restoring lost consciousness, so, in the film's structuring, any revelations come to the viewer and the lead character at the same time. A soldier in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon campaign, Folman (the onscreen figure, given the same name as the director, represents a version of the filmmaker's real-life self) has repressed all memories of the war until a friend awakens him in the middle of the night to relate his own PTSD-induced nightmare. From there, Folman embarks on a quest of rediscovery, teasing out his own memories through psychoanalysis and conversations with old army-mates, the whole process teetering around the exact circumstances of a single event, a massacre in which Christian Lebanese soldiers slaughtered a group of Muslim refugees with the tacit approval of the Israeli army. The film's central question: what role exactly did Folman himself play in these atrocities?

But memory, as the director understands, is a tricky thing. And any revelations centered around a single human conscious (as opposed to an omnipotent narrator) are bound to be more than a little spotty. So with the exception of a lone bid for visceral impact - the image of a Lebanese soldier gunning down a family against a wall, overlaying live-action footage on the film's animated backdrop - Folman plays coy with the details of the slaughter. Then, too, the exact degree of his involvement is never clearly established. Which is all to the director's credit, especially since his real subject is the vagaries of selective memory and not the specific circumstances of the war. And yet, the result is a certain sketchiness in the telling, not exactly a refusal on Folman's part to "go the distance" in his investigation of acts of atrocity, but nonetheless the feeling that the film doesn't quite add up to anything, each sliver of memory destined to remain unassimilable into any whole. Which might be precisely the point, but despite some lively moments of absurdist whimsy (the titular sequence in which a shell-shocked soldier pauses in a dangerous no-man's land, firing off random rounds from his Uzi, shuffling around in odd dance-like bursts), the sharp, inky animation which both distances the viewer from the horrific war-time events and creates its own moments of unexpected beauty and Folman's shrewd understanding of the way in which memory (fails to) operate, Bashir comes off more as sketch than completed project. As a preliminary gesture at reclaiming a personal past, however, it's at least an admirable first step.


I'll never be a fan of an aesthetic approach that combines hand-held camerawork with near constant close-ups (the former method negating the sole advantage of the latter by obscuring the intimate detailing of the characters' faces), but I like just about everything else about The Secret of the Grain. A messy family drama centered around an extended North African clan living in a French port-town, Abdel Kechiche's film gets down the texture of daily life by devoting large chunks of screen time to extended conversations among the various family members as they sit around the dinner table or pay visits to each other's houses. Yeah, they've got their problems. For starters: the patriarch, the almost perversely inexpressive Slimane (Habib Boufares), has just been laid off from his job on the docks, while his son's philandering threatens to rip apart his marriage. So despite the films' obvious similarities (a pseudo-verité approach, a focus on the "dead time" of family interaction), this is no feel-good Rachel Getting Married-type celebration, but there is a current of authentic family feeling running between the characters and, more importantly, a grounding of defiant determination that keeps the whole operation running. Eventually a narrative emerges: Slimane decides to turn an abandoned ship he's acquired into a restaurant featuring his ex-wife's couscous; when he has trouble getting funding and city permits, he invites the town's notables on board for a trial meal. And so the film's ending unexpectedly becomes a bravura set piece, hypnotic rhythms alternating with the silence of despair as Slimane's companion's daughter keeps the restless guests entertained with a belly-dance while the old man wanders around a deserted housing complex, the director switching at last to long shot to isolate him against an unforgiving backdrop. As the evening wears on (and on), there's no resolution in sight. Things fall rapidly apart and Kechiche simply refuses to fit them back together. So it goes.


In American Teen, a documentary about the lives of five high-school seniors in small-town Indiana, director Nanette Burstein operates with a ruthless efficiency. Which means her film is compulsively watchable, but also ridiculously reductive. I have no idea what the five kids are like in real life, but I certainly know what teenie-flick cliché they're supposed to represent once Burstein's been through with them. There's the jock, the nerd, the... and, well, so forth. Yes, it's true that high-schoolers often fit into certain social roles, but the director seems little interested in exploring the intricacies of the teenage social dynamic, content to simply repeat these roles as a given. Even when the boundaries threaten to blur, as when the jock dates the "alternative" girl, it's simply presented as one of those weird quirks of high-school life. Burstein's ability to turn what must have been hours of footage into a tight 95-minute Brat-pack drama with nary a narrative element out of place can't fail to impress but, like the silly animated interludes designed to add some aesthetic spice to the director's drab visuals, it represents a fundamental failure of conception.

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