Messing with ‘Waltz’ and ‘The Zohan’ (UPDATED)


Writing in the Forward, Liel Leibovitz says it’s not too late for Academy Awards voters to rectify their snub of "Waltz With Bashir":

And so, Hollywood, it’s not too late. All you have to do is call Japan, apologize for the terrible misunderstanding, and hand the award over to us. We don’t even need a ceremony, and we’ve never been ones for speeches. Otherwise, well, we’ll be angry. And you won’t like us when we’re angry. That’s a paraphrase from the movie “The Incredible Hulk”; it was produced by the head of Marvel Studios, one AVi Arad . Guess where he’s from.

As for Jonathan Mark over at the Jewish Week … I’m sure he’s quite happy that Waltz lost. Check out his post responding to JTA’s report that some Israeli diplomats have embraced and promoted the film, despite its negative take on Israel’s actions in the Lebanon War:

Whenever an Israeli starts talking about “the morality of Israeli society,” duck. It means someone is being too defensive, accepting the premise that Jewish morality is something that anti-Semites can be persuaded to applaud. The premise is that anti-Semitism is just a big misunderstanding, the bad guys simply never had the chance to learn about how terrific we really are. If only anti-Semites got the kind of e-mails we send to each other about Israel’s innocence than they wouldn’t be anti-Semites anymore.

Do you really believe that?…

Imagine that. Israel’s representatives, professional Zionists, are disappointed this film lost. And they also happens to think that Israel’s useless three-week Gaza war was a win.

Lenin used to call his enemies who worked against themselves, such as these Israelis, “useful idiots.”

In truth, Mark had more to say about the diplomats than the film itself. Hillel Halkin, on the other hand, had plenty to say in the critical, yet balanced review/personal essay that he wrote for a recent issue in Commentary. He gives Ari Folman his creative due, saying the film is "superbly done," and explaining how:

Having approached my first viewing of it with palpable resistance, I was more strongly affected by Waltz With Bashir than I had expected to be. As a rule, I dislike “serious” animated films, just as I dislike “serious” comic-book fiction. (I was one of the few critics to react negatively to Art Spiegelman’s iconic Maus when I reviewed it years ago in COMMENTARY.) A filmed face or body is far more expressive than one drawn by anyone but an extremely good artist, and no such artist could possibly produce the thousands of frames that form the basis of a feature-length animation. Inevitably, animation de-animates.

But Waltz With Bashir works so well precisely because its characters are meant to be inexpressive. While not amnesiac about Lebanon like Folman, almost all are equally affectless. In speaking of their experiences in the summer of 1982, each, although fully individuated by the hand that drew him, is frozen in a kind of numbness. Forced to talk about what they would rather not think of, Folman’s interviewees respond with fixed looks of discomfort, detachment, quizzicality, or (in the case of Ben-Yishai) tortured amusement. Had we been shown the original videotapes, these masks would have been imperfect, marred by the superfluous or contradictory detail. As it is, accompanied by the flat tones of the interviewees’ recorded voices, there is not a crack in them.

And, as a fellow veteran of the Lebanon War, Halkin acknowledges that there is something to Folman’s take on Israeli culpability:

And so I don’t fault Ari Folman for his [Holocaust] associations, though I do think that it was flagrantly irresponsible of him to have introduced them into Waltz With Bashir in the way he does. As vilely anti-Semitic as it is to compare Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis, it is perfectly natural for Israelis to think of the Holocaust in certain situations, because they, unlike other peoples, still live in the Holocaust’s shadow. It was this shadow that lay over Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square—in those days Kikar Malkhei Yisra’el, Kings of Israel Square—when an estimated 400,000 people, the largest crowd ever to turn out for a political demonstration in Israel, gathered in protest a few days after the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

My foot freshly out of its cast, I was one of them. We all felt the same outrage, which was only compounded by Prime Minister Begin’s foolishly scornful remark that “Christians kill Muslims and the world blames the Jews.” Yes, Christians had killed Muslims, but they had done it on the Jews’ watch and the Jews had their share of responsibility. The world, as far as I was concerned, could go to hell, but I could only tell it to do so if I kept strict accounts with myself.

But, ultimately, Halkin argues, the film’s message is skewed and lacks context:

This was negligence, perhaps uncondonable, but it was not, on Israel’s part, a planned slaughter. Yet who, a quarter of a century later, bothers to make the distinction? Not Waltz With Bashir, which settles for a murky ambiguity. As elsewhere, the film explores one kind of amnesia while perpetuating another. Folman’s personal memories of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, their loss symbolized by his imagined entry into Beirut from the Lethean waters of the sea, are recovered. The memories of the state of Israel are not.

It can be argued that this doesn’t matter. Folman has told interviewers that Waltz With Bashir is an “antiwar” film. Why must it deal with anything that isn’t necessary for it to make its point?

But to be “antiwar” in a general way is possible only for a sworn pacifist; otherwise, it makes no more sense than does being “pro-war” in a general way. Precisely because wars are never pleasant for the men who fight in them, much less for the civilians who get in their way, it is possible, by ignoring their historical circumstances as does Waltz With Bashir, to make an antiwar statement about any war. Such a statement, however, no matter how emotionally powerful, must remain intellectually shallow….

And yet a sense of undeclared shame hovers over most of the interviews in Waltz With Bashir. It is there in the toneless voices, the baffled looks, the averted eyes that seem to share a secret too painful for words. And it is present in the post-traumatic stress disorder that, so the film encourages us to think, at least some of Folman’s interviewees suffer from. Although acute war-related PTSD is largely a function of personality and intensity of combat, the syndrome’s chronic form, it is widely recognized today, involves social factors, too, and occurs inversely to a veteran’s ability to think positively of his military experience and take pride in it. Because many Israelis who fought in the summer of 1982 do feel such pride, Folman’s interviewees are not representative. Nevertheless, wars that may ultimately leave their participants feeling that they have taken part in something purposeless or reprehensible have higher incidences of permanent traumatization, and this is true of the first Lebanese war as well.

In the end, everything is a matter of context. The trouble with Waltz With Bashir is that it has none. It is all images and no commentary. Or rather, the little commentary it provides, like that of the TV news, is entirely image-driven. Folman’s film is a child of our times, which likes its visual bites, like its sound bites, to be compact. We do not have the patience for history.

And while we’re on the topic of Zionist film criticism… Michael Oren messes with the Zohan in Azure (it’s a relief to know that I am not the only one out there engaging in the very important task of comparing and contrasting "Don’t Mess With the Zohan" and "Munich).

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