Movie Review: “Vals im Bashir” (Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany/USA/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia 2008)

To begin, here is my standard note about documentaries: to judge them fully and properly, one should also judge them by journalistic standards, which requires researching the subject in a similar fashion to how the documentarian should have. It requires an amount of work that is rather infeasible for a critic (perhaps especially for an amateur critic like me). So, you should take this entire review with a heaping scoop of salt and remember that it’s only part of the story.

Waltz with Bashir tells the story of filmmaker Ari Folman as he attempts to reconstruct his lost memories of his presence for or participation in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of 1982. It begins with a friend telling him about a dream relating to that time in the military that sparks a “vision” based on the day of the massacre. Folman visits a psychologist friend to learn about memory and then sets about finding people who were present at the massacre to find out what he saw and what his participation was. The first person he finds is one from his vision, an old friend whom he believes was there with him, who is willing to talk to Folman but says, “It’s okay if you draw, but don’t film.”

It seems that interaction was the impetus for what really makes this film unique: it’s an animated documentary. It follows most of the same structure and even similar beats and types of shots to what most documentaries do, but instead of simple medium camera shots of faces, it’s an unusual and striking animation that frankly looks like nothing else.

Folman and illustrator David Polonsky come up with an artistic style that is truly unique. It looks something like a mixture of the animated sequences in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, UK/USA 2010) and the animated sequences in Chicken with Plums (Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi, France/Germany/Belgium 2011). However, this film has a hand-drawn roughness to its look, apparently from the fact that Polonsky drew the film with his non-dominant left hand, that is unlike anything I can remember seeing. (Though admittedly, I am far from an expert on animation.)

And that striking, odd animation fits the film, which is not actually about a massacre or about Folman but rather about the nature of memory.

The psychologist immediately tells Folman about one of my favorite pieces of memory research (I was a psychology major, so yes I have favorite pieces of memory research): subjects were given a series of photographs of their childhood. Most were real, but one was fake, with their image superimposed on a scene that never occurred. Confronted with these photographs of fictitious events, subjects created memories of the events, claiming to remember details far beyond what the photographs could tell. Some subjects required a little nudging to start creating their memories, but most required nothing more than the picture. Folman uses this research as a jumping off point to explore the nature of memory, the way some people lose memories of the same events that others are convinced that they remember to the most minute detail.

Like Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012), the film is using the way that it tells its story to make a point about memory. However, this film is mostly using its visuals–it’s an animation of the past, not a photograph, that we see slowly being constructed as Folman seeks out witness after witness. Even their memories and current interviews are presented in animation, as parts of the picture show rather than an objective, photographic reality. It’s a very smart technique that makes the film’s point very quickly and simply.

And then, when it appears that we’ve gotten the final version of Folman’s participation in the massacre and the massacre itself, he pulls the rug out from under us and shows us actual footage of the aftermath of the massacre. The rubble-filled “camp,” the screaming family members, the dead bodies, the blood, the smoke–everything we’ve heard described and seen drawn out for us is now suddenly there in real photographic reality. It’s one of the more powerful endings I can ever remember seeing in a film, and it’s the visual technique that makes it so powerful.

Throughout the film, one thing that keeps it from becoming a dull slot through depression is its sense of whimsy. There are dark jokes between the soldiers and bits of comic relief in the animation. But perhaps the best part is Max Richter’s original music. In parts of the film, the haunting, dramatic score adds to the emotional power of the story being told. At other points, the bizarre lyrics on top of the spot-on ’80s pop and rock music is what lightens what could otherwise be an oppressive film.

Waltz with Bashir is not a typical documentary, and it’s one that should not be missed. It has a special look that gives it a power few documentaries can even come close to matching, so much so that it actually surpasses its already highly-charged subject matter.

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Movie Review: “Knuckleball!” (Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg, USA 2012)

I don’t really like reviewing documentaries, particularly when I don’t find them particularly compelling. The reason is that they’re very difficult to judge and really quite different from non-documentary films, because they also require some fidelity to truth–they have to be held to journalistic standards as well as artistic ones, and there are only so many subjects on which I have enough knowledge to be able to make journalistic determinations. So, I have to do at least a little bit of research before I feel comfortable saying anything at all about a documentary. I read plenty of what I could find about Rodriguez after watching Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK 2012), so that I could feel reasonably confident that the film was presenting reality. For this film, I luckily don’t have to do research, because I know plenty about baseball already.

More importantly, this documentary isn’t even sure what it’s about, so I would have no idea what to research if I wanted to. The title suggests that it’s a documentary about the knuckleball, a rare and rather bizarre pitch that has been in use in baseball since the early 20th century but never been the most popular pitch. Fascination with the knuckleball has grown in the last few years with the rise of R.A. Dickey, who is one of the most well-spoken and interesting players in Major League Baseball, as a Cy Young award winner while throwing the knuckleball. One could make a film about the knuckleball examining issues like what its movement actually is and why it has never been terribly popular despite quite a few very successful practitioners in history (Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Joe and Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eddie Cicotte, just to name a few), and it could be very interesting.

However, Stern and Sundberg seem to be using the knuckleball simply as an excuse to tie together two otherwise unconnected stories: the career of R.A. Dickey and the career of Tim Wakefield. They are two interesting and well-liked players (and Dickey is a pleasure to hear almost any time–he’s well-spoken and has lots of great stereotypical nerd interests) and Wakefield was leaving the game just as Dickey rose from relative obscurity to prominence throwing the same pitch that had been Wakefield’s bread and butter for so many years, but it seems odd to title the film Knuckleball! and then barely talk about the pitch itself.

Even within its narrative about the two pitchers, the film feels very uneven. It spends a lot of time talking about Wakefield’s search for his 200th career win, but Dickey instead is mostly seen attempting to find his way out of a terrible slump. We see Dickey talking to other knuckleball specialists (Hough, the Niekros, and Wakefield) and talking a ton about how traditional pitching coaches don’t know how to help, but his career is covered very briefly. Meanwhile, Wakefield gets a long tribute that focuses on his successes, built around his ultimately successful quest for 200 wins.

All of this unevenness makes the film end up feeling like Stern and Sundberg wanted to make a documentary just about Wakefield’s final season but realized they needed to fill more time and so added in some stuff with Dickey. It’s unfortunate, because a serious examination of the knuckleball would be fascinating, and many of the issues that would be worth exploring get mentioned but not explored because of the nature of this film.

Visually, Stern and Sundberg fall into the traditions of sports documentaries, using simple interview shots and lots of montages that include far too many extra images of things like schedules and statlines. It’s a style that I’ve frankly never favored anyway, and it’s now been so overused as to lose any interesting elements it may once have had. The biggest positive of ESPN’s now fairly long-running 30 for 30 series has been its willingness to look a bit different–to let its directors run with some different techniques than the interview-montage back-and-forth and overuse of dull graphics that characterizes most of the field, and this film frankly reminded me of what a breath of fresh air some of those films have been because of that distinction.

However, the film does seem to play fair with the facts. It doesn’t gloss over Wakefield’s failures in his quest or ignore that he was demoted to the bullpen at the start of his last season. It doesn’t pretend that the longtime decent pitcher was released from the Pirates for no apparent reason but rather admits that he had a terrible season that led to his release. It doesn’t ignore Dickey’s struggles after his breakout (in fact it arguably makes Dickey look worse than he actually is). The problems with this film are all artistic, not journalistic.

Overall, this isn’t a very interesting film. It starts with what should be an interesting subject, but goes in a very dull way with it and ends up being something only of interest to a major Tim Wakefield fan. It’s a missed opportunity, which is too bad for viewers. It won’t make you sorry you spent an hour and a half watching it if you’re interested in Wakefield, but it won’t draw you in otherwise.