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by Bill Gibron

29 Jan 2009

It’s an exercise in memory, an attempt to recall the unfathomable and unimaginable. It’s animation taking the place of atrocity, the literal spoils of war witnessed in stylized, striking visuals. It’s the story of men who would rather forget, of a time two decades before when the Middle East was measured by chest-pumping challenges and baffling back and forth advances. It’s a documentary and a denouncement, an explanation and an exaggeration - and in the end, it’s one of 2008’s best films, a wildly inventive and shockingly effective cartoon trance that takes us deep into the heart of human darkness and then delves even deeper.

But there is more to Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir than the story of middle aged men confused by their turn in the Israeli army circa the early ‘80s. This is not just some explanation of how war is insane, allies are untrustworthy, and if one event can change an entire human being’s perspective on life. But Folman does fashion the kind of collective grieving process that puts us smack dab in the middle of an incongruous catharsis. On the one hand, our main character (the director himself), wants to uncover the meaning behind his frequent daydreams and half-hallucinations - the main one centering on a 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. But this is not just an investigative journey into truth. Thanks to the artistic approach Folman decides to take, the true nature of conflict is unmasked.

The narrative is fairly straightforward given the almost 3D nature of the animation. This is a talking head experience taken to indescribably new levels. Folman decides to question everyone he can about the Israeli invasion, concentrating on those who, like him, were scared, wide-eyed teenagers at the time. His travels take him to Belgium, where one former friend immediately shoots down his version of events. Another colleague describes the initial invasion, including an argument over a gun that gives the movie its unusual name. Finally, Folman finds a kind of consensus, and moves on to interview those people - officials, officers, reporters - who had first hand knowledge of the horrific events at Sabra and Shatila. In combination, Waltz with Bashir becomes the best of all possible documentaries - wildly entertaining, keenly informative, and wholly unforgettable.

Folman’s choice of mediums is part of the film’s inherent magic. The use of stylized images helps amplify the horrors these young men had to face. An opening dream involving ravenous, rabid dogs leads to a highly disturbing admission, while a later sequence involving an orchard, a division on alert, and a small boy carrying an RPG is particularly memorable. All throughout Waltz with Bashir, the use of animation takes the filmmaking to a whole new level, one that not even the most meticulous, visionary director could have achieved with an unlimited budget and a studio with the patience of Job. Certainly there are risks here. The concept of a cartoon taking on the terrible events in Lebanon during the early ‘80s may reek of blasphemy, but Folman makes it all work almost effortlessly. In fact, within minutes, we couldn’t imagine the movie any other way.

The results are so powerful that it’s hard to argue with anything done here. In fact, it all gives Waltz with Bashir a unique brand of tension, one that juxtaposes a kind of implied innocence with the true, terrifying vision of death and destruction. The work here is stellar, existing somewhere between the old rotoscoping process of the past and the deranged digital enhancement of films like Waking Life. Yet Folman doesn’t try to make the movements fluid. Instead, it’s as if every action in Waltz is accented with a deliberate, almost direct sense of static purpose. The backdrops, on the other hand, are just breathtaking. There is an intricacy and detail behind the design that recalls the best of anime in conjunction with an attempted neo-realism. The combination is cutting edge and very effective.

Indeed, all of Waltz with Bashir plays in such potent forms. We accept the animation element as novelty, initially, only to again learn it’s the only way this story could be told. We see the searching of our main character as an indirect symbol of the scars left by all conflict. The dreams definitely anchor the dichotomy between fact and fiction, and the final shots, coming at us suddenly and without warning, bring the horrors home in a way that no other format could fathom. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the success of Ari Folman’s artistic decisions here have as much to do with the inherent enchantment of the approach he takes with the intense and often unpleasant imagery he forces us to endure.

This duality is the final thematic statement made by Waltz with Bashir. It argues that all boys go into war innocent and come out corrupted. It points to the fact that both sides, heroes and enemy, leave with loses and a sense of purposeless destruction that can never be absolved. It suggests that all armed conflict derives from unclear policies with no predetermined end game or exit strategy, and that when push comes to shove, aggression is not about sovereignty. Sometimes, it’s merely a matter of blood justice - and the stains from said vengeance can linger long after the satisfaction has passed. And just like in animation, such righteousness is painting in radiant, rotting primary colors.

by Sarah Zupko

29 Jan 2009

Staff Benda Bilili croon beautiful harmonies accompanied by spare but perfectly suited instrumentation. This Congolese group of street musicians is comprised four elderly singer/guitarists and a young rhythm section, highlighted by a 17-year-old player of the one-string electric lute that he constructed himself from a tin can. These are musicians of extremely humble means who create startling warm and vital music from the barest of resources. Making their story even more poignant is that these artists are paraplegics and polio victims. It’s a compelling story for sure, but the music is superb enough to speak for itself. Crammed Discs will release Staff Benda Bilili’s debut in the US on April 7th. In the meantime, check out the first video, “Polio”, and a short documentary about the group.

by Alan Ranta

29 Jan 2009

Asthmatic Kitty can do no wrong.  Watch for Fol Chen’s Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made when it drops on February 17th, 2009. This is already the second video for the album, directed by one Nancy Jean Tucker.

Fol Chen
The Believers (Clifford Lidell Remix) [MP3]
     

by PopMatters Staff

29 Jan 2009

J. Tillman
James Blues [MP3] from Vacilando Territory Blues [20 January]
     

Steel on Steel [MP3]  from Vacilando Territory Blues [20 January]
     

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Youth Group
All This Will Pass [MP3] from This Night Is Ours [7 April]
     

Mazes
I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt [MP3] from Mazes [3 March]
     

Ra Ra Riot
Ghost Under Sun (Passion Pit remix) [MP3]
     

by Matt White

29 Jan 2009

The shadow of Pet Sounds loomed large on the Beach Boys after it was released in 1966. How do you follow-up one of the greatest, if not THE greatest album of all-time? Well, with Smile of course! But when that album failed to materialize, the record-buying public seemed to turn their backs on the Beach Boys in disappointment. Album sales dwindled and despite “topical” songs like “Student Demonstration Time” (and despite their beards) the Boys suddenly seemed out of step with the times. It’s in retrospect that people have begun to discover and appreciate their post-Pet Sounds albums and it’s about time. Although this period was famously a difficult time for Brian Wilson, it didn’t stop him from writing some fantastic songs.

In 1968 most of Brian Wilson’s days were spent locked away in his Bel-Air mansion. Friends, the album the Beach Boys released that year, included the song “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” written by Brian. It’s practically a diary entry, describing in detail a typical day in the life of its author. It is also a mess of contradictions. Starting with the title of the song itself, Brian seems to be trying to convince us (and himself) that he’s keeping busy when in fact he seems to be doing nothing much at all. It really reads like an answer to the question “What do you DO all day, Brian?”

“I had to fix a lot of things this morning / ‘Cause they were so scrambled / But now they’re okay / I tell you I’ve got enough to do”

Brian sounds like an unconvincing child in these first lines. Vaguely describing that he’s fixing things (what things exactly?) because they’re “so scrambled” and then for some reason hurriedly adding he has enough to do. It’s also interesting that the word scrambled is used as it conjures up the state of Brian’s mind at this time, which indeed could have used some fixing.

The next line starts with Brian telling us how busy his afternoon is but immediately he changes the subject to the weather. He seems to be trying to veer off from the question of what occupies his time.

“The afternoon was filled up with phone calls / What a hot sticky day / The air is cooling down.”

 

What follows next is truly one of the most bizarre moments in any Beach Boys song ever. It’s basically Brian giving you directions to his house. He leaves out street names but it’s still a weirdly detailed and candid description. According to the Friends liner notes, ”provided you knew where to start, you would’ve gotten to Brian’s Bel-Air house.”

“Drive for a couple miles / You’ll see a sign and turn left for a couple blocks / Next is mine / You’ll turn left on a little road / It’s a bumpy one / You’ll see a white fence / Move the gate and drive through on the left side / Come right in and you’ll find me in my house somewhere / Keeping busy while I wait.”

Later in the song Brian wants to make a phone call to a friend but can’t find the number, so what does he do?

“I sat and concentrated on the number / And slowly it came to me / So I dialed it.”

That’s right; he sits and concentrates on the phone number until he remembers it. The fact that the above line is an actual lyric in an actual song is exactly why I love Brian Wilson. And it gets better…

“And I let it ring a few times / There was no answer / So I let it ring a little more / Still no answer / So I hung up the telephone / Got some paper and sharpened up a pencil and wrote a letter to my friend.”

Such a great ending to such a bizarre and enjoyable song. On the surface the lyrics seem light and inconsequential and the music fits them perfectly; a bossa nova beat and soft flutes make the song so relaxed it’s almost lulling. But it all seems to hide an extreme loneliness; the unanswered phone call to a friend, going so far as to invite the listener over to his house, directions provided. It’s an amazing glimpse into Brian Wilson’s world in the late ‘60s and proof that the Beach Boys’ great songs didn’t end with Pet Sounds.

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