Saturday afternoon. Lazy day. Let’s hit a movie.
The mental process that follows can go (or in my case: has gone) something like this: You’re lying on a sofa, staring at the ceiling, thinking about sitting in a darkened theatre, eating jujubes. Cue the voice in your head, “What about that mall cop movie? Or the one about the weird blue naked guy? Hang on. Weren’t they saying something about a great foreign film on NPR? I should see that. Expand the mind. Wait. Foreign. There will probably be subtitles. Reading and watching at the same time. Too hard to eat popcorn. Not today. Okay. Mall Cop.”
This is no diss against Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I would totally go see that movie. Truly. But too frequently movies (like anything good) become an escape. It’s ironic considering that the film industry is based on a mechanism (the camera) that was invented to capture reality. Instead, we immerse ourselves into a fantasy world, dosed with wish fulfillment and distraction. Too often the movie that’s difficult or challenging disappears from theatres before we’ve even heard of it. But sometimes it’s worth reading those subtitles. Sometimes it’s worth sitting through that challenging movie. Sometimes films are demanding in a way that forces us to experience our humanity. The brilliant filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky wrote that, “The function of the image is to express life itself, not ideas or arguments about life. It does not signify life or symbolize it, it embodies it, expressing its uniqueness.” With that in mind, two movies are currently playing in Austin that are very much worth a Saturday afternoon.
The Class is a French film directed by Laurent Cantet and based on the semi-autobiographical book by François Bégaudeau. The movie received the Palme d'Or (the highest prize awarded) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been praised by critics around the world. Following the course of one academic year in an inner city Parisian public school, the movie stars Bégaudeau as a teacher who struggles with his restless students. Just as Bégaudeau’s character is flawed, his students are complex and insightful in surprising ways. Shot primarily in close-ups with a handheld camera, the film never leaves the school’s campus. The effect is immersive and suffocating. The slow burn that results left me feeling as if I had experienced life with these characters. There is no overarching narrative to the film, no single Hollywood through-line. Just as life is full of daily battles lost and won, so the film depicts a series of events that surprise the viewer with their delicate honesty. Most of the students (played by non-actors) are immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, or the Middle East and the moments between the characters are raw and intimate. There’s no hero, everyone is flawed and the story is far from tied up in a neat bow. Instead, the film poses unanswered questions about teenagers, race, immigration, and the public school system. Painful mistakes are made and progress is miniscule at best. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor. What she writes about Christian writers may just as well apply to any artist, “he may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one.”
Waltz with Bashir is a film that indeed reflects “the face of the devil we are possessed by” and in so doing nearly defies definition. Anthony Lane, the wonderfully entertaining film reviewer from the New Yorker, describes the film thus, “a movie so unusual that it overflows any box in which you try to contain it. Call it an adult psycho-documentary combat cartoon and you’re halfway there.” An animated documentary, the film follows its director (filmmaker Ari Folman) in his attempts to reconstruct events during the 1982 Lebanon War. At the time, Folman was a 19-year-old infantry soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Towards the beginning of the film (which takes place in present day), he discovers that he has no memory of the war in which he fought. A dream-like investigation follows that takes Folman to friends, therapists and other veterans in order to piece together his shattered memory. Of particular focus is the Sabra and Shatila massacre where Israeli Defense Forces allowed the Lebanese Phalangist militiamen to enter two Palestinian refugee camps and massacre the civilians inside. By some accounts, over 3,000 people were killed. Many of the soldiers Folman speaks with were 18 and 19-year old boys unaware of the massacre inside the camps. The veterans are plagued by visions and fears that Folman recreates with the freedom of his lyrical animation.
Folman’s film is at times surreal, heartbreaking, and provocative. It’s a dense ride, a vivid portrait of the harsh reality of war, and not recommended for children. Says Folman in an interview on the film’s theme, “Any war everywhere is useless… It’s just young people moving from one place to another shooting no where and nothing good can happen.” Putting his final word on the debate between challenging cinema and escapist Hollywood, Folman recalled to Time Out London a meeting with famed producer Harvey Weinstein at the Cannes Film Festival. After Weinstein praised Waltz with Bashir, says Folman, “he asks me what I’m doing next, and I tell him that I want to do an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s ‘The Futurological Congress,’ and he’s not interested at all. After two minutes he says, ‘You know what? You should do the next Bourne Identity film. You were born to do Bourne.’ Then I got up and walked out the door.”