Make-Believe, Memory Failure

by Rob White

From Film Quarterly Winter 2008-09, Vol. 62, No. 2

Cry Me a River (Jia Zhang-ke)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

During a persuasive contribution to a Sight and Sound discussion event (“The Good Critic,” October 8th) in London, Cahiers du cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon contrasted what he termed “hot” criticism with the “cold” work of academic research. As a description of how film interpretation has become polarized, Frodon’s binary is hard to contest, but it should be mentioned that there are other kinds of writing and these need not be tepid or half-baked. Film Quarterly is committed to blending fluency with intellectual ambition. Therefore we publish carefully wrought pieces of an intermediate length, shorter than academic articles but longer than typical magazine coverage, aiming to appeal to specialists and nonspecialists alike.

Film Quarterly differs from most scholarly periodicals by often reviewing films (including DVD reissues) within about six months of release. Timeliness fosters productive debate and, to increase promptness and breadth, this quarter’s opening columns report on films shown at the recent festivals in New York (September 26-October 12, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and London (October 15–30, British Film Institute, my former employer).

Speaking of the columns, some design changes have been made in response to reader feedback and in the interests of at-a-glance intelligibility. There are now descriptive subtitles in the table of contents and, at the beginning of the columns reviewing festival or current theatrical releases, a preliminary listing of the films which are discussed in detail. (Please note that columnists’ reviews of new releases may, as with my remarks below about Waltz with Bashir and William Johnson’s about The Class, contain spoilers.)

It might be suggested that the punctuality policy is quaint in the age of instant-feedback blogging and other Internet commentary. This objection is easily countered: debate may be at its most fruitful in the period of time between the immediate online or newspaper opinion and the long-gestating scholarly response. Yet it is important to keep track of changing habits of argument. At the summer meeting of the Film Quarterly editorial board, there was discussion of how blog-ging and “wiki”-style postings might be altering critical practice. In order to examine this question further, this year’s call for papers (see the FAQ section of invites submission of collaborative texts that explore short-format film criticism in relation to the spontaneity, not to say impetuousness, of Internet writing.

On November 4, Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes, less than one percent of the total, and pollsters may already have determined whether the support video by cast members of The Wire (YouTube: “It’s Down to The Wire in NC”) had any impact on the result. Be that as it may, it is clear that with its fifth and final season the Baltimore crime epic helmed by David Simon at last broke into the mainstream. Christopher Hanson, Marsha Kinder, Ben Walters, and James S. Williams all discuss aspects of The Wire, which deserves to be called a TV masterpiece and a major work of recent American fiction in any medium.

Simon was a crime reporter for twelve years and his work with writing partner Ed Burns is notable for its painstaking research. (Interviewed by Richard Beck, he emphasizes the importance of the journalistic ethos to their latest project for HBO, Generation Kill, an Iraq War docudrama.) It is interesting, however, that the concluding season of The Wire takes fictional storytelling as a topic. Such “metafiction” is not unprecedented in TV drama (there is, for example, the rightly celebrated 2003 “Storyteller” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but here it is unusually sustained, even to the detriment of the The Wire‘s trademark realism. For the plot strand in which Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) plants evidence of an invented serial killer in order to syphon civic funds which he can then redistribute to cash-strapped investigations is uncharacteristically implausible. “You’re working murders that don’t even exist,” objects Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) in episode 5. “You start to tell the story; you think you’re the hero —, ” McNulty muses ruefully in episode 8, after things begin to go wrong. This strand entwines with two others—spin-doctoring by the mayor’s office, a reporter’s unscrupulous fabrication of interview material — to consolidate the theme. It is summed up in the last episode by mayoral aide Norman Wilson (Reg E. Cathey). “They manufactured an issue to get paid,” he says. “We manufactured an issue to get you elected governor. Everybody’s getting what they need behind some make-believe.”


Barroom allusion Left: The Wire © 2008 Home Box Office. DVD: HBO Home Video. Right: Homicide: Life on the Street, episode 24. © 1994 National Broadcasting Company, Inc. DVD: NBC Home Entertainment.

Pertinent here are The Wire’s numerous cross-references to other works. The fifth season alludes not only to past plot-lines, as when we see Poot (Tray Chaney) working in a shoe store, but also to a wider story world. In episode 8, actor Richard Beltzer is sitting on a barstool at Kavanagh’s. His character, Detective John Munch, migrated from Homicide: Life on the Street, the long-running ABC series based on Simon’s book about Baltimore police work, to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. “I used to run a bar,” Beltzer says, referring to the third season of Homicide in which he embarked on the venture together with Detective Meldrick Lewis, played by Clark Johnson, who is cast in The Wire as City Editor Gus Haynes … and proceeds to come down the stairs.

Of the films I saw at the London Film Festival, four stood out, one from Israel, another from the U.K., and two from China. Ari Folman’s “animated documentary,” Waltz with Bashir, is based on a video of the director’s attempt to recover his memory of being an Israeli soldier near the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp in 1982, when Palestinians were massacred by Christian militiamen. According to the pressbook, the video was developed into storyboards and preliminary illustrations which were then animated using Flash as well as traditional methods, although since there are dream and fantasy sequences in Waltz with Bashir I assume that certain sections originated at the storyboarding stage. The result is quite remarkable: the nightmares, hallucinations, and flashbacks are interwoven with talking-head commentary by interviewees (a memory expert, the journalist Ron Ben Yisahi, fellow soldiers) whose animated faces are eerie, lifelike but necessarily not quite themselves. An atmosphere of uncanniness prevails throughout. There are recurrent images of the nocturnal ocean. A yacht sails without lights as “Enola Gay” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark blares out of its sound system. An ambushed soldier swims for safety away from shore. And, repeatedly, Folman emerges out of the sea, his expression mysterious and pained; it is never entirely clear whether this is flashback, delirium, or an impressionistic combination of both.

How appropriate is the “documentary” tag for such an unusual film? Certainly Waltz with Bashir is not forensic or analytic. So, for example, while Folman makes room for the unproven and fiercely disputed allegation that senior Israeli commanders did not heed warnings that the camp’s occupants were in danger, his film does not probe questions of responsibility in the manner of an investigative documentary or, for that matter, a docudrama. Though they both deal with wartime atrocities, Waltz with Bashir is thus not like Andrzej’s Wajda’s solemn, commemorative Katyn (recently released by ITI Home Video in a Polish edition that has serviceable English subtitles), which dramatizes the 1940 Katyn Forest mass execution of Polish prisoners by Soviet troops. Katyn is a confident, patriotic, and pedagogic telling of history. Disturbed by obscure emotional undercurrents, Waltz with Bashir is epistemologically much more uncertain — it could be called “haunted autobiography,” closer to fiction than reportage, an experimental memoir somewhat like Philip Roth’s deceptively subtitled Operation Shylock: A Confession.


Witness to war Waltz with Bashir. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

In one dreamlike sequence, Beirut airport is bombed. Folman stands, dismayed, looking out on mayhem through an observation window. The scene is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s “photo-novel,” La jetée, another hybrid work with a detention camp and amnesia. “Of a truth too fantastic to be believed, he retains the meaning: an unreachable country, a long way to go,” says Marker’s narrator, and Waltz with Bashir is also a meditation on the terrors and failures of memory, with Folman remorsefully seeking to make sense of his inability to remember. Eventually a confidant proposes a solution: the guilt is unmerited, a legacy of experiences unrelated to the massacre in Lebanon. But this potentially therapeutic idea falls away as soon as it is formulated; we immediately watch Folman move out of the sea once more, this time walking on until he is faced with the aftermath of the carnage — and then finally we are confronted by contemporary images of the event. The archive footage comes as a shock, but not a catharsis or an epiphany. Nothing seems settled. Distress and horror persist. At the close of this superb film we are, as in La jetée, back to the beginning and a dumbfounding anxiety.


Orly trauma La jetée. © 1963 Argos-Films. DVD: Arte Vidéo (France).

Hunger is an unsparing account of the death by starvation of the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the first feature by British art star Steve McQueen, the 1999 winner of the Turner Prize. It is a box of tricks. There is no unifying aesthetic beyond bravura stylistic juxtaposition. Sometimes McQueen uses off-angle (or blurred) close-ups, as with shots of bloody knuckles in a basin (which reminded me of Bresson’s L’Argent); at others he uses very long and wide takes, as when a prison warder sweeps down a urine-soaked corridor. The effect is often startling, but looked at closely the ostentation can seem gratuitous or paradoxically banal. In one shot, the screen is split between (on the left) a slow-motion beating of a prisoner and (on the right) a handsome warder sobbing at the brutality. This is like some “edgy” fashion-shoot spread, too clever—and too melodramatic—for its own good. Later, as Sands wastes away, shots of his emaciated and ulcerous body are intercut with a rustic scene from boyhood. Are we meant to reconcile the anti-psychological body horror with the heartstring-tugging nostalgia? Flashbacks of this kind work well when they are used integrally in films like Time to Leave or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; in Hunger they seem like default ideas, even clichés.

Yet Hunger won me over with its verve. At one point we loom and hover over Sands’s death bed. The camera movement is neither shaky nor mechanically smooth. Struggling to describe it, the best I can come up with is that it is like the camera has been mounted on the head of a compliant and curious giant cobra. I was fascinated by the weirdness of this serpentine gyration. Yet perhaps the most powerful device in Hunger is much less demonstrative. Reversing the censorious tactic adopted by the British Conservative government during this period—forbidding U.K. broadcasters to transmit the speech of Irish nationalists so that one would see Sinn Féin spokespeople on TV but hear nothing of what they said— McQueen uses fragments of Margaret Thatcher’s combative speeches (“they have turned their violence against themselves”) over images of darkly silhouetted foliage. In these moments, a narrative film that successfully adopts the defa-miliarizing mode of conceptual art becomes politically charged, suggesting the ways in which rumor and folk memory, phantom voices of admonition and exhortation, weave fanatic spells.

Jia Zhang-ke had two magnificent new films in the festival, 24 City (a mostly fictional account of industrial change centering on a factory in Chengdu, southwest China) and the nineteen-minute Cry Me a River, set in an unnamed river town, where reunited college friends are paddled down the waterways in gondola-like boats. The idea that this is a pleasure trip is soon dispelled. Former lovers, now both married to other people, speak quietly about loss and yearning. “I’m with you every day … you’re the one I dream of,” says one. It is less a tourist jaunt than a version of the savage journeying that concerns Jia (see also Still Life, reviewed by Yvette Bíró last summer): separation, dispossession, hazardous migration, exile without return. One of the women in 24 City pays a terrible price in order to reach the Chengdu factory and as a result, she says, “my heart … was empty.” In these films, human bonds are always in the process of disintegration. There is no stability, the ties cannot hold.

The profound melancholy of Jia’s work is alleviated by a playfulness exemplified by the “spaceship” in Still Life and, less bizarrely, Joan Chen’s performance in 24 City as a worker who talks about Joan Chen. The clowning stress on artifice offsets the despair. But Jia also demonstrates a virtuoso minimalist lyricism that accentuates the underlying anguish. At the end of Cry Me a River, a boat is in the distance as a zoom-out begins so slowly as to be almost unnoticeable. The reluctant retreat occurs again, this time accompanied by plangent music, in a scene in a Retired Persons’ Cultural Room in 24 City. It is as if, each time, the camera were riveted by the pathos of its subjects, as if this were their last chance to be seen, and as if the filmmaker thus moved away with an absolute regret. The zooms continue nevertheless, acknowledging the transience these films lament.


Melancholy reunion Cry Me a River. Courtesy London Film Festival.