An Abdication of Human ResponseArts — POSTED BY Adam Gyngell on November 10, 2009 at 10:39 am
Adam Gyngell considers Waltz with Bashir and the role technology plays in the abdication of human response in times of war.
Ari Folman asks his friend why, twenty years down the line, he is now having this surreal dream from the war in Lebanon. Why can’t he remember the occasion this vision so powerfully depicts? His friend tells him about a famous psychological test, in which people are shown ten photographs from their youth, and asked if they recall the events shown in the photos. Nine of the photographs are genuine; one however, shows the young participant surrounded by the trappings of a fair ground. Eighty per cent of participants, Folman is told, declare that they remember the day vividly: being taken round by their parents, eating candy, going on the rides. Except that they weren’t there: the figure of the child has been superimposed onto a scene they were never present in. The mind, confronted by such seemingly objective ocular proof, revises its own uncertainties: memory displays the versatile and beguiling capacity to rewrite its own contents into conformity with the evidence.
The photographer, thrust into the heart of such carnage, allows his eyes to replicate the hardened, unblinking gaze of the camera, the artificial eye…War, as the Italian futurist Marinetti declared 50 years earlier, has become an aesthetic triumph of technology over man, a proliferation of images – an abdication of human response
The falsified photograph is a controlling image through out the fragmentary and fractured narrative of discovery in Waltz with Bashir. Folman’s film becomes a troubling reflection of the way in which technology has alienated man from his own humanity. A psychiatrist Folman later meets relates to him the story of a young amateur photographer called into action in the Israeli-Lebanese war. Wondering how the man maintained a steady head despite the brutality, he tells her that it was easy – the whole war become one long day trip – the bodies, the bombs, the devastation, all were composed in his mind as striking pictures, vivid snapshots. The photographer, thrust into the heart of such carnage, allows his eyes to replicate the hardened, unblinking gaze of the camera, the artificial eye. He merely sees the horror; he is not there in person, he is detached. War, as the Italian futurist Marinetti declared 50 years earlier, has become an aesthetic triumph of technology over man, a proliferation of images – an abdication of human response.
As we stare into the glazed-over eye of the dead horse, we see that the young soldier no longer sees what is around him, but feels it. Denied the mediation of his psychological ‘camera’ vision, he is sickened by a horror that is all too primal
Folman’s friend Boaz looks through the crosshairs of the sniper rifle at his target as if watching a television screen. Photographically framed, the dogs he aims at cease to be living beings. Pulling the trigger, Boaz shoots the image, not the dog. The sniper’s sight enables him to distance himself from the act of killing; the shooter is able to evacuate his own agency, to transform his own situation into a simulation. This is why the photographer the psychiatrist talks about finds that his defence mechanism – appropriating the cool and unaffected vision of the camera lens – breaks down when faced with the agonizing scene of the maimed horses slowly dying. The horses represent the intrusion of the organic into the sterilized detachment of the mechanical. As we stare into the glazed-over eye of the dead horse, we see that the young soldier no longer sees what is around him, but feels it. Denied the mediation of his psychological ‘camera’ vision, he is sickened by a horror that is all too primal.
The very same technological advancements that provide us with more efficient ways of killing each other have, thoughtfully, given us new means of distancing ourselves from the depersonalized destruction they cause. Armed with machine guns and MAGs that rip the fabric of the air with interminable rounds of bullets, the Israeli recruits can remove themselves from the scene by imagining their trigger fingers are clicking a camera rather than unleashing deadly fire. Technology becomes a medium of disengagement. War demands human sacrifice in more ways than one. The technology of war dehumanizes the battlefield; soldiers, consequently, are compelled, not only to dehumanize their opponent, but to void themselves of their own humanity. Ari and his fellow soldiers ride around firing blindly into the enveloping darkness of night; when he is asked what they are shooting at, he replies, “I don’t know. Anything. Everything.”
The very same technological advancements that provide us with more efficient ways of killing each other have, thoughtfully, given us new means of distancing ourselves from the depersonalized destruction they cause
Waltz with Bashir tracks the director’s efforts to find someone who can bear witness to the massacre. Every individual he talks to has at best a partial recollection of where they were, what they were doing, who they were with. Ari initially thinks of memory as a store-house of extinguished experiences, a lasting record of the lives we have lived. He soon discovers that memory is a survival mechanism, relying on the censorship of self-erasure for efficient operation. Memory, like a digital camera, can delete its files. This is why the choric response of all the veterans he interviews adopts the same computerized jargon for describing their self-enforced amnesia: “it’s not stored in my system.” In a technological age, memory must assimilate itself to the machine to ensure its survival. That technical, mechanized response betrays the inhumanity of their experiences of war. Forced to act like a killing machine, and not a human, the brain responds by refiguring itself as a hard-drive: trauma is translated into data-loss.
The modern era has come to see technology as an objective guarantor of truth. Technology, unlike the inconsistent, emotional, illogical human subject, carries with it the self-assured air of empirical certainty. The tapes we use can remember with fidelity conversations we have long forgot; the films we watch can immortalize scenes that have slipped into oblivion; the cameras we click can capture infinitesimal details the naked eye overlooks. Technology embodies the perfect objectivity that Western science has long aspired towards – the objectivity that our frail, physical limitations have long prevented us from attaining. Yet if technology is objective, it is also an objectifier, turning subjects into objects, people into things. The camera lens treats all things, animate or inanimate, within its range as objects alike. Frozen on film, the camera refuses to distinguish between the smiling baby, the birthday cake and the table it sits on. The camera transforms everything in its scope to petrified stillness – just like the guns that turn humans into corpses, subjects into lifeless lumps of flesh.
Mediated through the cartoon, war becomes just as unreal and unreachable as it does to those young Israeli soldiers called up to fight. Animation exquisitely captures the dissolving images and hallucinations that haunt the minds of those involved, decades later
Folman’s choice of graphic animation is fundamental to the film’s presentation of modern war. Animation enables the audience to experience a corresponding feeling of detachment from the horrors of war so explicitly visualized in the film. Presented with the callous execution of innocent women and children, animation makes the senseless and bloody violence that much easier to stomach. Mediated through the cartoon, war becomes just as unreal and unreachable as it does to those young Israeli soldiers called up to fight. Animation exquisitely captures the dissolving images and hallucinations that haunt the minds of those involved, decades later. Several soldiers attest that they are unsure of whether these phantasmal visions are subconscious, suppressed projections of real events, or whether they are memories simulated by a troubled mind. One solider Folman meets invokes a nightmarish scene of a wasted battlefield. “It was like a trip, like LSD, but it was real”: for the soldier, struggling to articulate in words the image inscribed on his memory, the ‘reality’ he recalls can only be explained as a hallucination, as a chemical imbalance of the brain’s synapses. Perhaps this is why Carmi anaesthetizes himself with steady pulls on endlessly rotating joints. Forced into the unwelcome act of remembrance by Folman, he seeks to dull his senses in the pacifying haze of marijuana smoke, to make things less real by means of chemical assistance.
Andy Warhol declared that “once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again”. Technology supplies that angle, and takes away an inconvenient reality. This is the experience that J.G. Ballard call de-cerebration. Driving cars, watching screens, firing guns – the individual finds himself no longer prompted by personal needs and desires. He feels his brain to be a motor, issuing directions to a body that resembles an apparatus. This is the disconcerting anxiety that the characters in Waltz with Bashir experience, that the psychological test exposes: it is not only our bodies but our sentimental lives that can be mechanically programmed. Warhol stated that he could not imagine being in love – surely it would resemble a made-for-TV movie, with faked rapture and flimsy scenery. The same dissociating numbness affects the Israeli soldiers. They cannot imagine being at war: instead, it resembles a photograph, a film, a cartoon.
Technology equates itself to truth. But it is a truth that has been voided of human significance, a truth that depersonalizes and dehumanizes. In Folman’s film, the sole person who can bear witness to the submerged horrors of the massacre, crucially, is not a soldier but Roni, the war reporter for Israeli television. It seems fitting that is only from behind the artificial eye of the camera, through the mitigating mediation of the television screen, that the full savagery of the atrocity can be felt. It is significant that the end of Folman’s road towards remembrance and revelation comes not in the animation that has provided the medium for the film’s hazy, hallucinatory fragments of memory, but in real, documentary footage. The film’s stark and sickening conclusion – images of piles of dead bodies filling doorways, limbs of suffocated infants poking through the rubble, overlaid with a cacophonous soundtrack of howling widows – has a visceral immediacy that the rest of the film studiously avoids. Confronted with this horrific reality, we are denied the ameliorating strokes of the cartoonist’s pen that have, to that point, provided a surreal glaze to the film’s phantasmagoric recollections. “What if I don’t want to know these things about myself?”, Folman asks a friend. The film’s final scene shows the camera refusing to baulk at sights the human eye instinctively shirks away from. It is a mortifying token of war’s inhuman capacity to disregard human life. It is also a shocking reminder of technology’s inhuman incapacity for emotional response. Faced with this final picture of desolate horror, we are more forgiving of the convenient amnesia of Folman and his comrades.
© Adam Gyngell, 2009
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