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H/histoire(s) et résonances de guerre(s) : témoignages littéraires et représentations ‎cinématographiques

Memory, Metatextuality and the Music of War

Mémoire, métatextualité et musique de guerre
Devin Harner
p. 319-336


Dans le cadre de cette étude, nous explorons la structure du film animé Valse avec Bashir, son esthétique et sa musique. Cette œuvre, qui traite des mêmes thèmes que ceux des reportages sur la guerre du Vietnam rédigés par Michael Herr pour le magazine Esquire (plus tard recueillis dans Dispatches), explore les limites du genre et montre les difficultés de présenter la guerre de façon conventionnelle. Cette représentation subjective et consciente de la guerre, cette esthétique peu conventionnelle aident l’artiste à mettre en avant la relation complexe entre la représentation littéraire et la réalité.

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1In recent years, three Israeli filmmakers (and former soldiers), have begun to treat the war in Lebanon in ways that are formally innovative, referential, and autobiographical.

2Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007) is set at the time of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. It tells the story of a small group of Israeli soldiers charged with guarding a historically significant, though by now tactically irrelevant, fort − incidentally called Beaufort − that was built during the Crusades, and captured by Israel in the 1982 invasion. Like both Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Beaufort represents war as pointless and absurd from the perspective of the soldier on the ground. The characters spend much of the film haunted by the death of a reluctant bomb defusing expert and contemplating their reason for being stationed at the fort, given Israel’s impending withdrawal. In addition to taking its cues from American films that address the Vietnam War critically, Beaufort is eerily reminiscent of the claustrophobic, dripping horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien, (1979), in which the characters are increasingly confused and dehumanized as they are chased around their spaceship, the Nostromo, by the largely unseen alien. As A. O. Scott notes in The New York Times:

  • 1 A. O.Scott, “Inside a Veteran’s Nightmare”, New York Times, 26 December 2008, para 1.

Beaufort may be, strictly speaking, a war movie, but for long stretches it feels more like science fiction. The small band of Israeli soldiers who are its main − virtually its only − characters inhabit a mountain outpost in southern Lebanon that might as well be a space station marooned in a hostile galaxy. 1

3Samuel Maoz’s all the more claustrophobic, Lebanon (2009), treats the early days of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It was described by one reviewer as “Das Boot in a tank,” and is based on Maoz’s own experience as a tank gunner in the Israeli Defence Forces.2 Although it does indeed evoke Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, given the physical confines of the tank and the fact that, although their mission is initially seemingly straightforward, ultimately, everything goes horribly wrong, Lebanon is particularly interesting in its aesthetic, wherein the camera appropriates the limited, low-contrast gaze of the gunner’s viewfinder. As Maoz the director revisits the war from the point of view of young Maoz the soldier, and reconstructs the war as seen, then, from within the belly of the tank, the perspective moves beyond the typical Hollywood subjugating gaze, assumes the actual vantage of a gun, and parallels the murderous camera of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).

  • 3 Franchise driven films such as Tomb Raider (2001), and Mortal Kombat (1995), are, of course, derive (...)

4But this seeming position of agency is soon inverted through the film’s action. When the camera switches between the hyper-mediated, constricting, in-tank scope perspective, and a more natural, panoramic shot, the viewer feels the terror of being forced to process a hostile world through paradoxical blinders, despite the immense power of the tank. The in-tank perspective of Lebanon also brings to mind the first person, “Point-of-View shoot ‘em up” videogames, and computer-based military simulators, popularized in the last quarter century.3 The perspective of the videogame filters back into a film that aspires to realistic conventions of genre. For the viewer, such a perspective appropriated from an interactive medium, results in a feeling of powerlessness and disorientation, given that we have agency in a videogame, via the joystick, which is lacking in the film.

5Perhaps the most formally interesting, and provocative, recent Israeli film that treats the war in Lebanon is the animated documentary, Waltz With Bashir (2008), which recounts director, and former Israeli soldier, Ari Folman’s attempts at conquering a war-induced amnesia, and remembering his role in the invasion of Beirut. As he interviews his now middle-aged comrades over shots and joints and coffee twenty plus years on, Folman explores the war’s impact on the individual psyches of the soldiers, and considers both his own, and Israel’s, complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacres committed by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists to avenge the murder of president-elect Bashir Gemayel. The film has won numerous awards, was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA, and received nearly a half-hour-long standing ovation when it opened at Cannes. The critical response has been, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive. Reviewers praise both its technical advances and its candor in treating a difficult subject. Complaints tend toward acknowledging that, although the film is a step in the right direction in its criticism of war in general, and of the war in Lebanon in particular, it is overly self-indulgent, and too focused on the existential pains of the invaders, rather than on the horrors endured by the Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila then (and, by inference, today, in Gaza and the West Bank).

Objectivity and allusiveness

  • 4 “Case Study: Waltz With Bashir”,,21 January 2009,

6Folman made traditional documentaries before venturing into the animated, excessively biographical referentiality of Waltz With Bashir. He also produced the original Israeli version of the hit U.S. HBO series In Treatment. Waltz With Bashir, appropriately, is psychotherapy, and a mix of three types of animation − Flash, classic, and 3D − that stylistically reference dark, angular and starkly contrasted graphic novels, videogames, and a strangely appropriate mix of eighties music videos, and the pastels, palm trees and almost too-blue surf of the U.S. television series, Miami Vice. In an interview with Cineuropa, Roiy Nitzan, the visual effects supervisor, stated that the film was shot on a soundstage from a ninety page script, and that the whole movie was then reconstructed or animated from the resulting footage. He points out, as well, that every bit of the film was newly animated, and that contrary to some reports, nothing was rotoscoped or drawn over.4 Nitzan is likely adamant about this point because, in its aspirations to the journalistic interview, and its measured adherence to the genre conventions of documentary, the idea of altering the somewhat objective reality of transcripts and interviews is taboo. That said, a good part of the film’s rhetorical power stems from the tension that arises because, although Folman’s subjects are captured on tape relating highly personal memories, their memories are at times fantastic and unsubstantiated. Perhaps because rotoscoping has historical associations with Disney films, and with the low budget Chinese and Russian folk cartoons of the sixties, as well as with Richard Linklater’s contemporary, digitally rotoscoped, and self-indulgent flights of science fiction fantasy like Waking Life (2001), and his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (2006), Folman wanted to avoid it.

7Waltz With Bashir is unique because it employs conventions like pastiche, bricolage, and hyper-allusiveness for the sake of, rather than at the expense of, objectivity. In fact, although the simple truth of the film may be that war is bad, and that it is traumatic for the soldiers who fight, as well as for the culture that is complicit in the fight from the seemingly safe confines of the home front, Folman parses meaning from the jumbled messes of the soldiers’ psyches. Through entering into a dialog with both similarly-themed global war texts, and contemporaneous bits of seeming pop culture ephemera, Waltz With Bashir’s subjective and fragmentary take on war achieves a universality rooted in a common history outside of the discreetly personal or the national history. In fact, both Waltz With Bashir’s formal innovation, and its hyper-allusiveness and slippery, constructed subjectivity for the sake of a seemingly paradoxically greater, implicit objectivity, are indicative of Folman’s connection to a tradition of formally and aesthetically experimental texts that treat war, such as Michael Herr’s landmark subjective, fragmentary reporting on Vietnam for Esquire that was later collected in Dispatches (1977), and Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary feature film about the war in Bosnia, Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), for example. In Dispatches, Herr, traveling with prodigal son actor turned martyred photojournalist, Sean Flynn, narrates a scene at a base far from the front where the troops are eating candy bars and listening to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, seemingly nonsensically and without purpose. Then he picks up the Ring Of Firetrope and references it in various capacities throughout the rest of the section, suggesting that traditional, linear, print narrative was not up to the task of adequately representing the horrors of war, and, more specifically, the impact of war, aside from just combat, proper, on the soldiers’ consciousness. Similarly, Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo employs contemporaneous music like the Stone Roses’ “I Want To Be Adored,” and Bobby McFerrin’s ubiquitously saccharin radio hit Don’t Worry Be Happy, ironically to create a narrative space in the film that, although particularly reminiscent of outside-of-the-war reality, is very different.

8Even as Waltz With Bashir self-indulgently probes the limits of an individual’s memory, it explores collective memory of other conflicts that transcends both its direct references to the holocaust and to WWII, and its in-the-moment representation of the war in Lebanon. In its latent use of specific pop culture moments in Cold War-era history, Waltz With Bashir critiques the war in Lebanon, and comments on the fluidity of memory, and, in doing so, it achieves much more in the way of universality.

9The film’s surreal dream sequences, and its over-the-top allusions to both Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and to eighties pop culture, are made possible by a unique combination of journalistic interviews and animation, which Folman uses to reconstruct his subjects’ necessarily subjective memories. As A. O. Scott both wonders and explains in The New York Times:

  • 5 Scott, op. cit., para 5-6.

Why did Mr. Folman, who has worked on more conventional documentaries in the past, decide to use animation in this one? The answer to the question is another question: How else could he have recorded dreams, hallucinations and distorted memories, his own and those of other veterans? […] The freedom afforded by animation − a realm where the prosaic standards of verisimilitude and the inconvenient laws of physics can be flouted at will − allows Mr. Folman to blend grimly literal images with surreal flights of fantasy, humor and horror.5

Because it is, after all, a cartoon, Waltz With Bashir also derives rhetorical currency from the degree to which it troubles our expectations of genre. The Washington Post’s film critic, Jon Anderson notes:

  • 6 Quoted in Elaine Martin, “Graphic Novels or Novel Graphics?: The Evolution of an Iconoclastic Genre (...)

As a filmgoing culture, our relationship to the animated movie is like our relationship to recess and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. […] regardless of how grim a cartoon, it’s somehow still umbilically connected to the brighter side of childhood. Our hard-wired inference is innocence. Which is why the animated Israeli documentary ‘Waltz with Bashir,’ a movie about memory, is as devious and subversive as it is brilliant and nightmarish. It’s a psychopathic teddy bear. It’s a shiny red lunchbox filled with plastic explosives. 6

10Despite a wide range of critical interest in Waltz With Bashir, the scholarship has, for the most part, neglected the film’s use of allusion and referentiality made possible through its animation, and has instead concentrated on its themes of complicity regarding the massacres, collective amnesia, and personal psychic trauma. Scholars have posited, as well, that the fantastic and surreal qualities of the film are best explained generally as trauma, rather than explored and explicated in-depth. Raz Yosef, who writes eloquently about both Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir in related essays, suggests that the films explore the traumatic rupture between history and memory, and reflect a nostalgic longing for a lost, or repressed, national history, and preserve

  • 7 RazYosef, “War Fantasies: Memory, Trauma and Ethics in Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir”, Journal of (...)

repressed traumatic events that have been denied entry into the nation’s historical narrative, and which he and the other soldiers feel duty bound to remember. This detachment from the national collective memory draws the film into a world signified by the constant blurring of historical context, as well as by private and subjective images, a timeless world of dreams, hallucinations and fantasies. 7

  • 8 Ibid., 316-321.

Yosef also employs Janet Walker’s notion of “disremembering”, a term “which describes the connection between reality and fantasy in cinematic representations of traumatic memory,” and notes that the soldiers’ memories are nonlinear, at times devoid of causality, and are best understood as a coping mechanism that comes about as a reaction to the trauma of war.8

11Although he explicitly connects Israel’s war in Lebanon to the U.S.’s war in Vietnam, Yosef does not delve into the film’s deliberate allusions and symbolic connections between the United States’ ill-fated imperialist endeavour, and Israel’s parallel entanglement in Lebanon. At the same time, though, in considering Folman’s concern with private subjective experiences, and explaining that, counter to historical or mainstream cinema, Waltz With Bashir moves out of the discourse of the nationalistic and into that of the individual, Yosef paves the way for our considering Folman’s collective, international pop-music-inflected dream vision culled from subjective memory as representative of a larger community. Folman asserts that war is bad, and that kids, the world over, would be better served by sex, drugs and rock and roll. This point may seem obvious, but the mechanism through which Folman explores it is worth unpacking.

  • 9 Yael Munk, “The Postcolonial Function of Television’s Virtual Space in ‘90s Israeli Cinema”, Framew (...)

12Scholars treat both the fantasy sequences, and the heavy-handed allusions, as a means to an end − trauma and repressed memories that are cathartic and/or subversive depending on the theoretical perspective chosen for their analysis. Ultimately, this mode of inquiry reduces the text to binaries regarding a dominant or state history and a subversive counter-narrative. For example, although she does not discuss Waltz With Bashir directly, Yael Munk asserts that the “reflexive mode of our postmodern era has demonstrated that a combination of the media in films can sometimes be critical in turning a seemingly innocent text into a subversive one”.9 Munk brilliantly employs the Deleuzian notion of lignes de fuite to suggest that Israeli cinema from the 1990s used on-screen televisions to present a counter history in which

  • 10 Ibid., 84.

the television contents represented in recent Israeli cinema do not have a complementary function with regards to the world (as they do in Hollywood cinema) but rather serve as a subversive alternative function that expresses, through images and ideas, all that cannot be expressed and/or represented in the film’s realistic Zionist diegetic world. These contents’ relationships to reality are deliberately distorted, sometimes using the fantastic genre, in order to reveal something that is beyond the recognizable time and space of the film. 10

13In Waltz With Bashir, Folman (the character) watches a cartoon version of John Lydon (A.K.A. Johnny Rotten) of the band, Public Image Limited, perform This Is Not A Love Song on televisions in a shop window. If we momentarily consider that Lydon’s presence on the small screen enables Folman to conflate teenage angst, a broken heart, and war, then Munk’s idea of subversion is amplified. Waltz With Bashir’s primary narrative does indeed subvert the dominant state narrative, but, as with the United States’ experience in Vietnam as represented by contemporary popular film, the subversive narrative has nearly supplanted the dominant one anyway. Instead, Waltz With Bashir engages in second order subversion by enabling a composite narrative resistant to such binaries. If the viewer accepts that the seemingly nonsensical in the film − be it John Lydon on a television screen, or a giant naked cartoon woman that appears out of the sea, or a house full of officers awaiting a terrorist in a red Mercedes watching German pornography involving a red Mercedes − is trauma, and reads it anyway, then we see that the film is not just a mediation on the fallibility or subjectivity of memory, but a map of memory that leads us to a narrative about youth, and about war, that is composite, communal, and paradoxically objective despite its form.

  • 11 TomCohen, Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural Studies” After Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin, Cambrid (...)
  • 12 Ibid., 4

14Although he is referring to theoretical interventions in cultural studies, the three-dimensional model of memory that Tom Cohen suggests in his introduction to Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural studies” after Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin helps us to understand referentiality, and the relationship between texts in terms that move beyond binaries. Cohen’s nonlinear model of memory in which textual semaphores “haunt,” “inhabit” and “bewitch” other texts is well suited for a discussion of the allusions in Waltz With Bashir, as well as for explaining the impact of the pop music soundtrack on the film’s overall sum narrative. Cohen sees “the materiality of language [as something that] lingers as a repressed trauma”.11 It is at these points of trauma that the listener is able to experience the composite text in a powerfully unique way. Because both songs, and the canon of Vietnam-set American war movies to which Folman alludes, exist in our collective memory and simultaneously act on the mind of the individual, there is another level of “bewitching” going on: the relationship between the self and the whole is problematized in a way that is somehow organic, and the experience of viewing and listening to the film achieves further dimensionality as it cues mnemonic events on a whole other axis. Cohen suggests that textual events inscribe themselves on later texts as “virtual interventions,” and attributes this process to external factors not within “the private crypt of memory”.12 From this perspective, Folman’s memories, and the memories of his comrades, combine with bits and pieces of animated, referential reconstructions of real eighties pop videos, and scenes lifted from Apocalypse Now, to form a hazy, bifurcating collective narrative that transcends just the war in Lebanon.

Music and collective memory

  • 13 JohnEsther, “Waltz With Bashir: An Interview With Ari Folman”, Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine (...)

15Aside from the allusions, a good deal of Waltz With Bashir’s extratextual, rhetorical heavy lifting comes from its soundtrack. The film employs an instrumental score by Max Richter, original ballads, recognizable, mostly contemporaneous, pop songs, anachronistic covers of pop songs, and, appropriately, some classical waltzes. As he notes in an interview with Cineaste, Folman had little interest in, or knowledge of, the eighties pop music that fills the film, and the choice of masterful pop songs was the work of his editor, Nili Feller.13 Perhaps Folman is being modest, but it is clear that Waltz With Bashir would be a far different film with another soundtrack.

16I do not want to belabour what most viewers inherently know: that film music works in tandem with, and contributes to, the narrative to create mood, and to impact us emotionally, and, that recognizable pop songs with a narrative of their own, do so perhaps more profoundly and mysteriously. In Hearing Film (2001), a study of how pre-existing pop music functions in film, as opposed to composed scores or traditional soundtracks, Anahid Kassabian, differentiates between composed (including songs with lyrics or instrumental music written specifically for the film) and compiled (employing pre-existing popular songs) scores. Kassabian suggests that the former lead to an assimilating identification for the spectator that sets us down a discrete path narrowly defined by the film’s narrative, whereas the latter offer us a more open-ended and inclusive affiliating identification, in which factors in our lives, and in history, are brought to bear on our experience of the film. Kassabian charts the proliferation of compiled scores since the eighties, and notes that compiled scores

  • 14 Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, New Y (...)

 [w]ith their range of complete songs used just as they are heard on the radio […] bring the immediate threat of history […] it means that perceivers bring external associations with the songs into their engagements with the film. 14

  • 15 Think of the Shrek movies, and of most Hollywood PG-13 films, for example, that offer allusions, pu (...)

The use of the term “perceiver” in place of “spectator” is interesting, because it brings a degree of flux or tentativeness to the spectatorial experience. Perception is fluid and cannot as easily be universalized. In this distinction, Kassabian points to an inherent flaw in most spectatorial theory, and dispatches with it, by presenting the notion that compiled scores, with their affiliating modes of identification, open up other narrative threads in the film that the perceiver is free to follow, or not. For the perceiver with the requisite knowledge to get the allusion, or the song’s narrative, or original context, an additional plane of meaning is possible.15

17In a later essay collected in Ian Inglis’s Popular Music and Film (2003), that is particularly relevant to our discussion of Waltz With Bashir, Kassabian suggests that recent cinema has begun to manifest

  • 16 Anahid Kassabian, “The Sound of a New Film Form”, in Ian Inglis (ed.), Popular Music and Film, Lond (...)

a new film form: one that is not linear, but iterative, and shared by techno and videogames but not symphonies and novels. A new film form in which narrative is not primary, but equal, if not subordinate, to the sensory experiences of sight and sound. 16

Waltz With Bashir employs music to pull the reader into the action of the scenes, however nonsensical, and to trouble notions of historicity and temporal reality. Listening to music is an opaque act in which we can engage in our own lives’ narratives, while still apprehending the text, in contrast to film and literature, where we must more fully suspend our disbelief for the sake of remaining sutured into the text’s action. Therefore, when we hear music, our lives’ narratives continue while the song is happening, and the music achieves a currency in a way that it does not in other textual encounters, as it allows our prior extratextual experience to bleed over into the spectatorial experience. The film derives power from the extent to which the front is haunted by the cultural capital of the home front, and this haunting is made possible, in part, through Folman’s strategic employment of pop music. Like Herr and Winterbottom, as Folman alludes to other texts about war, musical or otherwise, he invites the spectator to read multiple narrative threads at once, and to consider the war in Lebanon in tandem with other twentieth-century conflicts. Paradoxically, while the music anchors the film in its original historical moment, or tries to, it also highlights the fact that histories, like memories, are subjective and fallible.

Love and war

18Pop music is initially employed in the film’s first invasion scene. The setting transitions abruptly like a high contrast, overly-stylized eighties video, from the sterile and stark winter Belgian farmhouse setting of the film’s present, to the eroticized blues of the war-time Mediterranean past. The scene’s narrator, Carmi, explains that he imagined that they would ship out on a “Love Boat,” a reference to the ubiquitous U.S. seventies T.V. series, in which Isaac and the rest of the crew of the Pacific Princess attended to aging Hollywood B-listers as they embarked on PG-rated romance and kitschy hedonism. As the narrator misremembers, or rather remembers, his dream, in that he tells us that he dealt with his fear by escaping into sleep and hallucinating on the ship’s deck, the film recounts his fantasy for us, and shows us a pleasure boat complete with celebratory soldiers, and the contemporaneous Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s synth-pop song, Enola Gay (1980) playing in the background. The soldiers on the deck of the “Love Boat” sing along, and the feel of this scene contrasts both the Belgian winter present, and the dark skies, angular architecture, and feral dogs of the film’s opening scenes. It feels, instead, like a post-disco discotheque.

19Folman’s use of Enola Gay is noteworthy for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it is pop from the early days of synthesizers and sequencers, when electronic music was still in its infancy, and had a simple, almost childish sound and structure devoid of sexuality. For the listener, Enola Gay feels intuitively appropriate, given that this scene’s narrator is both a literal virgin, and a combat virgin who likely came of age listening to O.M.D. while imagining sex and war in the abstract. It is fitting, as well, that the song’s bleak, pre-sexual, and antiseptic longing is for a past rather than for a person, and that the longing is manifest intellectually, rather than physically. Enola Gay was, of course, the Boeing B-29 that carried the atomic bomb codenamed “Little Boy” to Hiroshima at the End of World War II. O.M.D.’s lyrics are straightforward and sparse like their rhythms. The singer puns on “little boy” and almost whispers: “Enola Gay, is mother proud of little boy today / Aha this kiss you give, it’s never ever gonna fade away.” The song evokes a mood that is simultaneously technologically-induced post-apocalyptic, and distinctly, paradoxically, technologically dependent. Electronic music, like animation, is the product of the very atom that destroyed the Japanese cities and ended World War II, the atom that paved the way for the transistor, the semi-conductor, and the silicon chip. The chip, then, makes the music that is figuratively post-organic, and pre/post-sexual, and that distills our collective fears and anxieties in the Cold War-era world down into something danceable and cathartic.

20In its original historical context, Enola Gay served as a gentle protest, and as a reminder of the perils of atomic proliferation, just after Margaret Thatcher allowed Ronald Reagan to put U.S. missiles aimed at the Soviet Union in England. However, the use of Enola Gay in this scene both fixes the soldiers and the viewers in the historical moment of the invasion of Lebanon, and ties that history to parallel conflicts of differing magnitudes. At the same time, though, in the narrative, war is sexualized, counter to the song, ecstatic, and danceable − as in the scene from which the film takes its name, featuring one of the narrators, Frenkel, “waltzing” across a street in Beirut dotted with burnt-out buildings, and dodging sniper fire with his machine gun blasting away sexually. As the “Love Boat” scene continues, the narrator’s subconscious desire is again literally manifest onscreen, as in Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction classic, Solaris, where the dark depths of the subjects’ minds are made real, and rendered physically, by the sentient planet. The narrator recounts dreaming that a woman comes from the sea and “takes [him] for the first time,” and, as he speaks, a giant woman with a dark features appears, pulls him from the ship, and backstrokes away with him riding on her belly like a surrealistic anime soft core porn scene, mixed with a seventies Hanna-Barbera children’s cartoon like The Great Grape Ape Show.

21At this point, implicit sex is juxtaposed against explicit violence. The narrator recounts “I saw my best friends go up in flames right before my eyes,” as the “Love Boat” is bombed from the air. Despite what has been seen onscreen, and recounted subjectively by Carmi, the viewer realizes that the vessel was not a “Love Boat,” but a regular warship, and that the Lebanese, likely, had no air force with which to retaliate against the supposedly covert fantasy “Love Boat” anyway. What we see, as remembered in error, represents a teenager’s conflating of war, sex, and adolescent adventure against a soundtrack that is, necessarily, pre-sexual, in that the burden of the fear of Cold War-era Mutually Assured Destruction, and the AIDS epidemic, made sex and war both pointless and dangerous. O.M.D., after all, is the music of mathematically-inclined, technologically induced pleasure versus organic, human-centred pleasure, which makes it particularly well-suited for a film that technologically manipulates “reality” for the sake of making it “more real.” The use of Enola Gay is all the more appropriate, because the video for the film is rotoscoped, and presents another narrative thread in its parallel conflating of an ominous Cold War future with both the hazy memories of a great war past, and with unrequited adolescent longing.

22Music is next foregrounded during an overland invasion scene which brings to mind the pastoral, cowboys and Indians, the frontier, and the trope of country-personified-as-lover (inverted here as the enemy). The colours are desert tans, khakis and grays, neither oppressive nor necessarily bleak. The narrator describes the countryside from the soldiers’ perspectives high atop tanks as they play air drums along to the music, and keep the rhythm on the tank’s bonnet. The lyrics are melancholy and wrought with ambiguity. As Navadei Haucaf’s specially written Good Morning Lebanon plays, the setting looks like it is part advertisement for a Mediterranean summer holiday, and part a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western complete with a folky harmonica:

Lebanon, good morning
may you never feel pain
your dreams shall come true
your nightmares will fade away
all your life - genocide
you're torn in shreds, bleeding in my arms
you’re the love of my short short life, Lebanon.

The sing-along is interrupted when what looks like a honeymoon-bound, “just married” Cadillac convertible straight out of the American South gets stuck between two tanks, and a festive blue balloon blows off in the wind. The scene quickly changes to the city, and darkens as tanks roll over cars, go down dead-end alleys, and comically make three point turns as they scrape and crush buildings like a child’s videogame version of war. The pastoral juxtaposed against urban chaos is notable, because it implies that the soldiers are acting out memories culled from the fictive historical Western as represented cinematically, as much as from real, lived history. Folman further explores this device of borrowing his characters’ animated memories from fictive pop cultural history, and renders the cliché of life imitating art lethally in the next invasion scene. The film riffs on the “Charlie Don’t Surf” sequence in Apocalypse Now, where Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore makes his troops surf “Charlie’s Break,” and shouts out encouragement through a megaphone while bombs fall and flares smoke all around them. When a soldier asks Kilgore: “Don’t you think it’s a little risky for R&R,” he replies, “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach.” He then starts to take off his clothes, orders a napalm strike on the tree line inland of the beach for the sake of cover, and prepares to surf himself.

23In Waltz With Bashir, the Israeli soldiers trying to hold the beach in Lebanon seem to be remembering their own experience run through an Apocalypse Now filter. One soldier stands on the beach and plays rock and roll air guitar on a machine gun with a bright turquoise sea in the foreground. Another rides what looks to be a body board in an approximation of Kilgore’s surfer adjusted for weak surf. Yet another smokes a joint. Someone fries an egg on a burnt out APC. The narrator talks about hanging out in a hut made out of banana leaves, and about Frenkel’s use of patchouli as “not just a fragrance, but a way of life.” Bombs go off all around them at a rapid clip so as to approximate time-lapse. The scene might appear to offer the viewer a bit of comic relief, with the discourse on patchouli, and the eighties pop video look and feel, but the relative light-heartedness is complicated by Folman’s choice of music.

  • 17 The video for Zeev Tene’s “Beirut” features the forty-something Tene dressed as a soldier complete (...)

24The aforementioned surfing, and carnage, is set to Zeev Tene’s Beirut, a straightforward rock and roll cover of the U.S. band Cake’s much more ironic, I Bombed Korea, from 1994’s Motorcade of Generosity.17Because the original song is slightly politically engaging, it is out of character for a band best known for ironic and gleefully meaningless pre-millennial swagger, and for a deadpan cover of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. I Bombed Korea is supposedly based on singer Mike McCrea’s drunken encounter with a Korean War veteran at a bar one night. Writing a song with meaning is noble, but such themes are ill-suited to Cake’s lounge-style performance, instrumental noodling, and lyrical vacancy. Although Tene reworked the song as Beirut, the film is haunted by the viewer’s memory of the original song − and by Korea as a seemingly anachronistic subject. As we watch, and listen, we are subtly encouraged to connect Beirut and Korea symbolically, and to draw parallels rooted not just in the horrors of war, but in past U.S. imperialistic endeavours.

25Tene’s Beirut also differs from Cake’s Korea in its pace and tone. While the original song’s delivery seemed detached and almost indifferent to the message of its lyrics, Beirut is up-tempo, gruff, and folk-like. It is also militant in a manner reminiscent of late-70s British punk and Oi bands (some with nationalistic and anti-Semitic undercurrents). In his use of a song that is symbolically part of the ironic soundtrack to nineties post-Gulf War I peacetime American slackerdom, coloured by the Israeli experience in Lebanon then, Tene makes us think of another conflict, another decade, and another generation without peace. This compounded notion of peace between wars is furthered by the fact that, although Tene strips the song of its original reference, Korea still haunts Beirut. Finally, Tene processes Cake’s original song, yet again, and through inference evokes the contemporaneous post-punk music that the soldiers might have actually listened to in Lebanon in 1982. Perhaps more interesting, the song, as performed by Tene, is rough, aggressive and nationalistic, and relies on its lyrics for its irony.

  • 18 Desert Patrol also brings to mind the classic Hollywood Western, Desert Patrol (1938), with its cli (...)

26Folman next employs pop music anachronistically when his onscreen, cartoon self returns home from the front on “shore leave,” and dreams of winning his girlfriend back, while John Lydon appears singing Public Image Limited’s This Is Not A Love Song, which was not released until 1983. The scene is peaceful, and accelerated, as kids play Defender and Desert Patrol at the arcade, and a man relaxes, nonchalantly, with his Vespa. It is suggested, implicitly, that Folman, and the rest of the soldiers, should be living this life, and this sequence of scenes further calls attention to the slippage between the front and the home front. The videogames Defender and Desert Patrol point ironically to the war, but they are also indicative of the degree to which the soldiers’ preconceptions of war were informed both by Hollywood movies such as Apocalypse Now and by videogames.18 Additionally, we cannot help but think that tomorrow’s soldiers are today’s adolescents shovelling money into arcade games and eating at Wimpy Burger.

27Although This Is Not A Love Song is anachronistic, and takes not “love,” but selling out, as its subject, it nonetheless lends an air of authenticity to the film because it allows us to conceive of memory as bifurcating, recursive, and nonlinear. As P.I.L. plays, and Folman’s 1982 incarnation strolls around Tel Aviv, Folman’s present-day narrator talks about love, and historical combat, with the music serving as a catalyst. He flashes back and recounts being ten years old, wanting to talk to a girl, and being locked inside while their fathers were away at their war. As he talks, the scene changes to an earlier past, and a younger Folman is about to kiss a girl before being called inside, abruptly, by his mother as war gets in the way of normal adolescence. The scene dissolves into another scene where a marginally older, acne-ridden Folman finally gets to first base with the girl before being called inside. As he narrates: “We were just waiting for a plane to drop the bomb and kill us all … nobody ever dreamed of going outside,” the song provides the continuity, and John Lydon’s angry post-Sex Pistols snarl furthers the idea that for Folman, both adolescent existential despair and sexual frustration were emotionally connected to the psychic trauma brought on by the war − both his war in the film’s recent past, and his father’s a generation earlier. When the scene flashes forward again, we learn that Folman’s girlfriend dumped him the night before “all of this started” (meaning the war or his shipping out). In a flash to the present, we learn, as well, that Folman’s friend, fellow soldier and interview subject was also involved with the same girlfriend. As P.I.L. continues to play at a discotheque, he sees her dancing and is confused that “life is carrying on normally.” The viewer is unsure if the girlfriend or the war is the source of his misery. However, in truth, as throughout the film, the two are interconnected, for, a few scenes later, he is back in Lebanon and hoping to die so that she feels guilty.

28As the film builds to a climax in its last half hour of exposition, Folman’s narrator explains, sardonically, “while I was fantasizing about my death, we approached Beirut.” In light of the previous discussion, it is noteworthy that pop music is absent from the scenes showcasing the invasion of the city, and the urban combat in which “old people are watching the violence as if it were a film”: the murder of Bashir Gemayel (which does not happen onscreen, although the narrator reacts to it, and states, regarding the Phalangists, “Bashir was to them what David Bowie was to me”), and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Most of the dream sequences and surrealism stop as well and Folman transitions, necessarily, back into the mode of the real. Folman is faced, ultimately, with representing the film’s inevitable conclusion − the massacres − based on a well-reported history.

  • 19 There are moments in the film when McCandless, as a carefree 20th Century hobo, seems destined to d (...)

29 This is the problem of the documentary filmmaker, who, like the hard news reporter, is both guided and constrained by fact. As in Sean Penn’s biopic adaptation of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild (2007), which treats the death of the real-life adventurer Christopher McCandless alone in an abandoned bus in Alaska, the viewer knows how the story ends.19 Similarly, in the closing moments of Waltz With Bashir, when the animation stops, leaving us facing real-life news footage of the massacres, wailing women, still pictures of corpses, and a chain hooked maniacally to a truck, we cannot help but wish for another naked cartoon woman to backstroke through the calm Mediterranean. Or for another pop song to save us from history. In this, Folman pulls the viewer into his own foggy collective memory as it clears, and shows us, finally, that for him, and for us, there is no escape from history, and that the only appropriate music at the end of the film is silence and a fade to black.

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Selected cinematic and musical references

CAKE, “I Bombed Korea”, Motorcade of Generosity, Volcano, 1995.

CEDAR Joseph, Beaufort, Kino, 2007.

Coppola Francis Ford, John Milius et al., Apocalypse Now, Paramount, 1979.

FOLMAN Ari, Waltz With Bashir, Sony, 2008.

HELLER Joseph, Catch-22, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Herr Michael, Dispatches, New York:Vintage, 1977.

KRAKAUER Jon, Into the Wild, New York: Random House, 1996.

LEM Stanislaw, Solaris, trans. Steve Cox & Joanna Kilmartin, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

LINKLATER Richard & Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly [Motion Picture], Warner, 2006.

LINKLATER Richard, Waking Life, Fox, 2001.

MAOZ Samuel, Lebanon. Sony, 2009.

O’BRIEN Tim, The Things They Carried, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

ORCHESTRAL Manoeuvres in the Dark, “Enola Gay”, Organization, Virgin, 1980.

PENN Sean & Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild [Motion Picture], Paramount, 2007.

PETERSEN Wolfgang, Das Boot, Columbia, 1981.

POWELL Michael, Peeping Tom, Anglo Amalgamated, 1960.

PUBLIC Image Limited, “This is Not a Love Song”, This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get, Virgin, 1984.

SCOTT Ridley, Alien, Twentieth Century Fox, 1979.

Winterbottom Michael, Michael Nicholson et al., Welcome to Sarajevo, Miramax, 1997.

Works Cited

“Case Study: Waltz With Bashir”, 21 January 2009,


Cohen Tom, Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural Studies” After Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Esther John, “Waltz With Bashir: An Interview With Ari Folman”, Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema, 67 (Spring 2009), 67-68.

Kassabian Anahid, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, New York: Routledge, 2001.

Kassabian Anahid, “The Sound of a New Film Form”, in Ian Inglis (ed.), Popular Music and Film, London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Martin Elaine, “Graphic Novels or Novel Graphics? The Evolution of an Iconoclastic Genre”, The Comparatist,35 (2011), 170-81.

Munk Yael, “The Postcolonial Function of Television’s Virtual Space in ‘90s Israeli Cinema”, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 49.1 (2008), 83-92.

Scott A. O., “Inside a Veteran’s Nightmare”, New York Times, 26 December 2008, C1.

TooKey Chris, “War is Hell– and Here’s the Proof”, Daily Mail, 14 May 2010, <>.

Yosef Raz, “Traces of War: Memory, Trauma, and the Archive in Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort”, Cinema Journal, 50.2 (2011), 61-83.

Yosef Raz, “War Fantasies: Memory, Trauma and Ethics in Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir”, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 9.3 (2010), 311-26.

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1 A. O.Scott, “Inside a Veteran’s Nightmare”, New York Times, 26 December 2008, para 1.

2 ChrisTookey, “War is Hell − and Here’s the Proof”, Daily Mail, 14 May 2010, <>, para 2.

3 Franchise driven films such as Tomb Raider (2001), and Mortal Kombat (1995), are, of course, derived from videogames. The videogame aesthetic influences The Matrix series as well.

4 “Case Study: Waltz With Bashir”,,21 January 2009,

<>, para 8-9.

5 Scott, op. cit., para 5-6.

6 Quoted in Elaine Martin, “Graphic Novels or Novel Graphics?: The Evolution of an Iconoclastic Genre”, The Comparatist, 35 (2011), 177-178.

7 RazYosef, “War Fantasies: Memory, Trauma and Ethics in Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir”, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 9.3 (2010), 316.

8 Ibid., 316-321.

9 Yael Munk, “The Postcolonial Function of Television’s Virtual Space in ‘90s Israeli Cinema”, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 49.1 (2008), 83.

10 Ibid., 84.

11 TomCohen, Ideology and Inscription: “Cultural Studies” After Benjamin, de Man, and Bakhtin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 1

12 Ibid., 4

13 JohnEsther, “Waltz With Bashir: An Interview With Ari Folman”, Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema, 67 (Spring 2009), para 9.

14 Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, New York: Routledge, 2001, 3.

15 Think of the Shrek movies, and of most Hollywood PG-13 films, for example, that offer allusions, puns and sex jokes for adults, while being suitable for family consumption, or of the double-entendres in rock songs essentially about sex.

16 Anahid Kassabian, “The Sound of a New Film Form”, in Ian Inglis (ed.), Popular Music and Film, London: Wallflower Press, 2003, 100.

17 The video for Zeev Tene’s “Beirut” features the forty-something Tene dressed as a soldier complete with dog-tags standing in the foreground against news footage of the actual invasion, and other nondescript shots of urban warfare like actual clips of bombed out airplanes that appear as animated in the film, as well as the bomb’s-eye view shots that came to prominence during the first U.S. Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. The only thing that dates the song, and Tene, as a product of the 21st Century, and not of Beirut in 1982, is the sleek white headphones of his iPod dangling from his ears as he sings along to his own song, at times menacing and at times jubilant. Like the time traveller in Chris Marker’s experimental French film La jetée (1962), which imagines the apocalypse through the lens of WWII, Tene seems all at once to be in the moment of the war’s present, now past, and a product of the future, and of the future’s perspective on the past. The video is an apt metaphor for Waltz With Bashir generally − in terms of both its stylistic innovations and the way in which it treats history and our collective cultural memory of conflict.

18 Desert Patrol also brings to mind the classic Hollywood Western, Desert Patrol (1938), with its clichéd frontier notion of good guys and bad guys.

19 There are moments in the film when McCandless, as a carefree 20th Century hobo, seems destined to defy his fate preordained by history − when he’s riding the rails and Roger Miller’s jubilant ode to tramping, “King Of The Road” plays, for example. This scene seems worlds away from McCandless’ death by starvation, and accidental poisoning, in the Alaskan wilderness at film’s end. And the viewer is left longing for one more verse of mid-century, nostalgic freewheeling musical bliss for the sake of stopping history.

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Devin Harner, « Memory, Metatextuality and the Music of War »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. X – n° 1 | -1, 319-336.

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Devin Harner, « Memory, Metatextuality and the Music of War »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. X – n° 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 13 mars 2012, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Devin Harner

Devin Harner codirects the Journalism Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York, where he teaches reporting, film and British and American poetry. He blogs about new media and journalism education for PBS’s In addition to his journalistic work, he has published scholarly articles on the Belfast-born poet and memoirist, Ciaran Carson, on novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s non-fiction, on Spike Jonze’s film, Adaptation, and on virtual time travel through YouTube. His current book project focuses on the contemporary American poets Philip Levine and Gary Snyder.

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