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Thread: Waltz With Bashir: Post-Traumatic Therapy

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    Waltz With Bashir: Post-Traumatic Therapy

    Waltz With Bashir: Post-Traumatic Therapy
    Oscar Jubis
    30 March 2009


    Filmmaker Ari Folman met his old friend Boaz at a bar one night. Boaz described a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. Boaz concluded that it is connected to the Israeli Army mission during the 1982 Lebanon War in which both Boaz and Folman participated. At this juncture, Folman realized that he didn't remember anything about that mission. This bothered him. Waltz with Bashir concerns the process by which Folman recovered his memories of that army mission.

    I imagine that someone else in Folman's position might want to leave things intact given the disturbing nature of Boaz's dreams. However, the belief that what we repress from our consciousness will return to haunt us sooner or later is almost unanimous amongst psychologists. Perhaps Folman is aware of this. More specifically, I believe that, for Folman, forgetting a part of his life is akin to not having lived it and thus being unable to learn from it and fully acknowledge himself. All he remembers about his war experience is the furloughs and he feels compelled to remember the rest.

    His process of memory recall involves tracking down and having conversations with former comrades in arms. As a result, Folman recovers a dream image in which he is one of several Israelis, wearing nothing but tags and machine guns, wading in shallow water towards Beirut's hotel strip. More subconscious phenomena and conscious recollections experienced by Folman and comrades follow, all of it drawn by Folman's collaborators in a style that resembles rotoscope animation.

    Selective forgetting or partial amnesia like Folman appears to experience is typically caused by an experience of such intensity that it overwhelms our faculties to perceive it and integrate it cognitively. In his introductory lectures on psychoanalysis at the University of Vienna during WWI, Freud acknowledged that neuroses are not only based on internal or psychic phenomena. They are also caused by combat and other intense events.

    Folman's journey of memory restoration and cognitive integration ends in Sabra and Shatila. Those are the names of adjacent Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut. The event that triggered Folman's selective amnesia turns out to be the massacre of Palestinians that took place there in September of 1982, shortly after the assassination of Phalange party leader and President-elect Bashir Gemayel.

    Near the beginning, Waltz with Bashir ponders whether cinema is therapeutic. Since the main goal of therapy is to bring the subconscious into conscious knowledge, the making of this film obviously had a therapeutic effect on Folman. Insofar as we are able to become conscious of something about ourselves through the experience of others and our responses to representations of the world on film, watching Waltz with Bashir can be therapeutic.

    Once the Sabra-Shatila massacre is revealed as the traumatic event responsible for Folman's psychogenic amnesia, he does two things: place it within a historical context and ponder the degree of Israeli complicity and responsibility (and, implicitly, his own).

    To the extent that we know something, we know it in relation to other things. So it is imperative to contextualize the massacre in order to understand it. There are two sides to this feature of the human process of understanding. In Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman places the massacre at the Sabra-Shatila camps in relation to Auschwitz, the Nazi camp where his parents were interned, and the Holocaust. On the positive side, connecting and relating one with the other enriches and deepens our understanding of the world. On the negative side, making this association between historical events causes both to lose some of their particularity and specificity. Because of the enormity of the Holocaust and its singular characteristics, some might feel offended and betrayed by Folman's linking it with the Lebanon massacre.

    Folman seems most adamant in attempting to understand who is responsible for the massacre. His representation of events underlines that it was members of Gemayel's Phalange party who carried out the massacre. However, Folman suggests that Israelis provided "cover" to the Phalangists and assisted them by firing flares into the air so that they could see in the middle of the night. He's not sure whether he fired any flares. Given the dynamic nature of memory, as explained by a psychiatrist Folman interviews, he may never know with certainty.

    Folman's journey from subconsciously repressed experience to acknowledgement and understanding concludes in a sequence of prodigious emotional impact. Animated images yield to archival footage of Palestinian women publicly expressing grief and outrage the morning after the massacre. It's a moment I won't soon forget.

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    Folman's journey of memory restoration and cognitive integration ends in Sabra and Shatila. Those are the names of adjacent Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut. The event that triggered Folman's selective amnesia turns out to be the massacre of Palestinians that took place there in September of 1982, shortly after the assassination of Phalange party leader and President-elect Bashir Gemayel.
    This comes midway in your review; I put it in my first paragraph, where I think it belongs. It's the heart of the matter.

    It's important to realize that Folman does know very well what happened. The events are well known and well documented and have been widely discussed for 26 years. He simply doesn't remember them, at least not initially, in the recovery process the film describes.

    You talk about the comparing of the massacre of Palestinians to the Holocaust.
    On the positive side, connecting and relating one with the other enriches and deepens our understanding of the world. On the negative side, making this association between historical events causes both to lose some of their particularity and specificity. Because of the enormity of the Holocaust and its singular characteristics, some might feel offended and betrayed by Folman's linking it with the Lebanon massacre.
    I am offended on behalf of the slaughtered Palestinians by your saying such a thing. Are we rating massacres here? But this is a complex issue and itís easy to get lost in it. On the other hand, comparing the two events is indeed inappropriate because it does damage to both events or, as you dryly put it, causes both "to lose some of their particularity and specificity." However, many who are pro-Israel, Bernard Lewis in the article cited below, consider comparisons with the Nazis wrong and unjustified in this context. Such a comparison is in a sense pointless, because the events are so dissimilar, and it only comes up because of either a desire by some to vilify the Israelis for their complicity in the massacre, or the Israeli's own natural obsession with the Holocaust.

    In one way the comparison of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis and the massacre of the Palestinians directly or indirectly by the Israelis is extremely relevant. The Jews were the victims of a Holocaust, and now they in turn are in the process of carrying out a long, slow Holocaust against the Palestinians. The scale is different, but the brutality and the desire to exterminate (euphemistically referred to now as "ethnic cleansing") are the same. And this parallel is deeply ironic, as well as horrible and tragic.

    WALTZ WITH BASHIR is a vivid and effective film and I was clear that it was worthy of attention, but it also made me very uncomfortable because the focus wasn't on IDF war crimes but on how much they or their consequences upset the members of the IDF to commit them. They arranged a massacre, oh dear, how upsetting to them! Wow! How detached, clueless, and self-absorbed can you get? But for Folman, whose heart I believe now is in the right place (he is doing the best he can), this was the only way to get at the experience and the fact of the 1982 war and the massacre.

    However, that was not very comforting. But I felt a lot better when later I heard Folman interviewed on the radio and he said that his experiences had turned him into a total pacifist. I wish he had made the other side of things clearer, instead of focusing only on the "trauma" of killing people. What about getting killed? Is that a "trauma"? No, it's a lot worse than a trauma. There is scant (if any) identification with the Lebanese victims the IDF soldiers mowed down, more disturbed by killing horses in the hippodrome than by machine gunning mere Arabs.
    Folman seems most adamant in attempting to understand who is responsible for the massacre. His representation of events underlines that it was members of Gemayel's Phalange party who carried out the massacre. However, Folman suggests that Israelis provided "cover" to the Phalangists and assisted them by firing flares into the air so that they could see in the middle of the night. He's not sure whether he fired any flares.
    No, he's not sure what he himself did; I'm not sure that it should matter to us, though of course it matters to him. But your summary is misleading. Again, in fact it's well known that the IDF arranged for the massacres and provided cover for them; Folman himself cites Sharoin's refusal to do anything to stop it, and Sharon has admitted as much himself, for which he's been indicted by an international court in Brussels for this war crime.

    Of course Israeli soldiers died in the 1982 war too, as is dramatically illustrated by the story of the veteran who recalls running away from his unit and surviving when everyone else was wiped out by the Lebanese. You do not allude to this, though it is a vivid passage of the film.

    We agree on the ending. Folman has been criticized for breaking the style and mood with the post-massacre film, but I think it is right and essential finally to break the mood and show actual events. This is the only clue that Folman recognizes what's most important is what was done, and not his memories. We agree that this ending with the actual footage is stunning in its effect.

    Obviously Folman's making of the film was a therapeutic process, and your focus on that is highly relevant. But we are discussing a film and your failure even to use the word "animation" in discussing it is an inexplicable oversight. Animation, the film's distinctive look, is essential to the therapeutic recreation of memory and nightmare -- and more relevant than Freud's lectures after World War I. The animation is an essential and valuable element of the film because it allows imaginary and the actual, memory and fact, to be overlapped in a seamless and coherent way, and the film's animation has a stark, striking look that makes us remember it.

    Of course not all aspects of the 1982 war or the Sabra and Shatila massacres are agreed upon. But the background is not as hazy as your review unintentionally implies. See the Wikipedia article on the "Sabra and Shatila Massacre."
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-01-2009 at 01:03 PM.

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    I reviewed this as part of the NYFF 2008 but it's a good idea to start a new thread on it because it's been showing theatrically in the US for some time and by now has been seen widely. I was going to start one myself.

    Here's my review from last October:


    ARI FOLMAN: WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

    [Review by Chris Knipp]

    Recovered Israeli memories of the 1982 Lebanon war in animation arouse mixed feelings

    What Ari Folman's calls his "animated documentary" follows a film director who's having trouble remembering a massacre that occurred while he was serving in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War in the early '80s. He tries to fill in the gaps by tracking down his old comrades. Eventually he recreates the Sabra and Shatila massacres as seen from his and his comrades' point of view.

    The look and the content of this film are harsh and the emotional effect is ultimately powerful, though the subject most of the way though is the numbing down of Israeli veterans who have been involved directly or by proxy with the wholesale killing of Arab civilians. In combat revived memories show the soldiers like zombies, unaware of what they're doing, shooting in all directions without even choosing targets. In contrast to their numbness and indifference, the background music is as loud as an 80's disco; perhaps intentionally: the year of the war is 1982--the height of the disco era. Film music includes a chilling Israeli song that boastfully begins "I bombed Sidon/Beirut today...." For contrast, too often, a Bach keyboard concerto, the same one Glenn Gould used for the background of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1972, is blasted forth.

    A lady psychiatrist the film director meets with tells him that soldiers' "disassociating" from combat horrors is a common psychological phenomenon. Ironically, the thing that makes one Israeli stop "disassociating" during the invasion of Beirut is entering the hippodrome and observing a massacre of Arabian horses. Mowing down humans didn't affect him.

    The director also spends time on several visits with a pot-smoking comrade based in Holland who's become rich selling falafel (an Arab food, one might point out) and lives on a posh estate near Amsterdam. He and the director get stoned together and remember. Various other 40-something Israeli army vets appear--animated talking heads whose memories, when they come back, are also in turn animated and shown. One describes abandoning the invasion on his own, going AWOL in effect, and by doing so inadvertently surviving when most of his unit was wiped out by the Lebanese, while he lay hidden for a long time in a zone where all were presumed dead, then swimming in the calm ocean until, exhausted, almost unable to walk, he comes up on the beach and inadvertently rejoins his own regiment. He has previously repressed most of this experience because of thinking himself a coward who had betrayed his comrades.

    The titular sequence concerns a particularly macho squad leader who in central Beirut under heavy firing, borrows back the automatic weapon he favors and goes into the street, dancing around, firing in all directions while snipers fire from above, yet surviving. At this time Bashir Gemayel, the new Lebanese President, had just been assassinated, which was taken as a signal for the Israelis to step up their attack. At this time they were allied with the Lebanese Christian Phalangist Militia. The Phalangists subsequently were allowed to go into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on the pretext that there were several thousand Palestianian "terrorists" still hiding there. They killed at least 800 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. The Israelis knew this, and did nothing. The film reports one soldier calling Ariel Sharon to tell him, and Sharon saying merely thanks for the information, happy new year.

    This is the climax of the film, the massacre, seen from a safe distance, but with analogies to Nazi murders and the Warsaw ghetto and with a few seconds of live actual video footage of loudly wailing Palestinian women after the massacre going back to witness what has happened and saying over and over to the camera in Arabic (not translated) "Photograph this, bear witness!"

    This animated film will appeal to some for its originality and specificity to the experiences of a few Israeli soldiers. It is probably also notable for the accuracy of its representation of the tanks and weaponry and uniforms of the Israeli army of the period. What gives it a bad taste for me is its totally Israeli focus. The concern is not so much the massacre as the guilt feelings of the Israeli soldiers for having allowed it to happen, and, most of all, on their repression of any sense of guilt or even memory of the 1982 Lebanon war. It is they who have suffered, in their eyes; the dead horses matter more than dead Palestinians. (They would perhaps not see this.)

    One writer (Onion A.V. Club) with some reason links Waltz with Bashir, for its "dreamy, meditative rhythms," to Linklater's Rotoscoped Waking Life--and questions whether it would be of as much interest if it were live-action. In fact the value and point of the animation is that Folman can recreate the recovered memories of the soldiers--just as they remember them. He, that is the director, initially remembers absolutely nothing (But do actual film records exist? Surely they do). Perhaps the film is correct in not making any political point, perhaps not. It seems like raw material, the experiences it refers to still not fully digested and understood, the larger political context left undefined. This is of course a film that would be experienced very differently in various Israeli, Lebanese, or Palestinian settings, and might be wasted on some American audiences. Note the A.V. Club writer's question. But at least what we have here is a strong artifact, the only one in the New York Film Festival, of the torment that is Middle East politics.

    The film is in Hebrew with English subtitles. Subsequent to its October showing in the NYFF it will be released by Sony Pictures Classics starting December 26, 2008.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    You talk about the comparing of the massacre of Palestinians to the Holocaust. I am offended on behalf of the slaughtered Palestinians by your saying such a thing.
    What I say is that: "because of the enormity of the Holocaust and its singular characteristics, some might feel offended and betrayed by Folman's linking it with the Lebanon massacre." That's not the same as saying that the comparison is offensive or that I am offended and so should you. I'm saying that the necessary connections we make between events as part of the natural process of understanding something has both positive and negative consequences. I'd like to add that my professor, who happens to be Jewish, highlighted the positive outcomes of such comparisons as a way to make Israelis aware of the deplorable nature of the policies of their government. He referred specifically to the settlements in Palestinian territory and the recent events in Gaza. However, I wanted to acknowledge that a significant segment of the Jewish diaspora and many non-Jews would be offended and perturbed by certain parallels made in the film between the Holocaust and the events in Lebanon.

    But we are discussing a film and your failure even to use the word "animation" in discussing it is an inexplicable oversight.
    I quote from my essay:
    "More subconscious phenomena and conscious recollections experienced by Folman and comrades follow, all of it drawn by Folman's collaborators in a style that resembles rotoscope animation.

    Animation, the film's distinctive look, is essential to the therapeutic recreation of memory and nightmare -- and more relevant than Freud's lectures after World War I.
    I don't dwell on Freud's groundbreaking lectures (essential reading, by the way). But for the purposes of my essay, I found it important to mention in the sense that it's the first instance in which the post-traumatic effects of war were acknowledged by an intellectual authority.

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    I realize the Holocaust-comparison issue is a thorny one. It's better not to touch it. I have to point out that "some might feel offended" is really just an indirect declaration of offense. If there is no offense, or the offense might be at the taking of offense, better to stay off the topic.

    I apologize for failing to notice you'd used the word "animation" after all, and it is indeed rotoscope-like at points. I still wish you'd said more about it as a device useful for the psychological investigation. I don't question the interest of Freud. I'm glad there's still interest taken, given how influential he's been. It makes sense. It was rather your dry tone that bothered me, in matters of such violent emotion and inhuman cruelty, not to mention war crimes, which you do not refer to or even seem quite aware of. But primarily I used my comment as a vehicle to try to further clarify, probably at too much length, my reservations about Folman's film. Your review is without any element of criticism of the film or the sensibility underlying it. Nonetheless as I stated your topic is directly germane to the film's own stated intentions.

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    An Experimental Use of Animation

    I won't go into any commentary regarding the politics of the movie. Instead I watched it from a cinematic standpoint. For a while and most of the first half of the movie the creative animated techniques used in this movie seemed to dazzle and elicit awed like experiences, like when using 3-D glasses for the first time. However, by the last half of the movie, especially during the documentary-like interviews, I felt disappointed and more removed by the use of animation and felt that live action would have been better suited for these interviews than animation techniques.

    It's fascinating to note the one comment regarding the ending and the transition from animated and live footage which I intellectually understood, but the transition failed to have its desired emotional impact with me. There was no suggestion of the primary character in the live footage, no hint of a soldier's brief shadow of a body...so that the one animated scene seemed very disconnected with the following live action scene.

    Two movies that seem to have been able to use animated/live action sequences effectively include: KILL BILL Vol. 1 (2003) and
    RUN, LOLA, RUN (1998).

    Overall, the music was awesome and beautifully in sync with the movie, the animation creative but almost too manipulatively fascinating for its own good.

    A SCANNER DARKLY (2006) was probably one of the best uses of this animated technique and the sci fi genre also was more suited and compatible to the animated composition of the film. Whether or not WALTZ WITH BASHIR might have been able to more effectively intersperse the dreamlike memory recall scenes with the use of animated shots with live action is difficult to say. But the attention to little animated details in this movie, especially background details is probably some of the finest around to date.
    Last edited by tabuno; 07-21-2009 at 12:24 AM.

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    Rotoscoping.

    I was troubled by the politics at first but I do think that the quality of the images holds up. I'm not sure I like alternating regular photography with animation but blending the two can work nicely. i like animation sometimes when it is used for adult, philosophical material, like Linkleter's Waking Life. And I agree on A Scanner Darkly. They do relate to Waltz with Bashir.

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    Animated Documentary

    While I enjoyed WALTZ WITH BASHIR for a while, it suddenly became more about style than content, especially when the focus began to become more documentary interview format. When the director presented me with an animated person being interviewed and his recollections, the animated versions seemed almost a caricature and a fantasy or imaginative version of reality rather than what the plot outline was really striving towards which was developing and recalling a authentic and real remembered events by the end of the movie which in fact the ending scene becomes. The use of animation was very effective, especially when our lead character attempted to describe his dreams, which in many ways are like animated scenes, ghostly phantasms. Yet, our human way of perception for making harsh and difficult political statements while sometimes effective as political cartoons, it usually becomes much more emotionally devastating when real life-like pictures are experienced. like those recorded from Kent State Shootings or Vietnam War with the naked little girl, it is such images that truly burn in our memory not animated substitutes.

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    I get what you're saying, but the animation makes it possible to represent certain events that could not be shown on film of actual places. And however the images may provide a certain detachment, possibly of a useful sort, the content seems pretty darn strong to me all the way through.

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    Animated Reality

    I agree and thought the same thing about how animation enables the director to present a scene in ways that supposedly cannot be replicated by other means (at least ecomomically). However, after a time, while I was dazzled by the background detail of the animation that is rarely seen in film, I began wondering how this movie would be if it had been shot in a documentary format and live action style. Several contemporary war films have been very effective in bringing to life the horrors and human conflict of war such as PLATOON (1986), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), JARHEAD (2005), SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993), and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). In the end, I thought that either

    (1) the use of animation was more of a gimmick, or

    (2) that the animation format wasn't the most effective technique to get the story across to the audience, or

    (3) that because of the cost of live action, it was cheaper (though it's hard to tell nowadays) to shoot it in animation, or

    (4) that the director was hoping that the use of creative use of animation along with the ending live action footage would cement the concept of making something vague like a dream (animation) into the journey of making something real, a geniunely clear memory using live action would justify the extent of animation used in the movie.

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    I agee particularly with your points #3 and #4. There are many sequences of the Lebanon 1982 war that do not exist on film and which Folman could not have begun to afford to recreate, and would not have wanted to spend all his efforts on recreating. But apart from that, it's important that his subject is really not the "actual" events (whatever they may be) but the men's lost and then recovered memories of them. His focus is psychological, and I assumed that was why both you and Oscar were particularly interested in this film.

    Several reviewers have, in contrast, objected to the use of actual footage of the aftermath of Sabra and Shatila at the end of 'Waltz with Bashir.' I am not sure if I do or not; it is what it is. On the one hand, it is justified in the sense that this is the one unquestionable atrocity that the whole investigation leads up to, and since it is important to acknowledge it as an absolute fact, regardless of denials and memory erasures, maybe concrete evidence of it should be displayed. But on the other hand the blurry footage is stylistically jarring and aesthetically unsatisfying, to me. My immediate reaction on seeing this film at the NYFF was to reject the whole thing. How dare this Israeli act as if the confused memories or uneasy consciences of his fellow veterans were more important that all the slaughtered Lebanese and Palestinians? But then when I heard Folman interviewed in NPR and he said his experiences had made him into a total pacifist, I decided that he wasn't such a bad guy.

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    Having been trained in film school, I find "rotoscoping" difficult to watch as animation. This is the Ralph Bakshi school of animation (came out of the 1970's) when Disney and other studios began the downward slide to oblivion and produced such forgettable hits as "Fox and Hounds." Ralph Bakshi came along, put actors in front of blue screens, filmmed them on props with costumes and tried to pull it off as animation. I didn't like rotoscoping then and I really can't stand to watch it now. I could only watch the opening of this movie until I wanted to throw up. The violence depicted is another story, but this criticism relates to the technical side of the film and not the subject matter.

    The subject matter is another story. Oscar and Chris discuss this film on other levels that involve both the psychology of the artist and the politics of war. That is understandable because they look at this film from an intellectual point of view. However, as a person who loves animation and storytelling, rotoscoping demeans the artform. I wouldn't care if they were stick figures dancing around on the screen, I can appreciate the hard work of the artist doing that. But when it comes to shooting actors and then passing it off as animation... I just can't. Sorry.

    I know too many starving artists who slave over workboards, drawing everyday or infront of computer screens, spending hours to make a figure or background just right to accept what the rotoscope person does in minutes by outlining a form and turning the film into a negative image, laying down a color and then turning the film into a positive image (its opposite color) and calling that animation. It ain't.
    Colige suspectos semper habitos

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    Rotoscoping

    In A SCANNER DARKLY (2006), the use of rotoscoping seems to be a great fit for the sci fi subject matter, being eerie, weird, and strange and being able to blend and fuse the strangely psuedo-animated forms and shapes to the storyline. I would agree that by its nature rotoscoping seems to be a bit odd and out of character as an art form. I would seem that its use in many instances wouldn't be really a nice consistently seamless film experience for most stories and genres. So personally, I would take rotoscoping as a limited art form that lends itself to a certain narrow scope of storylines and cinematic endeavors.

    I also like what Chris Knipp had to say about the animated premise of WALTZ WITH BASHIR which seems to offer a reasonable explanation of the technique used for this movie.

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    Let's be clear, though. WALTZ WITH BASHIR is not done in rotoscoping.
    Contrary to industry rumours, the animation in Waltz with Bashir was not achieved through rotoscoping technique. . .
    --How it goes from live-acton to animation is explained in an article on the site of DG Design Network. Rotoscoping's use may be limited, but it's a cool technique and I don't agree that it's nausea-inducing or unwatchable; it just takes a minute to get used to. I've only seen it a couple of times. It's used briefly in THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS as well as WAKING LIFE. But the images in WALTZ WITH BASHHIR don't wobble and jump as in rotoscoping.

    The Wikipedia article about rotoscoping shows that it goes back to 1915, Max Fleisher, and was adopted by Walt Disney: "his animators employed it carefully and very effectively in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.". But the current form of it is computer-generated, and the rough wobbly look is doubtless intentional. I'm not sure,though; I seem to recall reading that doing the rotoscoping for A GLASS, DARKLY was a very time-consuming process. I loved that, and read the book as a result. I also loved WAKING LIFE. I didn't love WALTZ WITH BASHIR, as noted, but in the context of recent films about war and Israel but it has a significant place and its look seems to be original and appropriate.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-25-2009 at 04:04 PM.

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    I beg to differ. What is the origin of your quote?
    Colige suspectos semper habitos

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