Waking Life

After a large and fortunately forgettable misstep (1998’s The Newton Boys), Richard Linklater is back in fine form — maybe the finest yet. The inquisitive and phantasmagoric Waking Life is linked with Linklater’s 1991 debut Slacker in that it takes the viewer on an adventure of ideas and words. What’s new here is the pulsating look of the film; Linklater shot the movie live-action, on digital video, and then handed it to animator Bob Sabiston, whose shifting tones and textures give the actors the appearance of (mostly) benevolent ghosts of the mind.

Read simply, the plot would seem to concern an unnamed young man (played by Wiley Wiggins, who was Linklater’s surrogate in the director’s 1993 nostalgia trip Dazed and Confused) who isn’t sure whether he’s dreaming or not. He moves from place to place, from person to person, and hears a wide variety of concepts mostly having to do with being and perception. Some of the talk is sort of academic and dry; other talk strikes you as the kind of enthusiastic gush you overhear at coffeehouses. (Sabiston’s visual commentary sometimes prankishly works against the philosophizing — your eye is drawn to a little figure in the background and you lose the thread of what the speaker is saying, which in one or two cases may be for the best. It may be intentional, or it may not.)

It’s significant that the people in Waking Life aren’t just talking about banal, externalized topics, though, because Linklater means us to see them all as people who live in their own heads. It’s debatable whether they’re all just living in the main character’s head — forgotten voices from different places in his brain, unlocked by REM sleep. Linklater, whose specialty is drama in miniature (Before Sunrise, his romantic comedy from 1995, featured only two people), may have pulled off his most audacious stunt yet: despite the many characters, it could be argued that there is only one character here — Richard Linklater. The movie can be taken and enjoyed as his dream, his invitation to us to climb into his head for 99 minutes and see what’s happening in there.

Which is as good a definition of art as any. The experiment is successful; leaving the theater, you may wish for a light switch to flick on and off (one character cites the act as a foolproof way to tell if you’re dreaming or not), and at certain points during the movie you may — if you’re like me, anyway — get that scary but exhilarating floating sensation you sometimes get during lengthy philosophical chats, as if you’d just left your physical self for a moment and connected with some mass shared consciousness. Forgive me; the movie inspires such daffy thoughts, and many more. Linklater bombards you with other people’s answers, hoping that they’ll dislodge some of your own or strengthen them; Waking Life, if nothing else, is a heroic act of intellectual love married to the greatest eye candy in years.

Would we want a steady diet of movies that look and sound like this? Of course not; part of what makes this experience so noteworthy is its rarity, and I’d rather see this movie inspire other directors to make comparably adventurous films than to make copies of it. (Linklater, who has never really had a mainstream hit, has escaped the horror of wannabe Dazed and Confused or Before Sunrise ripoffs.)

A true independent film that uses animation techniques to their utmost, Waking Life is off in its own world, off in its own head; but Linklater, unlike other artists who arrogantly don’t care whether you connect with their work, cares less about whether you connect with his movie than about whether the movie leads you to connect with the world. Or at least to connect with your dreams. By movie’s end, you might ask what the difference is. 5

Explore posts in the same categories: animation, cult, one of the year's best

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