If the entirety of writer-director Richard Linklater's Waking Life were as magical and mysterious as its opening moments, it would be a uniquely thoughtful feat of imagination. But Linklater has a different agenda than crafting a surreal sensory experience, instead offering a meditation on the nature of dreams and the meaning of life. A one-of-a-kind treatment of dream logic, Waking Life instills the viewer with both frustration and fascination.
In his debut film Slacker, Linklater followed a random assortment of gabby, grungy characters around Austin, Texas. Waking Life has a similar structure, which plays out from the perspective of Wiley Wiggins, whom you may remember as the awkward young freshman at the center of Linklater's Dazed and Confused. Here, he's not in a daze but a doze, walking -- and occasionally soaring -- through a seemingly endless series of dream encounters with discursive strangers.
After figuratively retracing Slacker's steps, Linklater then literally retraces them. Waking Life was shot and edited as a live action film, then graphically animated, frame by frame, by more than 30 artists under the direction of Bob Sabiston. The technique, called "rotoscoping," in fact dates back to animation's early days, but then it often looked like cheating, the substance of the moving characters never quite fitting their cartoon environments. (Ralph Bakshi features like his 1978 The Lord of the Rings come to mind).)
But Waking Life brilliantly makes use of the rotoscoping technique, giving a painterly look to the scenes. Colors alter on Wiggins' shirt, suggesting changes in light, while background objects seem to throb and sway, as if they're aboard a ship at sea. One speaker extols the virtues of coloring outside the lines, which spells out the filmmakers' intent. You feel that if they could, Linklater and Sabiston would have the images melt right off the screen and up the cinema aisles.
At times we eavesdrop on edgy weirdos, like the psychotic prison inmate or the young guy who chats about self-destruction, then casually immolates himself. Throughout the film, when Wiggins engages in conversation, overhears pointed discussions or listens to actual stories, the encounters can genuinely provoke thought. But just as often, Wiggins passively sits as people expound on such topics as existentialism, reincarnation, quantum mechanics and, inevitably, Philip K. Dick. With the trippy, unstable backgrounds, the viewer frequently feels like the guy you went to school with who was always on drugs.
You can recognize only a few of the actors, like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who engage in metaphysical pillow talk, and Timothy "Speed" Levitch, the beatnik/tour guide of The Cruise, who makes amusingly spacey remarks like, "The ongoing Wow is happening right now." He tends to emit light from his head while speaking, and with his malleability and lilting voice, he's oddly reminiscent of Jeremy the Nowhere Man from Yellow Submarine.
At times Waking Life's animation takes surreal turns. A poet operating a film projector is rendered as a monkey in a lab coat. Two guys at a cafe experience a "holy moment" and transform into clouds. A woman says "love," and the word emerges like a smoke ring, while another fellow's face transforms into whatever he's describing.
It's a shame that Waking Life doesn't exploit its capacity for fanciful imagery even further than it does. Still, our dreams probably tend to be mundane events more often than wild fantasies -- I'm reminded of Ted Danson's line from Body Heat: "Last night I had a dream so boring it woke me up." At least the film offers some interesting trivia on dream states: Did you now that if you can't read clock faces or adjust light levels, you're probably dreaming?
You recognize that at times in Waking Life, Linklater may be choosing to be tedious, but you've still got to deal with the tedium. The film gets some welcome dramatic tension when, after several false awakenings, Wiggins gradually becomes conscious that he's asleep and dreaming the events, but isn't able to wake himself up. Some audiences will inevitably doze off during Waking Life, but others will soak up Linklater's tour of slumberland with eyes wide open.
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