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"Some bigger communication"

Richard Linklater’s movies feature lots of conversation, sometimes serving as plot, taking you places that you don’t quite expect, then turning again. The writer-director of the groundbreaking Slacker (1991), as well as Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), SubUrbia (1997), and his not-so-well-received foray into Hollywood filmmaking, The Newton Boys (1998), is famously laid-back, and he seems comfortable with the whole cool-guy arty-filmmaker image. The Austin, Texas native could pass for 20something (he’s really 41), laughs easily, and enjoys thinking out loud, running ideas around. He likes to take his shoes off, too.


In addition to making films—among them, he serves as Artistic Director for the Austin Film Society, which he founded in 1985 as a venue for unusual, non-multiplex films, from around the world. It was through this program that he met Speed Levitch, the subject of Bennett Miller’s 1998 documentary The Cruise, who appears in Linklater’s new film, the animated Waking Life, more or less as himself. That is, Speed shows up on the Brooklyn Bridge, with stars, clowns, splashes, and zaps flying around his head, holding forth on what might be understood as the film’s premise: “As one realizes that one is a dream figure in someone else’s dream, that is self-awareness.” Linklater sees Speed as “one of those exuberant seekers. We need more of them. I’m kind of appalled who’ve seen that movie and come away thinking he’s a tragic character or that there’s something sad about him. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I think he’s just overflowing with life. But to think that that’s a bad thing, it’s terrible. He’s only like 25 or 26, and what 25-year-old with that kind of brain is going to have it totally together? I predict incredible things for Speed, always.”



PopMatters:

How did you come up with the idea this film?



Richard Linklater:

Like everything I do, it came from real life. Believe it or not, a movie that’s so unreal takes all its cues from personal experience. That really happened to me, it was a really formative lucid dream, like in the movie, that series of false awakenings. It seemed to go on for weeks and weeks, and got creepy near the end. So the narrative structure is something out of my own experience. I’d been thinking about it for years and years, how it would work as a movie, and asking myself, “Does it really work as a movie?” It never did in my head, but when I saw some shorts by Tommy [Pallotta] and Bob [Sabiston], my friends, and then it clicked for me, “Oh, that story I’ve been thinking about didn’t quite work, this is the way it should work.” It takes everything to that necessary level. It’s realistic, and yet it’s imaginatively constructed, a contradiction. And I thought, “Oh, that’s what your brain’s doing, in dreams and in memory.” There’s no exact anything; it’s all a reconstruction, constantly. So if the film can be perceived at that level, that’s the right level to take in the story. A lot of this was instinctual, looking for a way to encompass the contradictions, like being awake in your sleep. Films are so much like dreams that I don’t think films about dreams work, so this film had to be about something else. To me, it was about becoming aware in your dreams. And so the film itself sort of becomes aware as it goes. So all those things are on the same parallel track: you have what’s going on in your brain as you watch it, the character—Wiley—becoming aware of the story, and the audience becoming aware of that same narrative at the same time that he is, it sort of sneaks up on you and then takes over the whole movie, in a way. But it’s not an imposed narrative, it’s an awareness of what was always there. So the narrative becomes aware of itself. And then the film [laughs] is actually aware of itself as a narrative, a story, a film. And that’s the Soderbergh joke at the end, that the film is aware of itself as an economic entity.



PM:

So many films give you a story, ask you to identify with a character, and haul you out the other end, whereas here, you’re asked to think about that identification process, because it’s so not smooth.



RL:

Yes, to have a lead character who realizes that he doesn’t even know his own name, partway through the movie. You’re rudderless, but you’re in the position he’s in, you have a perspective. The film is nothing but structure and perspective. It’s like, “Okay, I don’t know my name,” but what can you do about it? The film is linear, moving through a projector at a certain rate. Time is moving whatever you know or don’t know. It tells you that you don’t really need those hooks, you don’t need a character you can empathize with. You see so many movies that give you ridiculous reasons to care about a character, like his dog died. But all that is constructs. You can care about other things.



PM:

It also asks the audience to be responsible for their own responses.



RL:

Mm-hmm. It’s very much a film that you have to participate in, because it’s depicting that awareness of dreaming that by definition kicks you into a conscious level. You watch a film passively, and all of your personal stuff, ideally, goes away and you have this great two hour experience of another world, and then, the lights come on and you’re back to your real world: “Oh god, I have an appointment in 15 minutes.” That’s a good film experience. But I like the idea that you have to be aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it, again, analogous to being awake in your dream. The film demands that you be aware of it. I think it’s there to help you in your awareness process, like all these characters are there to help Wiley in his awareness process [laughs].



PM:

Most movies presume viewers all have the same experience—even though it’s obviously not true. This one is upfront about the fact that everyone will have a different experience.



RL:

Yes, it’s all about your own subjective experience. Just like life, everything is sort of a construct visually, but I believe that we’re all in a mutually agreed upon reality. Some people go way out there and say there’s no reality at all, but that seems really egotistical, to think you create your own, alone. I think we all create together, just perceiving in slightly different ways. The reality is concrete, it’s real, but we see it individually.



PM:

That’s a refreshing way to answer academic relativism, or some versions of deconstuction.



RL:

Yes, Waking Life sort of rejects all of that, the idea that if all subjectivity and society are illusions, then where are you? I wanted to gather around, to come to a reemergence of another, more tangible subjectivity and responsibility. It’s interesting to have gone through it, and it was important to confront. But if you think of it politically, and on all other levels, and I had to reject it. Like the character who seems like a professor, the teacher, says early in the movie, that it’s excuses, once you see yourself as just a product of all these forces. I feel more connected than that. Everyone’s on their own subjective path. I always fall back on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau, really staunch individual types, like the Beats. I’m attracted to them.



PM:

I’m wondering about the guy in jail, who follows the Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy scene.



RL:

I didn’t want the film to operate on any one level; I wanted it to be light and dark, positive and negative, mostly positive and not cynical, but I liked that it would have both. To me, he was kind of scary. I grew up in a prison town, in Huntsville, Texas, and the idea of people behind bars always got to me, festering in their own subjectivity. His rage is so ferocious, but so imagined at the same time. That’s how it is increasingly, when you put people in cages, for things that maybe they shouldn’t be there for, because there’s other ways to deal with them, you’re creating a lot of that, super-negative energy that’s going to come back in other ways.



PM:

How do you think about the connections between memories and identity, as opposed to strictly “experiences”?



RL:

That has always fascinated me. This film that I have coming out next month, Tape, is all about that, about how an event ten years in the past relates to three people in the present, how they remember it differently. The notion of memory, and the idea that our minds are constructing the past, that there isn’t an exact anything. Your brain isn’t a videotape, it’s a theatrical production, and you’re redressing the sets, changing costumes, changing emphases. It changes over time. No one goes through the world thinking they’re bad. This other film, Tape, involves someone being forced to apologize for something he did ten years before. It asks, what that means, to say you’re sorry.



PM:

And of course, it has to do with who you imagine yourself to be in the present, based on misremembered events.



RL:

Well, countries misremember their histories, for whatever purposes. And we do it individually, casting ourselves as the victims or the heroes. It’s dangerous, writing your own story. It’s not a very healthy way to go through the world, to think that how you were treated by your family is who you are. You have to think about what’s on your mind now, what’s the interest for you in maintaining that story? What are you focusing on in your life now, because that’s really more important than what happened 25 or 30 years ago, if you really want to be responsible about it. But most people don’t [laughs]. But they’re encouraged not to, because then you have a society full of people who are damaged, who aren’t fully in control, instead of fully politicized.



PM:

This movie will play differently for people who have seen your previous work, than it will for people who come in cold. So it works as a “memory” for those viewers.



RL:

Right, fever dream! Personally, I just kind of opened it up, and it’s about film history, too. I just saw my own creations float back in, with something to offer this movie. Julie and Ethan, from Before Sunrise—what they’re saying is incredibly relevant to Waking Life, it’s some of the key thoughts that fit into the film. But it doesn’t mean anything literally, and you don’t have to know them to know what’s happening in the film. I wasn’t too precious about it.



PM:

What are your thoughts on the shaky animation style?



RL:

Well, it’s the way the computer interpolates the between-strokes. You’re doing like 12 frames a second, and that breathing is one quality of it. I liked the look, it seemed active to me, and we shot it handheld too, so it has an extra layer. I’ve never seen a handheld animated film, much less one that has like, 30 different animation styles. So, like the actors are different, so are the artists, and it was like granting individual status to these animated characters, another contradictory notion in this film full of contradictions. It was more real in that way.



PM:

For the first couple of minutes, you’re disoriented, watching it, and then you settle into it.



RL:

Yeah, your eye accepts visual stimuli pretty easily. I don’t think the ear gets used it. I always tell filmmakers, if they’re doing low budget, that the brain adjusts to whatever, black and white, grainy film, like you’re in a dream state. If that’s the way it’s going to look, you just go with it. But your ear is less forgiving. If it’s a bad soundtrack, or you can’t hear dialogue, that’s more bothersome. Early in the film, there’s some pretty radical imagery, like when Wiley’s walking through Grand Central Station, but there are chandeliers and a lot of planes, and some lady behind me was like, “Oh fuck! Is the whole movie going to be like this? I didn’t take my Dramamine.” I do think the voice is important too, it’s specific, you need that little human touch. I think we’ll always be around. [laughs] And in this movie, it wasn’t just the voices, it was the atmospheric sounds too. We had the bus go by, kind of the messiness of documentary-type sound. Most animated films are just so clean, which makes sense, because they’re made in studios, controlled environments. You don’t want a bus going through Shrek, you know! [laughs] Well, I’d like a bus to go all the way through Shrek.



PM:

Speaking of buses, can we talk a little about travel, as it shows up in most all of your movies?



RL:

Journeys and seeking do come up in my films, but I don’t think about it that much. I guess when you’re traveling you get those kind of poignant moments. Everything is heightened, and I think that’s why there’s an addiction to travel. You’re very aware of the culture and yourself. It’s an interesting place to be in your mind, things often take on a more poetic resonance, and if you’re seeking, it keeps you sensitive. You can do that and never leave the room: it’s an operating system for some people. This whole movie’s such a journey, he’s traveling in his mind, and everything he meets is helping him to become aware. If you’re human, you don’t even have any choice. You’re kind of on until you’re off.



PM:

And that’s another question: choice.



RL:

It’s one of those questions that you dig into and it’s always fascinating. Something as random as that little cootie-catcher or whatever you call it, it seems to have a fate to it, depending on what number and color you choose. But if he had said “7” instead of “15,” then what? These are really fundamental questions you ask yourself at an early age, but you never really answer them, you just circle around to it again. Free will, that’s a good one, that’s right up here with God. Depending on your religious views, those questions can go hand in hand. I love the athletes who thank God. It’s like, if you hit a home run, then God was with you but not the pitcher? I’d like to see someone once say, “No thanks to God, except for creating the universe. But beyond that, we know you haven’t done shit for about 15 billion years!” [laughs] It seems so basic, for such an important aspect of our lives. To say “God” is the Big Mac reason, so generic. There’s a lot to dig into there, but to really discover an area, you have to dig deep, and it’s dark, and there are unsafe places. So it’s easier not to do that.



PM:

And isn’t it all about storytelling anyway, making sense of what happens to you?



RL:

Certainly. That’s what our brains do, we’re very comprehensible, pattern-seeking, storytelling creatures. We take limited visual data and create sense out of stuff that fundamentally makes no sense. But that’s how we’re able to move on and achieve anything in the physical world, I think, we’re able to ascribe a lot of meaning to something that maybe has none. Or you have to at least acknowledge that, when you search for meaning, that there is none, that it’s a completely random coincidence, biologically speaking. But whatever it takes, to keep us going. Storytelling, that’s why we’re here. It’s communicating, a way to share our experience. Art’s a tip of the iceberg in terms of how we get to know one another. It’s the way the tribe breaks out and shares culture, it’s kind of amazing. And that’s the thing, film is the most incredible way to communicate, and it’s so new. It’s so huge. I think we’re still grappling with that possibility, that you can reach billions. Maybe only Titanic‘s done that. That’s why I think that it doesn’t make sense when filmmakers say, “I only did it for myself and my friends.” If you’re in the film medium, you have to, on some level, be hoping for a bigger communication.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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Throughout Waking Life, the pictures rarely, if ever, stop moving, flowing, breathing -- attention has been paid to the animated environments, not just the characters in the foreground.
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