Waking Life (2001)

by Ben Varkentine


+ another review by Cynthia Fuchs

Background to a Dream

There’s something to be said for sitting in a movie theater, watching an artistic dream of a movie theater, in which is another man, dreaming. Yes, there is definitely something to be said for that. With luck, I’m going to say it.

cover art

Waking Life

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Lorelei Linklater, Timothy Speed Levitch

(Fox Searchlight)
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)

Richard Linklater is the writer or co-writer and director of Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, Slackers, and SubUrbia. Linklater’s films feature characters who take their time going through a day. Sometimes just a couple of characters, as in Sunrise, sometimes ensembles, as in SubUrbia and others, but they all wander, as his films do, almost aimlessly. Yet, by the end of each, you always feel as though the characters, or you, have arrived somewhere, even if you’re not quite sure how you got there.

Linklater may not be the most brilliant director currently working, but he is one of the most worthwhile. Nothing terribly important happens in Linklater’s films, no one saves the world, or even France. And yet, of course, dreadfully important things happen; the films show the virtues of talking. Linklater shows us the drama that, in the words of Samuel R. Delaney, occurs in the “space between two people.”

But when it comes to directors whose films are all about the dialogue between people, what puts Linklater above a more commercially successful filmmaker like Kevin Smith (who has often cited Linklater as an inspiration and influence), is his eye for keeping things visually interesting as his characters speak. In Before Sunrise, for example, one imagines Linklater deciding that, since the film was comprised of two people talking for 101 minutes, he had better give the audience something pretty to look at (presuming that Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke were not enough). And so he set it in Vienna. Not that this was a reason to see the film, the reason to see the film was to hear what Delpy and Hawke said to each other. But with such a splendid setting, Linklater ensured that the eye was always engaged as well as the mind and the heart. Eye candy, if you like, though that has a negative connotation I certainly don’t intend.

With Waking Life, Linklater commits not only to attractive images and thoughtful ideas, but images that are exciting in a way that is different from what we have seen before. A live action film was shot and edited in 1999, on digital video. Director/writer/actor Linklater, computer animator/art director Bob Sabiston, and producer/animator Tommy Pallotta transformed it by “painting” it with a computer.

The film is about an unnamed man (Wiley Wiggins) who meets various people, seeking their ideas about existence in general and dreaming in specific. Each character is interpreted and animated by a different artist in a team of 30 (including Wiggins himself). One of these people is Linklater himself, who also appeared in his Slacker. It’s appropriate that he show up here again, because Waking Life owes much to Slacker, though it has a clearer structure. As Slacker opens with Linklater in a cab, theorizing that every decision creates “ripples,” so this film opens with a boy and girl (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) playing with one of those old-fashioned folding-paper fortune tellers. The boy’s fortune reads, “Dream is destiny.” It is possible that Wiggins, who discovers that he cannot seem to wake from dreaming, is this boy grown up. It is also possible that the entire rest of the film is the little boy’s dream—that Wiggins himself is just a dream the boy is having about himself as a grownup.

He also encounters characters from Linklater’s previous films, including Hawke and Delpy, whom I was very pleased to see again, and the old anarchist from Slacker. And hey, if you want to be really Linklater-geeky about it, remember that Mitch, Wiggins’s character in Dazed and Confused, is last seen in it . . . falling asleep.

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. In this way, even if we are disinterested in the ideas expressed by a character, we can let our eyes wander and be entertained by the minutiae in the background. For example, when a man began spouting theories about “the new revolution” and evolution, I took note of the fish swimming in a tank behind him—one of which pops up more than once, a little more fully evolved each time.

The film may remind you of such animated fantasies as Ralph Bakshi used to make. And if it had been made 23 years ago, it would have fit perfectly on a midnight movie bill (where Linklater’s characters from Dazed and Confused could go see it). But Bakshi’s use of rotoscoping—painting over film of live actors—resulted in films that were neither fish nor fowl, denied both the subtleties of human actors’ expressions and the exhilarating freedom of full animation. The effect here is different, more of a true union, yielding an impressionistic film-as-canvas that illustrates the quest of Linklater’s characters. There is humanity in the performances and there is artistry in the animation, and vice versa.

Now, some predictions mixed with hopes. The film will not draw a large audience. Boy, oh boy, if ever a picture had “art film” written all over it . . . . But those who see it—either during its likely brief theatrical release or in its second life on video—will talk about it. The movie will probably play as well or better on video, where one can stop and start it as one wishes. For all the film’s strengths, as with Slacker, I found there was a definite psychological barrier in that I was ready for the film to end some 30 to 45 minutes before it did, even though I now know there were still many good bits to come. However, home viewing will affect one of the layers in a scene in which the dreamer finds himself in a movie theater watching a film of two people discussing film’s inability to tell stories well. This scene already works on about four levels, though, not the least of which is as Linklater’s answer to criticism of the nonlinear style of much of his work. A scene in which Steven Soderbergh appears in an amusing cameo to tell the story of another director who attempted to make a movie of a dream within a dream is similarly self-aware and self-mocking.

There is a reality to the way this movie creates the unreal world of dreaming that supersedes the fact that it doesn’t look like any dream I’ve ever had. It looks like what it is, an artist’s interpretation of a dream. How much better we would know each other if we knew each other’s dreams, for instance, through movies. That is perhaps the most important reason why Pop Matters.

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