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Waking Life: An Ambling Animated Opus from Richard Linklater (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Waking Life (2001)Waking Life (2001, streaming on Netflix), Richard Linklater’s ambling animated opus, is the kind of film that will put some to sleep and enthrall others. It’s a brilliant, bizarre, and utterly one-of-a-kind trip.

Waking Life (2001)With a script by Linklater, the film has almost no “plot”, at least in the conventional sense. It’s a chatty, meditative, intellectual feast made up of bite-sized episodes of conversational philosophizing. The film follows a twentysomething drifter (Wiley Wiggins) as he navigates his own dream, listening in on the thoughts of a cast of diverse and unusual characters. A university professor expresses his frustration with the shiftless new generation. A monkey projects and narrates a film. Two friends discuss the possiblities of cinema, then turn into inanimate cloud-statues of themselves. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), from Linklater’s Before trilogy, talk about the last 6-12 minutes of brain activity a dead human has, after the body shuts down. The director Stephen Soderbergh shows up to tell a story about Billy Wilder. And Linklater himself has a fascinating and slightly disturbing story to tell about author Phillip K. Dick.

What makes Waking Life such an innovative, imaginative achievement is the format Linklater chose to make the movie in: rotoscoped animation. First, he filmed his actors the way he would, more or less, in a live-action film. Then a team of Austin artists (largely not computer animators), led by the pioneering Bob Sabiston, animated over that footage using some average Apple computers and a software called Rotoshop. The result is, at first, disconcerting and distracting, even irritating. But, soon enough, you latch into the free-flowing vibe, and marvel at the bizarre beauty that surrounds you. Animation styles sometimes change from scene to scene, while some shots have a bouncy, slightly wobbly effect. The general style is that of a Picasso painting, a Monet masterwork, some modern graphic novels, and maybe some drugs stirred together, and then splattered around with unfettered enthusiasm. It’s so completely different, so fresh, so unlike anything else.

Waking Life (2001)

As for the little episodes that make up the film, some are engrossing and profound, others exhausting and perplexing. There are some scenes of philosophers (mostly non-actors) talking so quickly about such highbrow, scientific ideas that just about anyone without a Phd. in everything will begin to lose interest. It’s also a little pompous that Linklater seems to assume everyone has something grand and genius to say about the universe. And for the first half of the film, the nameless protagonist doesn’t really respond to any of his dream-characters; he just sits, listens, and nods. For a while, this near-wordless blank-slate of a central character is a frustration. With so much going on around the character, it would’ve helped if Linklater had fleshed this guy out, and given us someone to hold on to. Though, that may be the point: we could kind of be following anyone. And  the film gets stronger as it progresses. The protagonist starts speaking, and says some  fascinating things about the consciousness and reality of dreams. Fascinating and more intelligible characters appear, and then disappear, because this is, alas, a dream. Eventually, we’re left with a lovely last shot that takes you up, up, and away.

Waking Life (2001)

Perhaps Waking Life shouldn’t be critiqued as a movie, but debated over as a deep-dive into a director’s brain. All the characters seem to express little thoughts, theories, and ideas Linklater has had, making them more jumping-off points for intellectual analysis than actual characters. Taken for what is, which is a peculiar and rather astounding trip through the mind, Waking Life is a marvel. Imperfect, not for everybody (probably not for most), scattered in every direction? Yes, yes, and yes. But our dreams aren’t supposed to make sense to us, let alone entertain the world. When the movie finishes, you don’t just walk away and move on with your life. It consumes you, fills your brain with new ideas, gets you thinking and dreaming and hoping for more movies like this one, movies so daringly free of constraint and convention.

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