Dir. by Richard Linklater - 1 hr. 39 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Waking Life" is a film that's very difficult to talk about in words, though if you're like me, it's a movie that will leave you craving a late-night diner BS session with an old friend. The first time I saw "Waking Life," it staggered me. A friend and I went to an art-house theatre to catch it as part of a double-feature with "Tape" (which I still haven't seen), and both of us were so leveled by "Waking Life" we just went home after, silently. This film is a more visually interesting version of "Slacker," which is also one of my favorite films, but is also the kind of thing that can be unbearably boring for some. Most of all, "Waking Life" is an experience, something that only makes sense through the actual experience of viewing the film, and you can't really recount it as a series of things that happen. It's a pile of seemingly disparate bricks that don't seem to be adding up to anything in particular, until it does, and you start to understand what's going on.
In a general sense, we follow an unnamed main character played by Wiley Wiggins, who rarely talks until late into the film, through a series of conversations and vignettes about fairly "heavy" subjects. For the most part, it seems like Wiggins is just floating from idea to idea and taking it all in. At some point, it's made clear that Wiggins is dreaming, and there's a discussion about lucid dreaming that informs the rest of the film. But none of that matters; "Waking Life" is about being barraged by ideas, and about the tone and color of the film.
"Waking Life" is an film that combines two of my favorite things - animation and philosophy. Director Richard Linklater used a method of animating that involves shooting the movie on video first (a version of rotoscoping), and used thirty different animators to give different segments different looks. This is relevant because it allowed Linklater to impress the shifting, ethereal nature of dreams, and still maintain a consistent character likeness (while there aren't a ton of people you'd recognize from the acting world, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have a scene, reprising their characters from other Linklater movies, and there are a couple of other "actors" as well). The animation, which fancifies and intensifies the dialogue, is one of the chief differences between "Waking Life" and "Slacker," whose visually barren approach produced a different sort of delirium.
But the main thing that "Waking Life" shares with "Slacker" is an elliptical kind of storytelling, where you find yourself immersed in something while not being able to make heads or tails of anything. The bits, on their own, make sense, but when the seemingly non-connected pieces are placed together, a viewer is forced to try to assemble whatever information you've been given to construct something sensical. There are bread crumbs left here and there, and there are pieces that seem to be there only to provide entertainment (or perhaps more accurately, flavor). One of the segments has Linklater himself playing pinball, and trying to explain to the unnamed main character that essentially, all stories are about moving from "no to yes," and when you finally accept the yes (or the reality, as unknowable as it might be), you've reached your destination. Does that help? I know it doesn't, but it'll make some kind of sense as you're watching it. I keep trying to figure out a musical or artistic explanation that will help get across what Linklater does (and I've never seen anyone else approach what he does, in the way he does it), and the closest analogy that I've been able to come to is that it's a cubist approach, where you're seeing different angles of the same item all at the same time. It's not a perfect analogy, but I hope it's in the ballpark.
I find "Waking Life" to be one of the most immersive films I've ever seen. It's heavy with ideas and oddball approaches, packed to the brim with dialogue, visually stunning. It owes a debt to some of the more insane surreal movies of the 1970s (the pacing of "The Man Who Fell to Earth," the animation techniques of Ralph Bakshi, the casting of non-actors to great effect), and yet it's utterly unique. There is a real sense of searching for a meaningful understand of the world around you, and failing utterly, and yet it's not a film of despair or nihilism. Being awake, being aware of the search and yourself, and not closing yourself off from uncomfortable moments and realizations are the entire point, both of this film and of life. Buried in what can seem like nonsense, there are moments of intense self-realization and staggering beauty. As a fellow dreamer says to Wiggins' character, "So whatever you do, don't be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting."
5 / 5 - TV (HD)