45. WAKING LIFE (2001)

“Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.”–George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater

FEATURING: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

PLOT:  An unnamed young man appears to be drifting from dream to dream, each animated in a different style. His dreams involve him talking to various college professors who explain their theories on existentialism, artificial intelligence and free will, as well as more typical dreamlike experiences such as floating away and taking a ride in a boat-car. About halfway through the film it slowly dawns on the dreamer that he is dreaming, and he begins to ask the characters he meets for help waking up.

Still from Waking Life (2001)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film was shot on mini-DV video over a period of six weeks. Each frame was then painstakingly hand-drawn by a team of animators using computer software specifically adapted for this film (a 21st century update of the process known as Rotoscoping).
  • Each minute of film took an average of 250 hours to create.
  • Featured actor Wiley Wiggins also worked as one of the animators.
  • The monologues on existentialism and free will were delivered by Robert C. Solomon and David Sosa, respectively, two philosophy professors from the University of Texas.
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy play the same characters in their short scene as they did in Linklater’s earlier film, Before Sunrise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film where thirty different animators each put their own distinctive stamp on the characters, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if thirty different people came up with thirty different answers to the question, “what was your favorite image in Waking Life?” We’ll suggest that final shot of the dreamer floating into the heavens is the obvious take-home image to bring to mind when you remember the movie, however.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Waking Life is a string of vignettes of varying levels of oddness, it’s the animation—which shifts from style to style, with the only constant being the fact that the backgrounds continually shift and waver in a state of eternal flux—that keeps it weird. The concept—that the entire film is a dream from which the unnamed protagonist can’t seem to awake—promises an exemplary level of surreality. In fact, many of the segments are, on their face, completely ordinary: cogent explanations of sometimes difficult, sometimes speculative philosophical concepts. The fact that these heady but decidedly rational ideas are explored in the context of the supposedly irrational world of dreams, might, in itself, be considered just a little bit weird.

Original trailer for Waking Life

COMMENTS: There are at least two ways to conclude Waking Life is an unconditional masterpiece. The more obvious is to look at it as a visual triumph of collaborative animation. The other is to consider it as that rare movie that is actually excited about ideas, and manages to get the audience either caught up in the thrill of considering new ideas (or, at least get them nostalgic about bygone, cannabis-fueled 3 AM dorm room bull sessions). I couldn’t disagree with anyone who wanted to champion the film as a five-star classic based solely on either of those criteria. But, I can’t lie; though its technique and intentions suggest a peak film, the experience of actually watching Waking Life was a slight let-down, like a dream with a great beginning that wanders off course. Though the film was interesting, admirable, and occasionally even thrilling, at many points it dragged, rambled, and, most importantly, failed to capture the feeling of its supposed inspiration: the world of dreams.

Visually, the worlds of Waking Life are extraordinary, stunning. Each image shimmers, the backgrounds wiggle and morph, while the foreground characters tend to remain sharp and in focus; this disorientation is the unifying style that gives the entire movie a “dreamlike” look (indeed, many times that wavering is our only cue that we’re supposed to be in a dream rather than a lecture). The styles morph as well, as the scenes switch animators for each three minute segment. In the space of a half hour the artistic environment may switch from sharp ultra-realism to muted watercolors to a children’s cartoon to a line drawing to pointillism to Gothic pop-up illustrations from a children’s book. We see Wiley Wiggins’ earnest face and lank slacker hair reimagined thirty different times, ever changing but always constrained by his actual features burned into the underlying digital image. Sometimes characters faces will bubble and distort grotesquely as if gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman were drawing the picture in real time while tripping on mescaline. Cubist interludes intrude: a character’s eyes may displace a few inches from the rest of his head. Even in a single scene the style sometimes alters; in the boat/car scene, the captain/driver’s features look as if they were drawn by a Hanna-Barbera animator, while the passengers remain relatively realistic. No matter how mundane the setting—a train station, Austin street or coffeehouse—and no matter how dry or difficult to follow the dialogue may turn, the film is always worth looking at.

Large segments of the movie consist of conceptual monologues, lectures, rants, or philosophical dialogues shared over a coffee or a beer. Linklater, who trod similar territory in his dialogue-heavy, vignette-ish debut Slacker (1991), has a gift for capturing people talking about abstruse concepts in a believable, conversational style. (It’s a largely unmarketable gift, but it’s a gift nonetheless). He can occasionally make us feel like we’re caught up in one of those great conversations where you can almost see the intellectual wheels turning in your partner’s head, while simultaneously new realizations and connections are dawning in your own mind faster than you can verbalize them. Some of the discussions herein are profound (the discourses on existentialism or free will), while some are sincere but intellectually amateur (Hawke and Delphy’s wandering bedroom ruminations about reincarnation and synchronicity). They also range from the eccentric (squeaky street poet “Speed” Levitch saying he likes to go “salsa dancing with my own confusion”) to demented (a chilling jailhouse threat of revenge, an angry libertarian ranting into a microphone). The content varies in their interest level, but the one thing that unites them is that the speakers all sound excited about their ideas. It’s not necessarily the concepts themselves that are interesting (though some are) so much as the uplifting passion and excitement that bleeds through each speech. Linklater isn’t in love with the particular answer his characters give to meaningful questions, but with the fact that they are authentically involved with the important questions that underlie those answers. There’s no winking irony here; each character is invited to give his input without the author judging him. The film is enamored with what Linklater calls “the aesthetics of thought.”

That said, the Chautauqua, lecture-series structure of the film ultimately works against it, making it unfocused and less involving than it should be. In the first place, in the beginning, there is no sense of direction. We are simply listening to a disconnected series of speeches or episodes: someone talks about language theory, then someone else discusses evolution, then someone argues the media is complicit in alienating people from the political process. It’s as if we’re flipping the channels from one late-night C-SPAN symposium to another. About midway through the film, the dreamer begins to realize that he is in a dream. A plot of a sort develops as he begins to ask questions of the dream characters he encounters, and to worry that he may never wake up. But, although interest perks up significantly once this psuedo-story starts to brew, there’s no sense of urgency in his realization. The dreamer remains laid-back about his plight, emotionally distant, and his distress never becomes more intense than mild bewilderment. The conflict, the feeling of being trapped, never quite rises to the level of drama until, perhaps, the very end of the movie. That leaves us, for the most part, trying to enjoy this semi-narrative film as a series of sequences rather than as a whole.

Besides that lack of general direction, a second problem that prevents the movie from cohering is that while some of the sequences are indeed dreamlike, others are wholly realistic scenes from waking life, a fact that all the fancy Rotoscoping in the world can’t disguise. Characters may occasionally turn into clouds in the middle of a discussion, but when the dreamer walks into a lecture hall and listens to Robert Solomon’s introductory Existentialism 101 lecture, it’s not like any dream anyone has actually ever experienced. The animated backgrounds may wave and facial features distort, but that makes it like attending class stoned on some exotic hallucinogen that affects only vision while leaving the rest of the mind and senses unclouded, not like a dream. If it were a dream, we would be watching the same lecture but not listening to it because we were too busy worrying about the fact that we had forgot to put on any pants that morning.

A third criticism of presenting these unattached musings as if they were a dream is that we are always the central figure in our dreams; dreams are always in the first person. But in Waking Life, the dreamer is frequently absent from the scene. For the lectures, he’s present only as a reaction shot, but he’s completely absent from, among other scenes, the bedroom conversation between Delphy and Hawke, the prisoner’s monologue, and the libertarian’s rant. There is a lame attempt to try to link him to these sequences by introducing them through a floating perspective, as if he were gliding across the city and into people’s bedrooms or prison cells, but it’s hardly convincing. Rather, more than anything, these scenes seem like Linklater is taking an opportunity to clear his personal sketchbook of various characters, scenes and dialogues that grabbed him, but with which he didn’t quite know what to do.

Late in the film, the dreamer states, “I have the benefit in this reality (if you want to call it that) of a constant perspective… It’s mostly just me dealing with a lot of people who are exposing me to information and ideas that seem vaguely familiar, but at the same time it’s all alien to me. I’m not in an objective rational world.” That synopsis sounds like a weird movie I’d really be interested in watching; but unfortunately, it wasn’t a description of the movie I’d been watching up to that point. Or, rather, it was an accurate synopsis of about a third of the movie I’d been watching, because Waking Life is about one-third a movie about a dreamer who can’t wake up, one-third a movie consisting of small sketches that interested the director but which he couldn’t build a full movie around, and one-third a documentary where Linklater invited cool, smart people to riff on various topics that intellectually excited them. These three different movies are held together by an exhilarating visual concept, but they don’t entirely mesh. That makes Waking Life, for me at least, a weird movie, and a movie with lots to admire, but also a bit of a wasted opportunity. It’s unique, and in fact verges on being a must see, but it’s also frustrating to imagine what it could have achieved had it been a little more focused the whole way through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I can’t imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for the suspension between waking and dreaming evoked by the movie than this surreal merging of photography and animation.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Less altered-states trippy than barroom garrulous, Waking Life doesn’t leave you in a dream… so much as it traps you in an endless bull session.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

“The effect is hallucinatory, with the filmic space turned into a plane-shifting realm of free-floating ontology. Whether it’s a product of stoic contemplation or reefer madness, Linklater’s waking life becomes an elusive, one-way vehicle to God.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Fox Searchlight – Waking Life

IMDB LINK: Waking Life (2001)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Animating a Waking Life – an essay/interview with director Richard Linklater from Wired magazine

Waking Life – Some Bigger Communication – interview with Linklater from Nitrate Online

Waking Life (Philosophical Films) – the entry and discussion questions for Waking Life at Philosophical Films, an online journal of the University of Tennessee-Martin with the mission of assisting philosophy teachers to incorporate movies into their lesson plans

Buddhists, Existentialists and Situationists: Waking up in Waking Life – a three-pronged interpretation from Doug Mann which examines the issues raised by the film through the lenses named in the title; includes a chart outlining each scene in the movie

DVD INFO: The 20th Century Fox DVD (buy) features a host of extras. There is a vocal commentary track with director Linklater, star/animator Wiggins, art director Bob Sabiston and producer Tommy Pallotta. A separate text commentary offering more background and insights into some of the philosophical ideas explored in the movie is a great concept, but there is a problem in that the subtitles often just recapitulate exactly what the speaker is saying, and sometimes go by too fast to be readable. A section called “The Waking Life Studio” contains lots of intriguing technical stuff: the trailer, a five minute featurette describing the film, a number of deleted scenes are scenes featuring alternate animations, a glimpse into what the footage looked like before the animators started their work, a guided tour of the software the artists used to create the final pictures which will be a must see for animation geeks, some test drawings by animators, and the short feature “Snack and Drink,” which is a very weird piece in its own right. There is currently no Blu-ray version of Waking Life, although a movie like this cries out for a hi-def presentation.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader [now a contributor!] Cameron. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “45. WAKING LIFE (2001)”

  1. Fun fact: The “angry libertarian ranting into a microphone” was/is none other than alt-right nut Alex Jones (Infowars).

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