There are those who will insist that the best way of approaching Waking Life (2001), Richard Linklater’s witty cosmic wow of a movie, is in a chemically altered state, and it’s easy to see why.
The screenplay for Waking Life, which the New York Film Festival is showing tonight and tomorrow at Alice Tully Hall, blithely tosses out a bouquet of theories about human consciousness — some intellectually rigorous, others ludicrous crackpot riffs — whose cumulative impact suggests a stoned-out Big Bang of human thought.
With all the jostling philosophic notions tumbling from the mouths of everyday people, one response might be to lie back and go with the flow of mind-teasing what-if’s without trying to piece them together or even to remember what’s been said.
But I would urge you to resist the temptation to swoon into Waking Life as though it were a dizzy millennial throwback to a 60’s trip movie. The film, which opens commercially next week, is so verbally dexterous and visually innovative that you can’t absorb it unless you have all your wits about you. And even then, you may want to see it again to enjoy its subtle humor and warm humanity.
Visually, Waking Life is a technological coup: it transforms photographed reality into a sophisticated cartoon world by superimposing brightly hued digital animation on live-action digital video. (Bob Sabiston, who supervised the film’s animation team, developed the software used in Waking Life.) Mr. Linklater’s stroke of brilliance is his application of this technique to an open-ended fable about perception itself. 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.
In the expressionistic landscape of Waking Life, nothing is static. The images are continually rippling and heaving in a way that lends an extra meaning to the concept of animation by suggesting how the universe and all matter are in ceaseless flux. Depending on the image, what is on the screen varies in appearance from the lurid panels of an action cartoon (the angry scarlet face of a prisoner behind bars fantasizing about torturing his enemies to death) to a dazzling van Gogh-like canvas (New York City at night).
At the center of all this frantic activity, an unidentified protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins experiences a metaphysical identity crisis: he awakens in a dream in which he levitates, rides the highway in a boat and has other peculiar adventures. Like many of the people in Mr. Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker, Mr. Wiggins’s laid-back character has the look and attitude of a perennial college student postponing any commitments as he drifts through life accumulating information without applying it to any goal.
The story is a record of his random encounters with teachers, students, street people and television personalities, all eagerly spouting their theories. Like Slacker, the film moves from one character to the next to the next before finally circling back to where it started.
Midway in his circuitous journey, he begins to realize that every time he thinks he has awakened, he has only entered another chapter of an ongoing dream. One recurrent indication is that the fragmented digital numbers on a bedside clock don’t come into focus. The digitized faces delivering philosophical spiels, pet theories and tall tales include actors from earlier Linklater films, like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (both from Before Sunrise) reunited, and the director Steven Soderbergh. The sources cited range from the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to the film critic André Bazin to the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
Many of the spiels revolve around aphorisms and riddles. ”I believe reincarnation is just a poetic expression of what collective memory really is,” one commentator declares.
Another says, ”I’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving,” and his face turns into a giant gray gear as he talks.
Some characters, like a white-haired man who asks, ”Which is the most universal human characteristic, fear or laziness?,” are pessimists. Others, like the coffeehouse Existentialist who declares, ”Your life is yours to create,” and backs it up quite eloquently, are optimists. And some, like the man who declares that dreams are fun and that ”fun rules,” are dingbats.
Mr. Linklater’s pose of political and philosophical objectivity occasionally crumbles, as in a scene in which two enthusiastic gun advocates senselessly shoot each other in a bar. Although the screenplay shies away from overtly preferring one vision to another, the perspective of a pinball player who appears near the end of the film might come closest to the director’s, since he is played by Mr. Linklater: ”There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity.”
What might it mean that Waking Life is the third American feature film in this year’s festival to eschew realism for fantasy? After David Lynch‘s Hollywood nightmare, Mulholland Drive, and Wes Anderson‘s nostalgic Salinger-esque fantasy of a bygone New York, The Royal Tenenbaums, the animated universe of Waking Life appears to carry us even further outside the realm of realism.
But that appearance is deceiving. If the faces of his characters are cartoonish, the digital animation paradoxically heightens their reality by making them more visually distinct from one another, and their remarks assume a cartoon-balloon significance that makes their words seem at once lighter and more distilled. Waking Life, unlike the two other films mentioned, leaves you buoyed and a little awestruck at the crazy quilt of human experience. It feels like a hearty cinematic slice of America’s dream life as it really is.
Review courtesy of The New York Times