“Waking Life” does to film what coffee does to a gray morning. It changes everything.
Richard Linklater’s latest film bursts with energy and spontaneity, but at times it is bitterly hard to swallow. While sitting through its one hour and 40 minutes of seemingly aimless philosophizing, the viewer may fall into that gray morning state, and time passes ponderously.
But suddenly Linklater finds coherence and clarity; the movie’s pipe dream of a world somehow congeals into a reality you can grasp like sips of jolting caffeine. At these moments, “Waking Life” steps trippingly over the boundaries of filmic standards. With its combination of film and animation and its disregard for plot rules, Linklater elevates the medium to unknown realms of intelligence, form, and meaning.
“Waking Life” follows the mental meanderings of actor Wiley Wiggins (whose character’s name is never revealed) as he drifts between dream and reality. A parade of diverse, idiosyncratic characters intersects his path, and each one offers his or her own nugget of tripped-out yet thoughtful wisdom. Meanwhile, Wiggins tries to decipher the mystery of his own conscious experience.
Wiggins is Hunter S. Thompson turned philosopher. He records, he observes, and he absorbs the strange people and images floating across the screen. Linklater peers into the recesses not only of Wiggins’s consciousness, but also of his very perception. Hence the use of animation, the perfect medium for a film that questions the fibers of reality. “Waking Life” dives headfirst into the most puzzling dilemmas mankind can ponder: what is life? What is death? What are dreams? And how do God, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, evolution, creation, nothingness and eternity fit into it all?
Animation, all grown up, allows the film to deftly walk the line between dreams and reality. Using interpolated rotoscoping — a technique in which actors are filmed and then transformed by computer or by paint to animation — Linklater weaves a striking visual complexity into each frame. Characters are constantly morphing from cubist figures to comic-book heroes; lines blur and reshape; colors fade and change.
At first each change seems to be symbolic. Wiggins’s dreams are more visually malleable; characters are exaggerated and elaborated through animation. For instance, a lonely, jailed misfit is red with rage while an evolutionary biologist’s head expands in bursts as if in punctuated equilibrium, a crescendo to some unknown end. Characters tell their stories while shadows, dream-images, and deviations from reality gently echo them.
As the film progresses it becomes impossible to distinguish Wiggins’ dreams from his reality; visual images are no longer clues, they are only complications. The audience cannot grasp a stable reality or a thread of progress. When Wiggins awakens in his bed, he and the audience only begin another dream. What we think are moments of clarity are only mistaken illusions. To match the character’s and the audience’s confusion, the visual imagery veers from solid to floating to symbolic. Linklater suggests that life itself is as unknowable and interpretive.
Like its visuals, “Waking Life” moves in a dream, free of the convention of space-time. This disregard for film normalcy — including plot, progression, and development — occasionally slows the film’s pace. Fortunately Linklater is able to pick up the pieces and form the Big Picture. We finally grasp the continuity, the repetition, and yes, the plot of the film, and we feel like geniuses for our discovery.
As we start to realize exactly what “Waking Life” is doing — coming out of our dream state, if you will — Linklater injects the dialogue with humor and self-reference. Characters begin to contemplate film, as one states, “Cinema in its essence is a reproduction of reality–it has a dimension of time.” The irony of course is what Linklater is actually suggesting through his work: film need not be a reproduction; rather it can be an interpretation that is in turn open to analysis. Life and film — this film in particular — are layered with complexities of perception and interpretation.
“Waking Life” makes a similar suggestion about life itself. While Linklater offers contradictory theories through his characters — whether the world is free or subject to laws, whether reality is a dream or vice versa, whether collective memory or individual alienation dominates human interaction — he finally emphasizes one theme in a long-awaited burst of coherence. “You’re dreaming, but you’re awake. You can do whatever you want” one character states about lucid dreaming, which Linklater ends up offering as a metaphor for life,
Linklater follows this philosophy with his film. “Waking Life” is a savant “Slackers” and a philosophic “Fantasia.” Linklater’s haphazard rejection of a host of philosophies, and his acceptance of the trite “life is a dream” mantra is problematic. But “Waking Life” is a complete success if appreciated for its daring innovation. Like life itself the film floats between people, episodes, dreams, and memory while allowing the audience to impose its own layers of meaning and experience — the movie’s form perfectly fits its message. From Wiggins’ first time floating into the dream world to his final “Vertigo”-style spin into the sky, “Waking Life” is perhaps nothing more than a trip, but it is more than worth taking.