****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring "Wiley Wiggins and an ensemble of 74 other actors"
written and directed by Richard Linklater
by Walter Chaw It begins with a child's game that ends with the chilling premonition "Dream is destiny" and closes with what appears to be the fulfillment of that statement. Richard Linklater's Waking Life is an anti-narrative with no discernible story arc: The film's conflict arises between its characters' varying cosmologies and the challenge that that presents to the viewer's own existential verities, such as Descartes's dictum cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"). Waking Life is one of the most interesting and engaging films of a year that sports its fair share of complex, fascinating fare (Mulholland Drive, Va Savoir).
The trick to flying, the late Douglas Adams suggested, is to fall but to miss the ground. Waking Life is an ontological plunge into Sartre, Bazin, and Philip K. Dick on the wings of Jung's collective, Augustine's devotion, and Kirkegaard's dread. It's brave enough to fall and buoyant enough to fly. The first film to extensively employ the technique of rotoscoping live-action images into animation since Ralph Bakshi's 1978 The Lord of the Rings, the method behind Waking Life's madness is a good deal more than a tripped-out psychedelic nightmare. The first question of why Linklater would shoot his actors on digital video before transforming them into jittering, now-abstract/now-expressionist versions of themselves is answered by the goal of Waking Life to function as a giant rhetorical conundrum. What is the nature of reality, and how does the role of the observer pervert that nature?
When the questions are posed by representations (cartoon figures) of representations (characters in a film) of humanity, our perception of what washes out as a slacker version of My Dinner with Andre melded with, if also at literal odds with, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is undermined and destabilized. When two characters at a cafÃ© talk about Bazin's "holy moment" on a virtual movie screen, with the eternally unnamed protagonist mirroring our reactions in a darkened theater, Linklater audaciously crumbles the space separating the audience and the film even as the picture attacks the malaise of the day-to-day. Waking Life operates in the negative space defined by Manny Farber's "termite art"--"[It] goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager industrious, unkempt activity." Waking Life is so alive with ideas that it boils and teems with them.
Dreams within dreams within dreams... Our hero (Wiley Wiggins) chases meaning through a series of encounters and conversations with sage or self-indulgent philosophers and burn-outs, each exhibiting a joy for the mystery of existence that shames the rote and lackadaisical products that crowd the cineplex. The search is a struggle for Wiggins to awake in both senses of the word, and failing wakefulness to employ "lucid dreaming" to affect his conversations with the players in his dreamscape. The first half of the film is largely an act of listening, the second half one of discovery.
Linklater himself appears at a pinball machine to tell an extended anecdote about author Philip K. Dick and in so doing pinpoints a rare epiphany in cinema in which the face of God appears to highlight His own confusion and lack of geography. Vaguely recalling Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back only to the extent that Waking Life is the product of a young auteur who references his past works in a largely non-linear progression, Linklater's grand experiment highlights the differing directions the two artists have taken in their evolution. While Smith's work has become an embarrassed in-joke, Linklater uses characters from Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused to highlight his ideologies. The former's failure highlights the latter's brilliance, and Waking Life is the work of a career.
by Bill Chambers Waking Life arrives on a heartily-supplemented disc from Fox Video. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colourful transfer represents, one presumes, a direct port from digital elements--the sole evidence of celluloid is in the dirt visible during the Fox Searchlight logo's fade to white. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is right for the feature, which is to say, restrained and elegant, with music providing the only instances of wrap-around. Bonus material begins at three commentaries that are for once neither redundant nor superfluous. The first is a text-based and geared towards elaborating the various philosophies introduced by the characters, while the second, a screen-specific yakker with Linklater, animation producers Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallotta, and star Wiggins, focuses on the seeds of the project and the execution of the raw, live-action footage. The third, another audio commentary, gathers together all twenty-five members of the animation team to discuss specific visual approaches.
Moving on, in the enlightening "Waking Life Studio" we have trailers for Waking Life and the upcoming The Banger Sisters; a 4-minute EPK featurette that's basically a string of shots behind-the-scenes of both the shoot and animation sessions; the "Animation Scrap Heap," 19 brief snippets of early sketches, including a primitive version of the "Boat Car" sequence that mixed and matched drawing styles to confusing effect; "Greatest Hits: The Live Action Version," a 12-minute montage of how Waking Life looked in-camera (we could've had a truly film school-ish mini-DV production on our hands); Bob Sabiston's Animation Tutorial (20 mins.), a thorough piece in which he demonstrates the technique of modern rotoscoping (tracing over existing video with a light pen), though one wishes it had been recorded using a better mic; Sabiston's evocative experimental short Snack and Drink (4 mins.), wherein two guys go to 7-11; "First Pass: Bob and Rick's Animation Test" (3 mins.), a pastiche of "tests" that could use more of a context behind it; and finally, extensive biographies for Wiggins, Linklater, Sabiston, Pallotta, and key members of the crew. Originally published: May 6, 2002.