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Waking Life

Richard Linklater

Audiences looking for something fresh and different, not to mention a head trip, will find it in Waking Life, an appealing new work from Richard Linklater that can legitimately be called innovative. Shot on digital video, edited, then ‘animated’ via a computer technique called interpolated rotoscoping, the picture possesses a sort of floating, impressionistic look that may resemble certain animated films but has certainly never been used to such pointed artistic effect, and certainly not in a feature.
After running aground with his last two features, SubUrbia and The Newton Boys, Linklater regrouped to make two unconventional films, the other being Tape. For Waking Life, the director joined forces with computer animator Bob Sabiston, who oversaw the post-production process in which 31 animation artists ‘drew’ over Linklater’s live-action footage, with individual artists generally given separate characters to allow for a variety of styles and interpretations. Computer technique enables so-called brushstrokes to be ‘stretched’ across many frames of film, which has resulted in a striking effect in which colours, lines, characters and objects are continually flowing and moving. Not only is this perfectly in keeping with the film’s dreamlike state, but the method createsowhether intentionally or notoan aptly unstable visual correlative to the wide assortment of points of view heard in the verbal riffs the characters serve up.
Visual element aside, the best way to characterise the experience of the film is as a sort of undergraduate schmooze session in which lots of well-read, highly verbal, occasionally fatuous individuals offer a collective crash course on modern ways of interpreting human existence. Sounding board for it all is a young, shaggy-haired, virtually mute Everyman (played by Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused) who floats around, ostensibly dreaming his encounters with people more than willing to bend his ear with their insights.
One spends the first few minutes marvelling at, and getting used to, the look of the film, which ushers in a new urban location with each character and features objects and spaces that persist in jostling and wobbling around within the frame. Humans and inanimate details are sometimes quite realistic, even recognisable (for example, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the stars of Linklater’s Before Sunrise, are immediately identifiable in an engaging bed chat), but the computer ‘painting’ can give subjects forms, movements and dimensions that are wildly exaggerated, limber and stylised in cartoon-like fashion.
Non-existent ‘storyline’ has the young vagabond arriving by train in a town. Given a ride by a fellow in a curious car-boat, the wanderer encounters a professor type who insists that existentialism has been misunderstood as the religion of despair and hopelessness, whereas it should instead be thought of as the most hopeful of philosophies since it suggests that our destinies are entirely in our own hands. Besides, he adds, Sartre claimed never to have experienced despair in his life. And so it goes, as the sponge-like Candide absorbs other individuals’ takes on a myriad of subjectsofrom evolution, alienation, the media, the commonality of knowledge, the curtailing of freedom in contemporary society and corporate slavery to art, acting, levels of awareness, Andre Bazin and, of course, dreaming, which is a persistent motif. . . .
The eagerness and earnestness with which the movie addresses its subjects, and the lack of cynicism with which it does so, is something most people don’t encounter in life after college. Still, even for those out of academia and not on mind-altering substances whose patience might be slightly tired by all the talk, Linklater has made a highly distinctive, quite original film that distracts the mind and engages the eyes.
U.S.A., 2001. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 99 mins.

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