Waking Life

Lawrence Russell

Waking Life (2001) "written" and dir. Richard Linklater cine. R. Linklater & Tommy Pallotta art dir. Bob Sabiston edt. Sandra Adair music Tosca Tango Orchestra (score by Glover Gill)

animators: too many to mention

star. various profs, comedians, actors & sundry from the Austin, Texas, community


20th Century Fox 100 mins

You're living in Austin, Texas. You want to make a movie... but not the usual Lone Star vigilante action feature. Howz about an animated essay, sorta French New Wave... like Jean-Luc Godard run through Adobe Photoshop or some other digi software. Solarize, posterize, fantabulize. Remember the way Godard interviews Belmondo or an extra, has him respond to a bunch of questions that you never hear? Splice these monologues into the action... cryptic, elliptic, tres mondo mystic. You could do this, and you could have some other guys do their own routines, splice them in too. Music? Just do what Godard does in First Name Carmen, get a string ensemble, include them in the action too. Hand-held camera, spontaneous action/reaction... the dialectic of fiction and documentary. Narrative? Easy. What the hell is narrative but a procession of events. This could be cool, guys....

Waking Life: get astral

Richard Linklater's Waking Life is "cool", exploits the plasticity of digital photography and impressionist landscape painting in a very powerful and provocative way. The animation is a type of rotoscoping where the characters are photographed and the backgrounds replaced with drawings. The blending of digital and analogue, techno and human, is great. While a team of animators is used, the documentary effect of straight photography is humanized (or psychologized) by good old-fashioned art.

And this isn't just some retro expanded cinema exercise in synaesthesia for the night trippers. The entire architecture of the style supports the subject: is life a dream? Or, as Linklater puts the question, "Are we sleep-walking through our waking state or wake-walking through our dreams?"

mind-body dualism

A generic young American man -- could be 1970 vintage, could be 2000 -- called Wiley Wiggins seems to be "sleep-walking" his way through life. While most people dream of peculiar sexual assignations, ambushes and various forms of treachery, Wiley seems to be trapped in an academic hellscape where various profs and other experts declaim on sundry subjects including existentialism, language and communication, evolution, free will and choice, trans-this and trans-that... a lot of awfully clever qua qua qua stuff that might remind you of the table of contents of The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance (Pergamon Press, 1977) or pot parties with Profs X , Y and Z. His astral journey starts as a child when he observes a comet in the sky, has to grab the door handle of the family sedan to keep himself from floating away.

Waking Life a dodgey fellow in a boat-car

The beauty is in the ambiguity. He takes the good old Freudian train to some city and finds no one is there to meet him. He's eyed up by a foxy chick but keeps moving. He steps out of the station, looks for a taxi. A boat-car pulls up, and a dodgey looking fellow offers him a ride. As Wiley doesn't seem to know where he's going, he's dropped off somewhere at random... and so his adventure goes.

Whatever you think of these anonymous profs, writers, comedians and other dream figures, there's a fascinating level of obsession within their monologues. New, exciting ideas... or just plain old deja vu, you do notice that the sane and the clearly insane sound very similar. Linklater: "The aesthetic of ideas, information... is coming at us, 100 miles an hour... for example, the Internet."

This dream noise makes for interesting random possibilities. Wiley encounters a social malcontent (J.C. Shakespeare) wearing a black T-shirt, and they walk the walk like old friends, arrive at a gas station where the man fills up a gas can. He never stops monologuing, so when he asks Wiley for some matches, you might not even notice. They arrive at the entrance to some public building where he douses himself with gas, immolates himself in some vague protest just like a Buddhist monk in Saigon, 1966. Yes -- "extraordinary ideas require extraordinary solutions."

you're all gonna die

One of the best sequences features Charles Gunning as an anonymous prisoner in red ranting in his solitary cell about the revenge he's going to exact on persons unknown when he gets out. The hatred is sublime. The scene is a lift from Hubert Selby Jr.'s The Room. "You're all gonna die," growls the man in red, his voice heavy with vengeance. Who is he? What's his problem? He's merely another random incident, a piece of channel surf, more noise.

the hatred is sublime

A similar scene has Stephen Prince [you might remember him as the gun bootlegger in Scorcese's Taxi Driver] telling a barman about what happened in the desert outside of Vegas. This routine is like something out of Charles Bukowski, ends with both men shooting each other. This slice of American death counterpoints with another bar conversation, featuring Prof. Louis Mackey, expert on the SF writer Philip K. Dick, talking about Time, dream and reality. If you happen to pass through Austin, stay clear of Lala's bar.

Two women authors discuss aging... a man drives through the urban streets in an old Plymouth, declaiming his philosophy through a hailer like some political propagandist on the hustle... meanwhile Wiley wanders through rooms, offices, public places trying to wake up or at least make sense of life. For the most part, his dreams are fairly innocent. The synchronicity of ideas does not include the atomic bomb.

So does he wake up? Where does this meta-dream lead? Well, where can it go if circularity is the subject....

the decoupage of comic books

Waking Life is certainly one of the most interesting films of this sort since Rene Laloux's 1973 Fantastic Planet. For people who failed in school or for whom school failed, it's not likely to be of much interest. You might think it's too long at times, repetitive in its discourse, even though there's no question about the uniqueness of each character. Linklater addresses these criticisms in his director's Audio-Commentary (included as "Bonus Features") when he says that ideas can be revisited whether or not you use them today. The nostalgia for debate, say.

Waking Life is what a large part of film culture will become -- a synthesis of photo realism and hand-crafted detailing. Oddly, it's an old-fashioned concept, just like painted sets for live actors in the theatre. Now, the sound stage becomes the computer.

You're in Austin, Texas... and for some reason you're real thirsty and you're in LaLa's. Jesus... who's that guy in black wearing the poncho, standing, other end of the bar? Stevie Ray Vaughan? "You're right, man," he says. "Human vibrato beats a software occillator anytime, any place." And over there... isn't that the beauty you met in a dream three, four years ago? Yes. She recognizes you. She's with Godard, the movie director. "The decoupage of comic books is the preferred method for montage," he says. "As for Louis Malle, you know and I know he's...."

© LR 6/02


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