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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: Waking Life (2001)

* * * *

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Wiley Wiggins

He can't always tell whether or not he's dreaming. At times he believes he's woken up, but as he goes about his business he picks up a clue that what he's experiencing isn't real and he's right back where he started, drifting from one philosophical conversation to the next. Richard Linklater's Waking Life is a film about dreams which aims to replicate the feeling of dreaming, submerging the viewer in a realm of deep, existential questions explored in a free flowing style, going "nowhere" but touching on everything. With its incredibly talky screenplay, loose narrative structure, and rotoscoped animation, Waking Life is a film that probably sounds like an acquired taste, the kind of exercise that only a film buff could love, but approached with an open mind, it's a film that I reckon can be embraced by any kind of viewer it's so engaging and utterly engrossing.

Waking Life's protagonist - unnamed, credited as "Main Character" and played by Wiley Wiggins - is first seen on a train, seemingly on a trip or returning home from a trip. He calls a friend he was hoping would give him a ride, briefly makes eye contact with a woman who will pop up later, and then ends up getting a ride from a man driving a boat, who drops him off in a random location where he ends up being hit by a car. Or does he? How much of Waking Life is a dream is up for debate. It's entirely probable that the whole thing is a dream, though later in the film an idea will be voiced that what comes after death is a perpetual dream state from which the dreamer will never wake, so perhaps the film's opening takes place in reality and the dream only begins after the Main Character is hit by the car and dies - though if that is the case, then the film depicts reality as stranger than dreams, as the "boat car" is one of the more bizarrely dream-like elements in the film. Ultimately, though, it doesn't really matter which parts are the film's reality and which parts are dreams because the dream premise isn't the point. The point is to explore the unanswerable questions, including the nature and meaning of dreams, through a series of monologues and dialogues.

Waking Life moves from one topic to another as the Main Character encounters various people who expound on various ideas. Sometimes the Main Character does not factor into a scene at all and new characters (include the Before series' Jesse and Celine) just pop into the film, have a scene to themselves, and then the film throws it back to Main Character. During the first half of the film, the Main Character mostly just listens and observes, but he gradually becomes more involved in conversations, and then becomes actively aware that he's in a dream and directly addresses his predicament, at one point asking a woman he's in conversation with what it feels like to be a character in a dream. But being in a dream, despite the fact that it allows for endless possibilities, becomes a minor torment for the protagonist who, at times, believes that he's woken up, only to later be alerted to something (the unreadable digits of a clock, a light that can't be turned off) which signals that he's still in a dream. As is perhaps inevitable, the film winds its way back to the place where it began and ends on a note that may inspire more debate than anything that comes before.

Waking Life is a film which is constantly shifting. The protagonist drifts from one scene to another (or one dream to another), the topics of discussion changing abruptly along with the animation, as each new scene is animated by someone different. The decision to animate the film, and specifically to use rotoscoping (a technique whereby live action scenes are overlaid with animation), is key to its success as it allows Waking Life to capture a very specific kind of surreal image that feels like it's not quite animation and not quite live action, but somewhere in between. From a technical standpoint animation opens up possibilities because it means that if a filmmaker wants to, say, have one of its characters float off into space, then it can be accomplished easily. From the standpoint of establishing a mood and audience expectation, animation works (not unlike the use of black and white) to cue audiences to the fact that world on screen is not the real world and will not always play by the same rules. Because the film is mostly just a series of people talking there's no reason that it could not have been told via live action, but the rotoscoping helps further divorce the action on screen from reality and eases the viewer into the flow of the film.

While its philosophical interests and many colorful characters are enough to engage the audience, what ultimately makes Waking Life work is the way that Linklater is able to capture the feeling of dreaming. We enter and leave scenes abruptly, exit one scene and then enter another which would not naturally follow in a traditional narrative, meet characters who disappear as quickly as they appear and have seemingly no connection to anything else in the story, and so on. As a viewer, this is a film that you just sort of have to go along with, letting it carry you along in its currents because the flow of ideas and sensory information is so dense. It's also a film which rewards multiple viewings for the same reason; there is a lot embedded in the film and picking up all of it in one shot would be difficult. Waking Life is a film which I know many people have written off as pretentious and even boring and I can easily understand that - the "pretentious" part, at least. Although I don't personally find it pretentious (in general I think that Linklater's vibe as a filmmaker is too laid back and relaxed to qualify as pompous), I think the preoccupation with philosophical questions, particularly the sort that often transfix first year University students, opens the door to that criticism. But boring? I can't fathom how a film this imaginative, engaging, and often fascinating could ever be called "boring."

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