A stupendous film written and directed by Richard Linklater
In telling about this film, one stops. Thinks, starts to speak stops again. In describing it, first word we would reach for is surreal. This is most important. As well, we have the words possibilities, mind trip, and fluid perception.
“Waking Life” is filmed in a brand new way, superimposing digital animation on live-action digital video. The resulting film is a brightly colored cartoon world where everything seems to be in constant flux. No image is static, they are constantly rippling and heaving. The visual movement suggests that the universe and all matter are constantly changing, a fable-like metaphor for open-ended perception, and the application of technique is brilliant. Here is where you apply the first adjective. Surreal, surreal, surreal. Terrific.
Right at the beginning we are faced with a haunting image of a boy, about nine years old. Striped T-shirt, he takes hold of the car door handle as his body begins to float out from under him. Tugged by some mysterious force into the atmosphere, he clings tightly, resisting, refusing to drift away. This is the scene that fades us into the film proper.
Which is the most universal human characteristic, fear or laziness?*
So we talk about plot, or story line, or narrative. At the center of all this dazzling visual activity we have an unnamed fellow (played by Wiley Wiggins) who wakes up in a dream, who spends most of the film in a dream-state. This laid-back fellow seems to be a college student who is meandering through life accumulating information without heading towards a goal. The information is gathered from a series of interactions with seemingly random people; students, teachers, street people and television personalities. The film merges from one scene to the next by a mere shimmering of screen colors or by zooming in for a close-up and coming through a face into another location, where our nameless protagonist keeps ambling through this fluidity. It is only midway in his circuitous journey that he realizes that every time he thinks he has awakened, he has only entered another chapter of an ongoing dream. Hence, he is never quite sure whether he is conscious or not, never sure whether the people he is talking to are real, or imagined.
Your life is yours to create.*
Chapter after chapter, our nameless guy is listening. What is gathered is a hodge-podge of life theories and human consciousness. Some make sense, some are too intellectual or scientific to follow properly, some are totally ludicrous. Sources offered range from Andre Bazin to Philip K. Dick to Jean-Paul Sartre. Not all of theories fit together without contradiction, not all of them quite answer any or everything. Mostly what we are offered are questions, not conclusions. Not all encounters in the film were scripted – some were improvised and hence what Linklater has given us is extremely fluid and open-ended. He creates a dialogue with us, the viewers, in which we interweave our own experiences into our interpretation of the realities shown. I told you we would need the words possibilities, speculations and fluid perception.
There's only one instant, and it's right now, and it's eternity.*
Okay. I will tell you what: It is easy to imagine watching Linklater’s movie stoned, is easy to imagine it would be a good experience. It is also tempting, while watching it, to sit back and let it all flow right over you, to let what-if what-if what-if flow to a cumulative impact that the New York Times calls ‘a stoned-out Big Bang of human thought’. It would be good, but it is even better to absorb it while fully attentive. The dialogue is such that is extremely flexible, dexterous; addresses difficult ideas without seeming overbearing. Appearances are deceiving; the cartoonish animation should only serve to heighten the significance of what we are told, to make each one more visually distinct from the other as well as to demonstrate the crazy patchwork of human experience. Let me tell you, it would not be a bad idea to see this movie twice, there is also subtle humor and humanity in there that should not be treated lightly.
But: But: Oh yes. You'd do well to remember the words of Linklater when he introduced the movie at the Sundance Film Festival.
"How many of you out there are on drugs?" Linklater asked the audience. Several hands went up. "Good," he said. "This is for you. The rest of you, just bear with me."
And then - some of Linklater’s words regarding the first scene with the little boy, and further discussing his film, dreams and reality perception:
That is a very early memory of mine… I call it a memory, but obviously it took place in a dream state. When you're a little kid, you don't really make the distinction that clearly. I remember it very clearly because it was scary but kind of exhilarating — a sort of nongravity, upward pull away from what you felt the whole world was, but at the same time there was some force begging me to stay.
As you get older, you build up a solid model of real versus unreal, and you start depreciating the unreal… The way a film works on a person's brain is very much like the way a dream unfolds. You sort of accept it, and you fall into it, yet you don't really — something holds you back… in`Waking Life'… the film becomes conscious of itself and … you become conscious of watching a film. It parallels the experience of waking up in a dream — when you become conscious that you're dreaming.
WAKING LIFE, 2001:
Written and directed by Richard Linklater.
Music score by Glover Gill, performed by Tosca Tango Orchestra
Running time: 99 minutes.
Rated R for profanity.
Credited cast overview:
Oh yeah, the italicized quotes are from the film.
Thnks to NYTIMES.COM and IMDB