Much has been said about Waking Life’s great technical achievement, and with good reason. Animator Bob Sabiston’s groundbreaking technique and style alone make Waking Life worth seeing.
Beneath the look, beneath the technique, what lies beneath is a stew of philosophies about life and dreams. Sometimes insightful, sometimes pretentious, and slightly too numerous, these philosophies are the backbone of the film.
R for language, violence
Did You Notice?
Director Richard Linklater collaborated very closely with art director and lead animator Bob Sabiston. First Linklater directed the movie using video tape. Sometimes he directed actors (Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy all return to Linklater from previous films). Sometimes he interviewed interesting friends and mentors, documentary-style. In most cases his subjects talk about dream life, but there are many rhetorical tangents as well.
Linklater then edited this footage and passed it off to Sabiston, who imported the movie to a computer. Using software he created, Sabiston electronically painted over the actors and their surroundings. Sabiston and his team of thirty animators worked independently, each one interpreting Linklater’s footage in his or her own fanciful style.
The film is made of a series of monologues and dialogues (about thirty or so by my count). These segments are loosely held together by a bookending story about a wanderer who dreams these encounters. No scene lasts more than a couple of minutes, and no character is given a name.
You have to see the movie to really get it. But as an example, an early scene has a woman talking about the evolution of words. As she describes the process of sound traveling from her mouth to your ears and through your brain, the animators sketch a schematic of sound moving through air and through neural pathways. She continues by saying that language was evolutionarily useful for conveying important information, like “there’s a saber-tooth tiger right behind you,” and the animators draw a pair of eyes and stripes drifting through the background.
Most of the animators’ techniques aren’t quite so literal or obvious. They tend to be more subtle and artistic in this new form of expressionism. In one segment, a man’s head grows and shrinks with the intensity of his voice. In another, the color of a man’s face mimics the emotion and anger in his voice. On the other hand, one comment I heard (and agree with) was that Linklater could have pushed the envelope even further, that too many of the segments were too normal. Another conversation centers on how film, which records reality, is different from literature. Literature is better for narrative stories than film, they agree, because it does not limit your imagination to the physical reality of actors, props, and settings. At the end of their conversation, the two men transform into clouds shaped like men, both proving and contradicting everything they’ve just said
Love, Like, and Life
I was hoping to come away loving Waking Life. It’s got such an interesting technique and such a talented, interesting director, that I hoped it would unquestionably be the best film of the year. But it’s not. Although I liked it, there are parts which are boring and pretentious, and the whole film is about 10 to 15 minutes too long.
For example, one seemingly rewarding scene reunites two actors from Before Sunrise, one of Linklater’s earlier films. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were two lovers who parted at the end of that film, leaving their reunion up in the air. Seeing them again, I felt, was a reward for being a Linklater fan.
But their particular conversation didn’t seem particularly deep or meaningful or True (capital T). In fact, Hawke goes off with utter sincerity about some crazy notion about crossword puzzles being easier to solve once someone else has solved them, (his point being that there is a Jungian connection between all people, and that this connection can carry information).
Another one or two philosophers spout some theories that may be interesting in a one-on-one coffee conversation, but just sound flaky as an isolated two-minute scene in a movie. Certainly not every segment is pretentious or strange — some do offer insight. The beauty of Linklater’s film is that no two people will agree on which scenes are flaky and which insightful.
Thirty Views of Reality
Still, by exploring thirty views of reality, there’s no keeping them straight, and after about 25, I had lost all interest in trying to keep up. I’m not sure I could convince anyone else which five should have been cut, but there was just a little too much going on for me to absorb in 97 minutes. Maybe a second viewing would let me soak it in, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet.
Waking Life is quite an achievement, and Linklater deserves many congratulations and possibly a few awards. It’s not a perfect film, and it may not be for all tastes, but it is worth a look.