One of the best scenes in Richard Linklater's Waking Life shows a group of disaffected young men cruising the streets. They mouth slogans about the evils of consumerism, the society of the spectacle and the need to "create situations" in everyday life. Then they spot a very old, gummy guy perched up the top of a telephone pole. "What are you doing up there?" "Nothing." "Do you need any help?" "Ah, no". As they trundle off, one of the young neo-Situationist philosophers muses, "We're no better than him. He's all practice and no theory, we're all theory and no practice."
It is not often that one sees such a daggy, droll scene in an American animated feature. Waking Life is an unusual project at every level. Linklater shot and edited, very quickly and cheaply, with a great deal of improvisation, a feature on digital videotape. The material is in the manner of his first feature, Slacker (1991) – a meander though everyday life, where a bunch of obsessive, eccentric, befuddled people talk endlessly, one by one, about how they see the world.
From the start, Linklater intended this material to be turned over to a large team of animators – each of whom would take a single sequence and transform it, with the help of software invented by Bob Sabiston. At its most basic level, this is a version of the technique known as rotoscoping, which is extensively used in mainstream animation – the tracing of bodily movements and facial gestures from live-action footage.
Waking Life, however, pushes this technique in radical directions. On the one hand, we can never forget that much of what we see – and virtually all of what we hear – depends on real people with their odd ways of moving and speaking. On the other hand, the animators were encouraged to take the images in surreal directions. So the colours and contours constantly shift and change, faces mutate, and strange objects frequently appear in the air.
All of this is part of the film's loose theme. Waking Life poses as an investigation into the relationship between dreams and reality. The teenage hero wanders about asking friends, teachers and strangers about imagination, "lucid dreaming", and intense experiences of all kinds. At a certain point, it becomes clear that he, too, is caught in a dream – and that no matter how many times he seemingly wakes up, he is still floating through an imagined world.
Just as reality is a far-off land that the hero only occasionally glimpses, the original footage shot by Linklater exists only as a kind of trace that can never be completely made out.
This is a project that gently puts into question several of the usual tools of reviewing. Authorship, for example – is it still possible to still call this Linklater's film when the diverse styles of so many different graphic artists (essentially undirected by Linklater) are on display? Perhaps Linklater should be seen more as a genial ringmaster here than an auteur.
Or performance – can we really say Wiley Wiggins is the star of a movie in which his appearance changes radically every few minutes, and in which his real self is never glimpsed? Yet there can be no doubt that his personality permeates every frame of the finished work.
Waking Life is an intriguing project, and certainly the first of a new kind of popular movie. It is never quite as good or inventive as it could have been. After a splendid opening scene involving a group of musicians (Glover Gill and the Tosca Tango Orchestra) in rehearsal – in which every element in the image literally dances – too many of the scenes are inert. Talk dominates, as in so many films of an American indie persuasion – and when the words stop, bare silence creates an uncomfortable void.
The animators do not liberate themselves enough from the photographic raw material. Linklater sometimes lets himself explore frankly fantastic possibilities, such as when a protester sets himself alight, or two men engage in violent gunplay, or a film theory lecture/performance is delivered by an extremely gifted monkey.
Too often, however, the animation only adds a kind of illustrative doodling – if someone mentions birds, a bird flies through the frame, if the conversation turns to love, a heart pops up and then vanishes.
The film captures a youthfully naïve state of gasbagging about all things existential – peppered with an occasional note of New Age mysticism or a professorial remark like: "I have read the postmodernists with some interest and even admiration."
This is, ultimately, both the charm and the limitation of Waking Life. I sometimes thought I would scream if I saw yet another mass of wavy lines accompanied by yet another airy statement to the effect that "life is a dream" or another breathless reverie about the need to "live in the moment".
Yet, for all its maddening, hit-and-miss looseness, Waking Life does give Linklater a perfect way to express his dearest themes and moods – that poignant sense of the meaning of life slipping away at every moment, before you have a chance to grasp it.
© Adrian Martin March 2002