Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Waking Life

Grade : A+ Year : 2001 Director : Richard Linklater Running Time : 1hr 39min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Perhaps no other writer-director in modern cinema has made dialogue so intoxicating and alive than Richard Linklater has in his best films, whether it’s the adjoining of two young minds and souls for all-too-brief times in his “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” or it’s the exploration of worldviews with no easy answers in his 2001 film “Waking Life.” Sure, Quentin Tarantino is hipper, the Coen Brothers are quirkier, Cameron Crowe is more humanist and real, and Judd Apatow is funnier, but Linklater comes from a place beyond mere entertainment that puts him in the company with the great cinematic philosophers in history. To compare his work in the above three films to that of Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, and Bergman is not an overstatement.

What distinguishes “Waking Life” from the “Before” films- and several of the works of the three mentioned above (except perhaps Tarkovsky and selected works of Bergman’s)- is how the visuals plays an equal part in imparting the ideas as the dialogue does. This is by design. Linklater shot the film on low-end digital equipment, and then, with the aide of art director Bob Sabiston, painted over the film with low-tech computer animation that harkens back to the old-fashioned techniques of roto-scoping, while exaggerating the ideas and emotions of the actors visually so that we get a more profound sense of what they’re saying. At no point do we feel we aren’t watching an animated film, but the process involved gives it a more weighty and real sense than regular animation processes could.

Linklater’s script- done in collaboration with many of his actors no doubt- is up to the task (with a musically-evocative score by Glover Gill that provides a great assist, as played by the Tosca Tango Orchestra). His goal isn’t to tell a story but to present a series of ideas and worldviews for his protagonist (unnamed, but played by his “Dazed and Confused” star Wiley Wiggins) to consider in his perpetual dream state, starting with a flashback from childhood where he’s told “dream is destiny” and continuing through a series of encounters and vignettes (including one between “Before” stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as they continue their conversation from “Before Sunrise,” and point towards their future encounter in “Before Sunset”) that all leads up to one profound truth- that we’re all fundamentally on the same journey, contiinually saying “no” until we’re ready to say “yes.” True, a lot of the dialogue- including snippets from the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Lewis Black, the manic Speed Levitch, and others- is the type of Philosophy 101 speak you’ll hear from the most pretentious professors and students, but if you open your mind enough, you’ll find some insightful truths about life hidden in plain sight. Among my favorite moments of dialogue:

“Hey. Could we do that again? I know we haven’t met, but I don’t want to be an ant. You know? I mean, it’s like we go through life with our antennas bouncing off one another, continously on ant autopilot, with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?’ “Credit or debit?” “You want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw. I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?”

“Things have been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming is dead, no one does it anymore. It’s not dead it’s just that it’s been forgotten, removed from our language. Nobody teaches it so nobody knows it exists. The dreamer is banished to obscurity. Well, I’m trying to change all that, and I hope you are too. By dreaming, every day. Dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced, ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored, this is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting.

“The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity is that I think it has something very important to offer us… I’m afraid were losing the real virtues of living life passionately in the sense of taking responsibility for who you are the ability to make something of yourself and feel good about life. Existentialism is often discussed as if it were a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre, once interviewed, said he never felt once minute of despair in his life. One thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life so much as a real kind of exuberance, of feeling on top of it, its like your life is yours to create. Ive read the post modernists with some interest, even admiration, but when I read them I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as being fragmented of marginalised, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when sartre talks about responsibilty, he’s not talking about something abstract. He’s not taling about the kind of self or souls that theologians would talk about. Hes talking about you and me talking, making descisions, doing things, and taking the consequences. It might be true that there are six billion people in this world, and counting, but nevertheless -what you do makes a difference. It makes a difference, first of all, in material terms, to other people, and it sets an example. In short, I think the message here is that we shouuld never write ourselves off or see eachother as a victim of various forces. It’s always our descision who we are.”

One of the things that appeals most to me about this film is that it doesn’t have all the right answers. It’s searching for the truth, just as I and everyone else is. And it’s fun to watch, even if it seems like it should be a chore. True, if your mind is closed to the possibilities life throws at you, it might appear to be just another college lecture with pretty pictures moving constantly in front of your eyes. And true, the ever-moving (often handheld) feel of the camera will no doubt overload some senses, but “Waking Life” isn’t about finding the right answers, it’s about the active experience of asking the questions and searching for our own. There’s no fundamental “right and wrong” in life, no one correct way of thinking- we’ve seen what that kind of thinking has brought in history, from Nazi Germany to Southern segregation to the tragedies of September 11 to our current geopolitical nightmare in Iraq. Linklater isn’t interested in telling us what to think, but he’s wanting us to open our minds and think about what matters most to us. “Waking Life” is about being awake in your life, letting your dreams carry you away, and making sense of ourselves in a way that best benefits others. Few films have been more stimulating to watch over the years, and fewer have stimulating my mind greater.

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