With Waking Life, Richard Linklater's Finally Made a Visually Interesting Movie

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Directed by Richard Linklater

"Hominid," a word most people haven't heard?or spoken?since college, might perfectly describe the cartoon people in Waking Life. They're supposed to be "characters," but with an emphasis on caricatured eccentricity, actually they are no more than Gap ad hominids?idealizations of middlebrow Americans unaware of their own solipsism. The gray-haired, bespectacled professor type who volleys the word "hominid" does so while explaining mankind's nature throughout history. His way of using lecture as conversation is peculiar to director-writer Richard Linklater's method. As in Linklater's best known film, Slacker, harangue is mistaken for drama.

Cartoon animation makes Waking Life more interesting than it would be as live action. Linklater has found an esthetic scam that almost works: more than 30 animation artists were enlisted to rotoscope (draw over) the footage of a digital feature that Linklater had shot in 1999. Art director and animation savant Rob Sabiston developed computer software that made the tracing process possible, allowing the animators creative freedom, giving the film unexpected visual variety and excitement. Linklater's previous films conclusively proved that, like a lot of indies, he lacked visual storytelling skills. (Indies from John Sayles to Neil LaBute have to disguise their own incompetence by addressing topics, pumping up attitudes, that will distract their target audiences from movie esthetics.) So for the first time Linklater employs esthetic whimsy as part of his plans; he's finally made a visually interesting movie. Initially there's genuine esthetic elation watching Waking Life's animation, but then you realize you're stuck at a Richard Linklater talkathon.

An opening gambit shows two children playing a paper folding game that reveals the inscription "Dream Is Destiny"?unlikely for a kid's pastime but the essence of Linklater's conceit. The entire movie is a series of fitful dreaming episodes and "false awakenings" in which the young, college-aged, unnamed protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) encounters numerous American malcontents. They all have speculative tendencies, reminding you of the old student union wisdom, "Stay away from the philosophy majors!" Linklater's animators render each of these talkers with expressionist zeal; what they say shows up in the colors and sketching and details that pop before our eyes. It's better spectacle than one usually gets from the dour, naturalistic acting Linklater prefers. Wiggins is dreaming other people's destinies while also dreaming his own, which Linklater takes as the basis for experimental stylization.

"Are you a dreamer?" a guy who jumps down out of a boxcar asks Wiggins, and the word "dreamer," clearly, becomes a new term for "slacker"?the postcollege fecklessness that Linklater defined in his 1991 debut film. That film, similar to Waking Life, randomly followed casual encounters. But in Waking Life, the sense of seriousness in the endless parleys takes these cartoon figures beyond Slacker to Thumbsucker, Navel-gazer. Nags of a special class: cybercafe types?professors, grad students, artists, even an eloquently rabid convict?they all are preoccupied with "parasitism, dominance...morality, truth, loyalty, justice, freedom"?a behavioral summary that ought to cause the buoyant, jostling imagery to curdle. Instead, because the animators give Linklater all the imagination they got, Waking Life stays appealing even as it sustains lecture hall drone.

I express my ambivalence this bluntly because it is a pop culture certainty that Waking Life will strike a particular audience (bohos who read, write and pretend to take film seriously) as their movie. It's already been praised as a breakthrough in digital video technology, although Ralph Bakshi achieved a similar kind of rotoscoping effect in the features American Pop and Lord of the Rings (and Disney pioneered rotoscoping with the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). But it is necessary to distinguish Waking Life's achievement from its appeal. It has an annoying lack of profundity ("The worst mistake you can make is to think you are alive") that will pass only among viewers innocent enough to believe that Linklater, with his Palm Pilot existentialism, is actually exploring a spiritual condition rather than alluding to one. In other words, it's Fantasia for geeks.

When one character tells Wiggins, "This is absolutely the best time we could possibly be alive. Everything is just starting," Linklater might as well be offering free body piercings. That notion?celebrating naivete?is insipid. And so is the majority of Waking Life jejune. A pillow talk session between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (reprising their loquacious lovebirds from Linklater's Before Sunrise) is emblematic. Their junior-year chic never came across more honestly than here as cartoons. When cartoon Delpy ponders an elderly woman's existence, saying, "My waking life is her memory," cartoon Hawke savors the idea within his own afterglow. Then Delpy caps it: "Reincarnation is just a poetic expression of collective memory." The banal moment offers an ideally stated koan to sucker just the kind of egoists who diss A.I.

Waking Life is ready-made for an era bamboozled by new technology, thinking new methods will provide answers to old questions. It connects to the way indie filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky stumble upon "innovation"; they imagine cobbling an oblong wheel is the same as reinventing the wheel. Linklater and Sabiston's rotoscoping/tracing raises the question: How do we interpret film? Turning low-tech drama into animation rather than exhibiting video footage was no more than expedient. It finds artistic solutions to the indie fashion for shaky cams and swish pans?the impressionistic renderings of a cyclone fence or jiggling water meters are delightful?yet Waking Life feels like neither film nor video. Its hybrid satisfies some unconscious longing in a generation raised on Saturday morning cartoons. The gullible ones may feel their intellectual lives reified, redeemed by the bright colors and fluid substitution of free-floating fantasy for drab realism.


Linklater's decision to animate makes up for his lack of visual magic. Yet, while animation improves Linklater's filmmaking, it diminishes his art. The best sequence shows Wiggins meeting a young woman with red braids who insists they make their encounter meaningful rather than "antlike." Conversing in a dark void, their dialogue manages to be cute, flirtatious and?for the first time in Waking Life?interpersonally inquisitive (a cartoon Linklater also makes contact). Staying on the same level of intellectual banality as the rest of the movie, this stylized sequence never captures the essential marvel of human communication (the subject of several previous scenes, especially a movie theater segment that addresses film critic Andre Bazin on the ontology of the photographic image). Talking this stuff isn't enough. And animation doesn't show it. Film art arises from its demand that we interpret reality. Linklater's "ant" sequence knowingly alludes to Godard's Le Gai Savoir, where a real-life young couple in a tv-studio void flirted their way through the politics of their day. But Linklater's verbose questing is intellectually limited and distanced even further by animation.

Animation deprives Linklater of what Waking Life's movie theater sequence calls "The Holy Moment." Cutting to Wiggins in the audience as he watches two men articulate his own bewilderment onscreen only recalls a tactic that Godard did better in Vivre sa Vie, when Anna Karina watched Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, and that Spielberg updated in The Sugarland Express when his lovers-on-the-lam watched a Road Runner cartoon that anticipated their doom. Linklater and Sabiston climax this sequence by turning the characters into cloud formations. Capturing the struggle to understand life through art was what made those other movies and Le Gai Savoir superb. The distrust in photographic realism?Linklater's inability to imbue film with wonder?may be pretty, but it makes Waking Life trite.

Not to discredit the animators' work. It's consistently marvelous. Wiggins is buttonholed by one character whose lapel button swings as if on a metronome and then morphs into a smiley face, Bozo, 8-ball, a red veiny eyeball, an atom, a Buddha, lightbulb, yin-yang and wreath. It's a metaphor for how Linklater treats each of these short story/encounters as animator daydreams?some figures heavily outlined, some messy. Mass moves like in Caroline Leaf cartoons. There are Bearden color patches. A segment of Utrillo tree patterns turns into Matisse street grids. Some Alex Katz-like faces have almond eyes, or a nose suggested by a slanted uppercase "L." But this gallery of art styles doesn't cohere around a meaning. The idea that the characters (and animators) are "onieronauts" exploring the dream world as a means of probing existence is as fatuous as Linklater's other aphorisms: "Remember what Benedict Anderson says about identity? We are regenerating every seven years yet we remain ourselves." "What is the most universal human characteristic? Fear or laziness?"

That last ditty recalls Kevin Smith's dumbass arrogance. Linklater suggests a Kevin Smith who went to college, which means Waking Life is philosophical the way Dogma was hermeneutical. That is, not very. Animation being ontologically false makes Linklater's serious pretense absurd. His violent moments, like a man's self-immolation, are just dumb. In Persona the use of such an event retained political resonance while attesting to the fact of life and death. Waking Life's Crayola hominids avoid politics and reality. None of their chatter amounts to communication. It's just wan alternative animation?and little of it is actually funny. Doesn't Linklater know Krazy Kat is superior to Ayn Rand?

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