Waking Life (2001): Linklater’s Inventive Animation

Judging by his temperament and interests, Richard Linklater was born to be an independent director; the amorphous crime-gangster The Newton Boys, his only big-budget studio movie, proved that point. Waking Life, a highly inventive animated film, takes Linklater back to his home in Austin and Slacker, the cult nobudget indie that put him on the map ten years ago. Shot on digital video, using an innovative animation technique that paints on filmed imagery, the nonlinear text represents a summation of all the quasi-philosophical concerns that have define Linklater as a cinematic spokesperson for Gen-X. A warm reception at its Sundance world premiere should bode well for select theatrical bookings, and longer life on the festival circuit and other ancillary markets.

If Waking Life came out before Slacker, it would have been a visionary work boasting a new kind of discourse. Since it hasn’t, inevitable comparisons will be made with Slacker and other Linklater films (Before Sunrise), but these contrasts should only enrich the experience of watching his new movie. The scope is impressive, boasting the work of 30 animators, who drew over the live-action footage that Linklater first shot with a cast of over 50 actors. To maintain the unique look, each character was interpreted and animated by a different artist.

The film doesn’t flaunt its experimentation, but rather integrates it into a ground-breaking work that interweaves dream-like animation and free-floating dialogue in an effort to convey the inner-lives and subconsciousness of a whole generation. Boldly structured, the film has some unexceptional and even indulging moments, but it never becomes a dry academic treatise.

Waking Life can be viewed as channel-surfing or door-opening of a brilliant, undisciplined mind that’s inherently restless, searching for answers to impossibly intriguing questions. Viewers seeking a consistent point of view will have to be attentive for it’s often hidden between the lines. Serving as tour guide is a vagabond intellectual (Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins), who arrives into town by train and his eccentric soliloquy sets the tone for a film that drifts down roads not usually taken. It’s no coincidence that Slacker and Before Sunrise had similar beginnings and were also set on the road: Circular narratives and constant shifts in time and place are integral to Linklater’s distinctive signature as a filmmaker.

Space limitations make it impossible to do justice to the richly textured journey. Suffice is to say that the discussions range from a definition of existentialism to evolutionary biology to romantic explorations to urban alienation. Among other issues, the characters speculate on the way separate realities exist in the things we decide not to do.

One side benefit for cineastes is a splendid scene about the theory of the late French film critic, Andre Bazin. Several stories have been heard before, such as a scene with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy which alludes to their romantic train-set picture, Before Sunrise. And Steven Soderbergh recounts a legendary encounter between French director Louis Malle and the cynical Billy Wilder. When Malle described his next film as “a dream within dream,” the acerbic emigre director reportedly snapped, “You have just lost two million dollars.”

Several elements separate Waking Life from other film monologues and dialogue-driven works. Though there’s humor, the dominant tone is earnest–the participants give the impression that their concerns are a matter of life-and-death. In sharp opposition to most indie filmmakers, Linklater (and his various characters) aren’t jaded or cynical. The chatter lacks the pulpish and ironic quality of Tarantino’s dialogue, or the showy macho bravado of Christopher McQuarrie’s lingo in The Usual Suspects and Way of the Gun. Dead serious in moments, whimsical in others, the stories are for the most part absorbing.

Waking Life may not have the suaveness and maturity of My Dinner With Andre, to which it bears slight resemblance, but, visually, it’s far more entertaining than Louis Malle’s film.