Waking Life [DVD]
Screenplay : Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Peter Atherton, Louis Black, Steve Brudniak, John Christensen, Julie Delpy, Guy Forsyth, Charles Gunning, Ethan Hawke, Nicky Katt, Kim Krizan, Timothy "Speed" Levitch, Richard Linklater, Louis Mackey, Steven Prince, Steven Soderbergh, Ken Webster, Wiley Wiggins
Richard Linklater has complained that there aren't enough ideas in movies these days--that is, beyond the idea of the "high concept," in which you can summarize everything a movie is about in two sentences--so he went out and made one that is about nothing but ideas and certainly cannot be summarized in two sentences. The result, Waking Life, is simple in conception, but mind-boggling in its implications.
However, there is a "concept" behind Waking Life, one that is not a gimmick, but rather a visual coup that is so perfectly integrated with the film as to make them inseparable. Originally filmed in digital video by Linklater and a small crew, the images in the film were then rotoscoped by animation director Bob Sabiston and a crew of 30 animators using animation software Sabiston developed that runs on Macintosh G4s. The result is a film unlike anything I have seen before.
The images do not have the three-dimensional weight and depth usually associated with computer animation, but are rather like pulsing, swirling, constantly-in-motion paintings. The style of the animation varies from scene to scene and character to character, sometimes resembling the heavy brush strokes of a van Gogh, sometimes the flat, bold simplicity of pop art, but never the cartoonish renderings of a Disney movie. Yet, because it was rotoscoped--that is, the animation was digitally painted on top of footage of human actors--the film has a strange combination of the real and the surreal. The characters move like real humans, yet they are animated, living and breathing and talking in an unreal world imagined on the artists' canvas (or, in this case, computer screen).
This is not the first time a director has tried to use the realm of animation to push the cinematic envelop--Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic) tried throughout the 1970s to use rotoscoping with various degrees of success to tell adult stories in a medium previously assumed to be the domain of children's entertainment. But, here, Linklater has achieved what few have done: He has actually pushed animation into an entirely new realm and made it work in a way that it has never worked before. Waking Life is art cinema in the best sense of the word.
Really nothing more than a series of encounters between its unnamed, college-age protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) and a series of people ranging from college professors, to street hustlers, to bartenders, Linklater has only somewhat self-mockingly referred to Waking Life as a movie of digressions. Many movies, especially following the work of Quentin Tarantino, have allowed their characters to digress into personal rants from time to time--we find it amusing and a nice break from the linear thrust of the narrative. But, what Linklater has done is essentially take all those personal digressions and put them together for 100 minutes, creating an episodic anti-narrative in which the entire point of the movie is to give us as many perspectives on life as possible, to let us see the almost limitless potential of how the human mind--both waking and dreaming--grapples with the issues of what it means to be human.
In this way, Waking Life is a profoundly humanistic movie, especially in an age of action blockbusters in which human characters are little more than expendable game pieces. We don't know much about the characters in Waking Life because there are so many of them and they are on and off screen in mere moments. Yet, we are allowed to see deep into their minds for those few fleeting moments as they willfully divulge their philosophies and emotions, and what emerges is a textured portrait of the vastness of human thought. The ideas that flow throughout the film are diverse and sometimes in conflict with each other, from Sartre's existentialist philosophy, to Andre Bazin's theories about the ontology of cinema, to arguments about free will versus predetermination, to theories of dream lucidity, reincarnation as collective memory, and the intricacies of language.
The ideas are not always positive, though. Just as there is a college professor who admonishes Wiggins' protagonist (and us) to understand existentialism as essentially positive, as a philosophy that lets us know that "life is ours to create," there is a bitter criminal in jail, spewing rhetoric about the judgment and torture of those he hates. For the most part, Linklater stands back from all these characters and allows their thoughts to stand for themselves, although from time to time he can't help but interject an editorial statement of sorts, such as when two men in a bar gleefully discuss how "a well-armed populace is the best defense against tyranny" before blowing each other away with their fetishized guns.
Waking Life may sound like a graduate seminar in philosophy masquerading as a movie, and in some ways it is. It is a movie about ideas, about the pure, unbridled pleasure of talking with other people and sharing thoughts, desires, fears, beliefs. I hesitate to say "it's not a film for everyone," which is a sort of knee-jerk critic statement whenever a film doesn't have an easy-to-follow narrative and a gratifying conclusion. Rather, it is better to say that Waking Life is a film for anyone who has ever wondered about life, about what it means to be human, about where the division between dreams and reality really is.
As Wiggins' protagonist keeps waking up from a dream only to find himself in yet another dream, a character (played by Linklater himself) tells him, "If you can wake up, you should, because someday you won't be able to." True as that is, I have to confess that Waking Life was a dream from which I didn't want to awake.
|Waking Life DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Spanish Dolby 2.0 Stereo
|Distributor||20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 7, 2002|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic) |
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The vibrant colors and distinct textures of this animated gem are absolutely breathtaking on this shimmering transfer. The image is clean, well-defined, and completely free of artifacts. The case lists the aspect ratio as being 1.85:1, but is likely 1.78:1 as the mini-DVD cameras used for shooting have a built-in 16:9 anamorphic function that eliminates the need for matting.
|English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby 2.0 Stereo |
As Waking Life is a primarily dialogue-driven film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack doesn't have a whole lot of work cut out for it. The musical score by the Tosca Tango Orchestra is subtle and inviting, nicely spread out among the surround channels. One should also keep in mind that the film was originally shot on digital video, so the dialogue and background effects (almost all of which were recorded during filming) have a distinctly digital, home-video feel to them, rather than the slick, polished sound we expect from film.
| Audio commentary by director Richard Linklater, producer Tommy Pallotta, art director Bob Sabiston, and actor Wiley Wiggins|
Loose and relaxed, this commentary is a good listen, giving a variety of takes on how the film came to be and what it means for everyone involved. Linklater is particularly articulate in discussing what he was trying to accomplish in making the film and where he drew inspiration for each segment.
Audio commentary by the animators
Animation Scrap Heap
Greatest Hits: The Live Action Version
Bob Sabiston's Animation Tutorial
Snack and Drink animated short
First Pass: Bob & Rick's Animation Test
Original theatrical trailer
Copyright © 2001, 2002 James Kendrick