Life Is but a Dream
Richard Linklater Gives Filmgoers a Shake With Waking Life
A man voices a fatalistic statement about personal freedom and sets himself on fire; bystanders watch helplessly, then shrug their shoulders and move on. A friend delivering an informal lecture on the abstract implications of modern physics turns his head into a revolving gear to illustrate his point. A man you shared a cab with this morning denies it, and warns you to clean up after microwaving your burrito. Some of these things happen in real life; some of them could only happen in a dream, or in an animated fantasy world. Richard Linklater's bold new film Waking Life is all three.
Linklater made his name with 1991's Slacker, a film that focused on dozens of young adults in Austin, Texas, the camera following the words and travels of one person or group until abandoning them for the next person or group they encounter. Slacker encompassed a wide range of ideas and characters but also unintentionally abetted the media's stigmatization of Generation X--its title, combined with the characters' lack of professional career goals, gelled well with Baby Boomers' desire to label their children an aimless generation in retreat from the "real" world.
Waking Life reprises the conversational and spatial meanderings of Slacker but has nothing to do with retreat. The film dispatches an unnamed character (Wiley Wiggins, of Linklater's 1993 comedy Dazed and Confused) to converse with some 60 people who are all fanatically engaged in active living and higher thought. Some muse about physics, existentialism, cell death, or film theory; some rebel against corporate mind control and the death of self-improvement in our prison system; others praise love and art. All passionately urge our hero to direct his own life.
These conversations rarely falter, but in those few instances where the mind might otherwise wander, viewers will be drawn to some of the most unique visuals in recent screen history. After shooting live action, Linklater turned the edited film over to a team of 30 computer artists (including Wiggins) who used software developed by Bob Sabiston to paint over the images frame by frame. The result is a gorgeous, ever-shifting visual landscape where every edit might mean another artist's aesthetic vision is taking hold. This isn't live action, nor is it animation; the underlying "reality" anchors the painted frames to photographic representation even as the artists try to break free from these constraints. This dichotomy creates another level of stimulation that echoes the film's narrative dichotomy between dream states and waking life.
Waking Life functions as an extended dream, but suggests that both reality and dreams would have more meaning if each borrowed traits from the other realm. We encounter an anarchist train-hopper who proclaims that right now is "the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive" and urges us to live as dreamers who work toward a better future. Elsewhere, Wiggins walks into a room of lucid dreamers. One says the key to controlling dreams is knowing when you're dreaming. Try light switches in rooms you enter, he suggests--brightness can rarely be controlled in dreams. As Wiggins leaves the room, he flips the light switch on and off, to no avail. For Wiggins' character, the whole film is a layered, inescapable, Buñuelian dream. Soon thereafter, he makes a crucial realization: If everyone he's encountered is part of his dream, all of their ideas actually sprang from his mind. We can use our dreams to unlock the latent ideas we've longed for in our waking lives--if only we can wake up.
Linklater uses Waking Life to summarize his career so far, revisiting old locations and refining the conversational style of his early movies. Actors from other Linklater films pop up, reprising roles (such as Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from Before Sunrise) or riffing off their screen personas (the charismatic Nicky Katt of Dazed and Confused). Fellow early-'90s indie-film pioneer Steven Soderbergh appears, as does Speed Levitch, the spastic New York tour guide from the documentary The Cruise. These references, of course, suggest a fourth world that is not reality, dreamland, or animation, namely, film reality--specifically, the film world populated by Richard Linklater.
A year ago, that world would have looked rather bleak. Linklater's last few efforts (particularly 1996's subUrbia) have lacked luster. Waking Life ups the ante, presenting enough stimulation to the eyes, ears, and mind to demand multiple viewings. Seeing it after Sept. 11, a segment commenting on the function of the media in indoctrinating passive acceptance of military aggression stands out. But Waking Life stands tall as a serious work of dissident art, not just for its sporadic political and anti-corporate content, but for its consistent insistence that our future depends on thinking and acting in liberated ways.