People will react very strongly to this movie – they will either love it or hate it. And after some consideration, I’ve decided that I love it.
Those who will enjoy it are people who have a lot of tolerance for all-night college dorm discussions of the meaning of life, because this entire movie is a series of monologues and dialogues that are variations on that theme.
It does not really tell a story. It is just a journey by an unnamed main character (played by Wiley Wiggins) who wanders through an Alice-in-Wonderland-style journey that may or may not be a dream, meeting all kinds of very odd people, many of whom tell him their views on consciousness and the purpose of existence.
It recalls director/screenwriter Linklater’s first film, “Slackers,” which showed us a series of loosely linked people expressing views on everything from Madonna’s pap smear to the assassination of William McKinley, and his later film, “Before Sunrise,” in which a young couple meets on a train and spend the rest of the movie walking around Vienna and talking about just about everything.
The couple from “Before Sunrise,” Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, reprise their roles in one scene in “Waking Life,” lying in bed talking about consciousness after death. Other actors and characters from Linklater’s earlier films flicker through this one as well, their out-of-context familiarity adding to the dreaminess and disorientation.
But there is a crucial difference between this film and Linklater’s earlier works. This film is animated. Actually, it is rotoscoped, which means that it was originally shot on film (digital film, in this case). Then, instead of creating animation cells or computer pictures from scratch, animators paint over the photographed images of real people. Each scene or character had a different group of animators, though the overall look of the film is very consistent.
The combination of the floating animation on top of real images also adds to the dreamlike quality of the film, especially in contrast to the very authentic-sounding audio. Animated films, highly artificial, usually have pristine, tightly controlled audio (with rare exceptions, like the pioneering John and Faith Hubley). But in “Waking Life” we get an extraordinary sense of documentary, even hyper-reality from the ambient noise of the audio and the fact that many of the monologues are delivered by people who are not actors. For example, some of Linklater’s college professors deliver portions of their lectures. This “real”-sounding audio contrasts with the vibrating fluidity and impressionism of the visual images.
At times, shapes shift to reflect the discussion. As a man says he would rather be “a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving,” his face briefly turns into a purplish gear. Another character briefly turns into clouds or smoke. But mostly, the images stay close to their original form and shape, except that the settings around them float, shift, and quiver, perhaps like “some random swerving.” Animation serves the dialogue in this movie as it served the music in “Fantasia.” Instead of Mickey Mouse carrying buckets or hippo ballerinas, we get a literally red-faced prisoner threatening the direst revenge on just about everyone and a man in a captain’s hat driving a boat on the road.
The monologues themselves are like jazz improvisations, wildly playful, bringing in an astonishing assortment of references and concepts. I think the secret to enjoying this movie is not to engage too much with the individual arguments and points of view but just to allow your ears and spirit to enjoy the fact that there are people who feel passionately about these ideas and who are willing to talk about them to other people with an openness that is both humbling and touching.
I enjoy that kind of talk, whether I agree with it or not, and it is a pleasure to see language used to create such intimacy and connection. The Delpy-Hawke scene shows how purely sexy conversation can be, something pretty much lost to movies since they started permitting nudity. The people who want “real human moments,” or “holy moments” of genuine connection come across as authentically vulnerable. Of course, other characters come across as people who talk all the time and barely notice if anyone is listening, but most of the people Wiggins meets want to help him in their own way.
Parents should know that the movie has some very strong language and scenes of cartoon violence, including a shoot-out and a self-immolation. Some teens may be upset by the discussions of death.
Families who see the movie will want to talk about their own views on the meaning of life and which, if any, of the characters are closest to their own thoughts about dreams and reality. Is it possible to create “lucid dreams?” Is there a reason that a film-maker might be particularly attracted to this idea – could film be a kind of generalized lucid dream? When you are dreaming, are you aware that you are dreaming? How do you know? What does it mean to say that there’s only one moment or to talk about the eternal yes? Does this movie make you want to know more about any of the authors or ideas it raises?
Families who see this movie will also enjoy “Everyone Rides the Carousel” with animation by Faith and John Hubley, based on the works of Erik Erikson.