Waking Life

It’s often been said that there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone else describe their dreams. But what if they could show them to you? Movies would seem to be an ideal vessel for bringing dreams to life, but very few filmmakers have been successful at doing so, or even attempted it (aside from the sort of hackneyed dream sequences found in horror films). Luis Bunuel and David Lynch are the first names to spring to mind, and now, with his one-of-a-kind animated feature Waking Life, Richard Linklater brings his own dream world to the screen.

Linklater’s debut feature, Slacker, began with a young traveler (played by the director himself) waking on a bus and then describing his dream to the taxi driver who picks him up at the depot. Waking Life also begins with a young traveler, this time on a train, but whether he ever really wakes up becomes one of the central questions of this often mind-bending film.

This opening is only the first of many similarities to Slacker, the low budget epic-in-microcosm that helped launch a new wave of independent filmmaking in the 90’s.As in that film, Linklater’s camera prowls the streets of Austin, Texas, encountering one talkative oddball or street-level philosopher after another. Some of the same characters recur – or at least the same actors, in similar variations on their real-life personas (Louis Mackey, The Old Anarchist who raved about Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, is the most recognizable). In fact, all of Linklater’s films are revisited, either through characters (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprising their Before Sunrise roles) or locations (the Circle A convenience store from subUrbia, the Paramount Theater as seen in The Newton Boys).

The connective tissue is the young dreamer, played by Wiley Wiggins, who served as a Linklater surrogate in Dazed and Confused and perhaps does so here as well. Wiggins drifts from place to place, sometimes literally floating, bombarded all the way with words of wisdom or flights of fancy. The people he encounters are a mix of nationally known figures (director Steven Soderbergh, Speed Levitch of The Cruise) and Austin-centric notables (musician Guy Forsythe, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones). Not all of these individuals or their ideas are equally compelling, but the giddy visuals compensate for the more lackluster stretches of dialogue. Originally shot on digital video, Waking Life has been transformed into a cartoon through an animation process developed by Bob Sabiston. Using computer software, animators were able to draw on top of the edited video footage. With each new scene, a different artist takes the reigns, resulting in a fluid, continually evolving picture. The images ebb and flow like ocean waves, which may be problematic for viewers susceptible to sea sickness, but will prove entrancing to those on Linklater’s wavelength.

Waking Life lacks much of the quirky humor that made Slacker such a unique delight. The characters are less specific and distinctive, and some of their more abstracted musings might be insufferable in a live-action picture. But the picture hits a groove at about the halfway point, when Wiggins enters a room populated by lucid dreamers and comes to understand that he is trapped in a perpetual dream state. By now, the movie has lulled us into a similar state, and when it’s over, we may not want to wake up.

Linklater seemed to lose his way in the late 90’s, proving a poor match for the bombastic Eric Bogosian Gen-X rant subUrbia and the too-slick bank robber saga The Newton Boys. With Waking Life, he has recaptured the free-form storytelling and gift of gab that made his early films special. Take the movie’s ideas with a grain of salt – this isn’t a lecture, after all, and even Linklater has acknowledged that Waking Life is more of a pot brownie than a five-course meal. He’s selling himself short, though – compared to most of 2001’s stale, unimaginative fare, Waking Life is a feast indeed.

Scott Von Doviak