Waking Life



USA 2001 : Richard Linklater : 100 mins

Waking Life is less a conventional ‘movie’ than a series of philosophical mini-essays on the meaning of existence, structured around a wandering ‘dreamer’ figure (Wiggins). The whole film is ‘enhanced’ by having every image turned into a kind of cartoon, with each section handled by a different animator. The uneven results will provoke the full range of responses: Waking Life will be embraced and loved, avoided and hated in equal measure. A litmus phrase: “At night, I go salsa dancing with my own confusion.” Intrigued? Welcome in. Annoyed? Best to keep out.

As for the animation, however … there’s a spookily transcendent moment of levitation very early on, but most of the cartoony improvisations are clunkingly prosaic – at one point, drugs are mentioned and a ghostly syringe floats into the frame. Elsewhere, the technique undercuts the seriousness of what’s being said: whoever Eamonn Healy is, he presumably won’t be best pleased to see his head ballooning up and down as he expounds his theories of human evolution. You keep wondering – how much difference would it make if the animation were removed? Is it really worth the staggering palaver involved?

Without the animation gimmick, we might be in danger of realising how close the film comes to vanishing up its own asshole. This tone is often smugly self-referential, with endless name-dropping comment on the meaning of films, and of dreams, and their interplay with reality. It all becomes a little monotonous and repetitive, and it’s no surprise to find out that Linklater is from Austin, the major university town in Texas – the movie is like walking through a college dorm and listening to the students banging on, each of them convinced, like mankind through the ages, that this is the most important time to be alive – one could call it the pivot-of-history fallacy. The upside, of course, is that there are more bizarre ideas and asides here than in a dozen ‘conventional’ films, even those outside mainstream Hollywood. A figure looms out of the shadows to tell us that Kierkegaard’s last words were ‘Sweep me up.’ Does this mean ‘lift me to a higher plane’ or ‘discard me with the rest of the garbage’? It’s not a bad motto for the film itself.

In the end, Waking Life succeeds or fails on this kind of moment-by-moment basis. One minute, you’re tearing your hair out at the way it reduces philosophical and scientific research to the level of urban-myth anecdote, telling us things that real movies, great movies, have the imagination to show. The next, you’re thanking Linklater for introducing you to some amazing ideas and people – someone called Speed Levitch delivers a great, crazy monologue on a bridge that’s worth the price of admission alone – the animation actually adds to the experience. Much more low-key, but just as engaging, is John Christensen, a dream-theorist who informs Wiggins how he can tell whether he’s dreaming or not – it’s a trick you will try at home, the next time you’re asleep.

31st October, 2001
(seen Oct-29-01, National Film Theatre – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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