With Waking Life, Richard Linklater’s Finally Made a Visually Interesting Movie

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

by Richard Linklater

a word most people haven’t heard–or spoken–since college, might
perfectly describe the cartoon people in Waking Life. They’re supposed
to be "characters," but with an emphasis on caricatured eccentricity,
actually they are no more than Gap ad hominids–idealizations of middlebrow
Americans unaware of their own solipsism. The gray-haired, bespectacled professor
type who volleys the word "hominid" does so while explaining mankind’s
nature throughout history. His way of using lecture as conversation is peculiar
to director-writer Richard Linklater’s method. As in Linklater’s best
known film, Slacker, harangue is mistaken for drama.

Cartoon animation
makes Waking Life more interesting than it would be as live action. Linklater
has found an esthetic scam that almost works: more than 30 animation artists
were enlisted to rotoscope (draw over) the footage of a digital feature that
Linklater had shot in 1999. Art director and animation savant Rob Sabiston developed
computer software that made the tracing process possible, allowing the animators
creative freedom, giving the film unexpected visual variety and excitement.
Linklater’s previous films conclusively proved that, like a lot of indies,
he lacked visual storytelling skills. (Indies from John Sayles to Neil LaBute
have to disguise their own incompetence by addressing topics, pumping up attitudes,
that will distract their target audiences from movie esthetics.) So for the
first time Linklater employs esthetic whimsy as part of his plans; he’s
finally made a visually interesting movie. Initially there’s genuine esthetic
elation watching Waking Life’s animation, but then you realize you’re
stuck at a Richard Linklater talkathon.

An opening
gambit shows two children playing a paper folding game that reveals the inscription
"Dream Is Destiny"–unlikely for a kid’s pastime but the
essence of Linklater’s conceit. The entire movie is a series of fitful
dreaming episodes and "false awakenings" in which the young, college-aged,
unnamed protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) encounters numerous American malcontents.
They all have speculative tendencies, reminding you of the old student union
wisdom, "Stay away from the philosophy majors!" Linklater’s animators
render each of these talkers with expressionist zeal; what they say shows up
in the colors and sketching and details that pop before our eyes. It’s
better spectacle than one usually gets from the dour, naturalistic acting Linklater
prefers. Wiggins is dreaming other people’s destinies while also dreaming
his own, which Linklater takes as the basis for experimental stylization.

"Are you
a dreamer?" a guy who jumps down out of a boxcar asks Wiggins, and the
word "dreamer," clearly, becomes a new term for "slacker"–the
postcollege fecklessness that Linklater defined in his 1991 debut film. That
film, similar to Waking Life, randomly followed casual encounters. But
in Waking Life, the sense of seriousness in the endless parleys takes
these cartoon figures beyond Slacker to Thumbsucker, Navel-gazer. Nags of a
special class: cybercafe types–professors, grad students, artists, even
an eloquently rabid convict–they all are preoccupied with "parasitism,
dominance…morality, truth, loyalty, justice, freedom"–a behavioral
summary that ought to cause the buoyant, jostling imagery to curdle. Instead,
because the animators give Linklater all the imagination they got, Waking
stays appealing even as it sustains lecture hall drone.

I express my
ambivalence this bluntly because it is a pop culture certainty that Waking
will strike a particular audience (bohos who read, write and pretend
to take film seriously) as their movie. It’s already been praised as a
breakthrough in digital video technology, although Ralph Bakshi achieved a similar
kind of rotoscoping effect in the features American Pop and Lord of
the Rings
(and Disney pioneered rotoscoping with the 1937 Snow White
and the Seven Dwarfs
). But it is necessary to distinguish Waking Life’s
achievement from its appeal. It has an annoying lack of profundity ("The
worst mistake you can make is to think you are alive") that will pass only
among viewers innocent enough to believe that Linklater, with his Palm Pilot
existentialism, is actually exploring a spiritual condition rather than alluding
to one. In other words, it’s Fantasia for geeks.

When one character
tells Wiggins, "This is absolutely the best time we could possibly be alive.
Everything is just starting," Linklater might as well be offering free
body piercings. That notion–celebrating naivete–is insipid. And so
is the majority of Waking Life jejune. A pillow talk session between
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (reprising their loquacious lovebirds from Linklater’s
Before Sunrise) is emblematic. Their junior-year chic never came across
more honestly than here as cartoons. When cartoon Delpy ponders an elderly woman’s
existence, saying, "My waking life is her memory," cartoon Hawke savors
the idea within his own afterglow. Then Delpy caps it: "Reincarnation is
just a poetic expression of collective memory." The banal moment offers
an ideally stated koan to sucker just the kind of egoists who diss A.I.

is ready-made for an era bamboozled by new technology, thinking new
methods will provide answers to old questions. It connects to the way indie
filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky stumble upon "innovation"; they imagine
cobbling an oblong wheel is the same as reinventing the wheel. Linklater and
Sabiston’s rotoscoping/tracing raises the question: How do we interpret
film? Turning low-tech drama into animation rather than exhibiting video footage
was no more than expedient. It finds artistic solutions to the indie fashion
for shaky cams and swish pans–the impressionistic renderings of a cyclone
fence or jiggling water meters are delightful–yet Waking Life feels
like neither film nor video. Its hybrid satisfies some unconscious longing in
a generation raised on Saturday morning cartoons. The gullible ones may feel
their intellectual lives reified, redeemed by the bright colors and fluid substitution
of free-floating fantasy for drab realism.

decision to animate makes up for his lack of visual magic. Yet, while animation
improves Linklater’s filmmaking, it diminishes his art. The best sequence
shows Wiggins meeting a young woman with red braids who insists they make their
encounter meaningful rather than "antlike." Conversing in a dark void,
their dialogue manages to be cute, flirtatious and–for the first time in
Waking Life–interpersonally inquisitive (a cartoon Linklater also
makes contact). Staying on the same level of intellectual banality as the rest
of the movie, this stylized sequence never captures the essential marvel of
human communication (the subject of several previous scenes, especially a movie
theater segment that addresses film critic Andre Bazin on the ontology of the
photographic image). Talking this stuff isn’t enough. And animation doesn’t
show it. Film art arises from its demand that we interpret reality. Linklater’s
"ant" sequence knowingly alludes to Godard’s Le Gai Savoir,
where a real-life young couple in a tv-studio void flirted their way through
the politics of their day. But Linklater’s verbose questing is intellectually
limited and distanced even further by animation.

Animation deprives
Linklater of what Waking Life’s movie theater sequence calls "The
Holy Moment." Cutting to Wiggins in the audience as he watches two men
articulate his own bewilderment onscreen only recalls a tactic that Godard did
better in Vivre sa Vie, when Anna Karina watched Falconetti in The
Passion of Joan of Arc
, and that Spielberg updated in The Sugarland
when his lovers-on-the-lam watched a Road Runner cartoon that anticipated
their doom. Linklater and Sabiston climax this sequence by turning the characters
into cloud formations. Capturing the struggle to understand life through art
was what made those other movies and Le Gai Savoir superb. The distrust
in photographic realism–Linklater’s inability to imbue film with wonder–may
be pretty, but it makes Waking Life trite.

Not to discredit
the animators’ work. It’s consistently marvelous. Wiggins is buttonholed
by one character whose lapel button swings as if on a metronome and then morphs
into a smiley face, Bozo, 8-ball, a red veiny eyeball, an atom, a Buddha, lightbulb,
yin-yang and wreath. It’s a metaphor for how Linklater treats each of these
short story/encounters as animator daydreams–some figures heavily outlined,
some messy. Mass moves like in Caroline Leaf cartoons. There are Bearden color
patches. A segment of Utrillo tree patterns turns into Matisse street grids.
Some Alex Katz-like faces have almond eyes, or a nose suggested by a slanted
uppercase "L." But this gallery of art styles doesn’t cohere
around a meaning. The idea that the characters (and animators) are "onieronauts"
exploring the dream world as a means of probing existence is as fatuous as Linklater’s
other aphorisms: "Remember what Benedict Anderson says about identity?
We are regenerating every seven years yet we remain ourselves." "What
is the most universal human characteristic? Fear or laziness?"

That last ditty
recalls Kevin Smith’s dumbass arrogance. Linklater suggests a Kevin
Smith who went to college, which means Waking Life is philosophical the
way Dogma was hermeneutical. That is, not very. Animation being ontologically
false makes Linklater’s serious pretense absurd. His violent moments, like
a man’s self-immolation, are just dumb. In Persona the use of such
an event retained political resonance while attesting to the fact of life and
death. Waking Life’s Crayola hominids avoid politics and reality.
None of their chatter amounts to communication. It’s just wan alternative
animation–and little of it is actually funny. Doesn’t Linklater know
Krazy Kat is superior to Ayn Rand?