If there’s a major cataclysm, and the only record of modern film that survives is the Cinema 1544 list of films screened, futuristic three-eyed humans finding the list would be excused for thinking that Richard Linklater was, if not the greatest director of all time at least the greatest director of his era. With Tyler’s presentation of 2001’s Waking Life we have now screened a grand total of SIX Linklater films, which is the most of any director – and that despite never having hosted a Linklater marathon (a sure way to get up a director’s movie count).
Of course, before the film Tyler had to come up with something interesting, and he found the source of this amazing image you have probably seen before:
Of course he did. That piece of pure beauty came from the trailer of a low-budget Sharknado-style they-wanted-to-make-sure-you-knew-they-didn’t-give-a-crap production called Italian Spiderman. Well, technically, it was probably from the full feature, but happily Tyler just showed us the trailer, which is reproduced below.
OK, that was fun. But it’s time to talk about Waking Life, which might not be quite as much fun. It’s not that I hated it or anything, but it’s not the kind of film that lends itself easily to flippant analysis. Like what is in my opinion Linklater’s best film (A Scanner Darkly), Waking Life is entirely rotoscoped, and again to great effect.
And it’s a good thing that the rotoscoping draws the attention of the viewer, because the script itself is quite perplexing. We start with a young boy getting an ambiguously fateful message from a child’s game before floating off to the sky while trying to get into a car (one of many rotoscoped effects that simply couldn’t have been pulled off in-camera). Did this mean anything? I dunno.
We then begin to follow the aptly-named “Main Character” (played by Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused fame) on his bizarre odyssey. He arrives in town on a train, he calls a friend for a ride and is forced to leave a message (in a repeated motif that feels a bit Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisiesque until it gets dropped early), he accepts a lift from a stranger driving a boat car who drops him off at a random intersection where his life is going to be changed, and he is then apparently hit by a car picking up a piece of paper in the street.
Psych! He was just dreaming!
But then he goes and has a bunch of existential conversations with people doing strange things like going all Tibetan Monk on him.
Or people being the main characters from Before Sunrise for no particular reason.
Or people eventually turning into clouds. It’s all a bit deep – excessively deep, really, except possibly for the spot-on discussion on free will – and Main Character has several more false awakenings before coming to the realization through some of these conversations that he has been dreaming the whole time. At this point the film turns a bit away from the existentialism and becomes more of a precursor to Inception – how can he tell whether he’s dreaming (hint: the light switches don’t work), how can he wake up? From here we get introduced to the idea that perhaps death is a permanent state of dreaming from which one can’t wake up, and it’s hard not to think back to the early scene where Main was hit by a car. Did he die? He doesn’t seem to know, and even Richard Linklater, who makes a cameo while playing pinball doesn’t manage to shed any light on the situation.
And then he ends up at the home from the opening scene and floats off into the sky while trying to get into the car just like the little boy. The end.
What does it all mean? I honestly have no idea. And while some of the philosophizing (which Main mostly just listens to) is interesting, most of it is overwrought and a bit tedious, and there’s an appearance by well-known internet kook and 9/11 conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (certainly shot before 9/11, but even then he was already a kook) that kind of brings the whole thing down. The saving grace for the film is the rotoscoping and the animation. The rotoscoping itself is done with a lot of variations in style (which should be evident from the above images – particularly the depiction of Mr. Character) and there are constant distortions and the like being applied. Add to this the meticulous attention to detail in the background (for instance the knowingly Cheshire-Cat-grinning rubber ducky on the dash of the boat car) and there’s always something to watch in this film. The problem is not that – and I’m sure there are any number of recreational drugs the assistance of which would make Waking Life the most profound experience one has ever had. The problem is that the ratio of Amount Said to Amount To Say is about as low as I’ve found in any film. What happens in this movie? More or less nothing. But it’s probably a pretty good 15,000 words of nothing, and that is a bit much. (OK, I found a transcript and it’s closer to 11,300 words. But that’s a pretty good guess from coming straight out of my butt.)