Film #42: Waking Life (2001)

film 42 waking life

Rating: 2/5

“They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?”

Ten years after his feature debut Slacker, indie favourite Richard Linklater returns to the meandering, narrativeless form he started with. Waking Life, however, has a more recognisable purpose, despite its lack of plot (in the traditional sense): its protagonist wanders through dreams, meeting a number of pretentious intellectuals who discuss the meaning of life and dreams. Yet “discuss” is really the wrong word, suggesting some kind of interaction or debate – for the majority of the film, the nameless main character (Wiley Wiggins) is a passive observer and listener and, as a result, much of the movie seems like a series of lectures. Whether this appeals or not will most likely be determined by individual taste; personally, I was frequently bored, and found their lengthy philosophical monologues more tiresome and condescending than insightful or deep.

What makes these lectures marginally more interesting is the visual form of the film. After the unconventional animated form of the previous Movie Lottery pick, Waltz With Bashir, Waking Life also eschews live action for animation. Here, however, it is even more hallucinatory in style, taking on the qualities of a delirious trip rather than a dream. Initially shot on hand-held video cameras, the live action of Waking Life has been rotoscope-animated in post-production, and the result is a curious, not always pleasant, experience. While early scenes are fully capable of inducing motion-sickness, with buildings and backgrounds warping and wobbling constantly, thankfully this calms down somewhat as the film progresses, though it never really stops. It’s highly stylised and abstract, reminiscent of cubism and surrealism; faces are unfinished, scenery is roughly implied, and the characters’ dialogue is reflected back in the animated form of the sequences. Yet while I was undoubtedly impressed by the film’s visual flair, it was less enjoyable than disorienting – although, considering the subject matter, perhaps this is the point.

And what about the subject matter? Waking Life‘s intellectualism is at the fore throughout, and Linklater name-drops all the right people (Bazin, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Truffaut) and all the right -isms (existentialism, humanism, nihilism, and so on) to delight the pretentious college student. Its intellectual capital is front and centre at all times, and the way in which it is presented could alternately be viewed as smart, or annoying. There were times I struggled to not roll my eyes at the clichés – a free-thinking quirky twenty-something claiming “I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?” before proceeding to talk about her plans for a self-aware, ironic, meta soap opera, for instance. These comments, and the many others, are all delivered with an overt sense of sincerity, seriousness and, dare I say, smugness, and perhaps were the film to have adopted a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach, it may have held my attention for longer. It’s only in the final few minutes that the main character becomes anything more than a blank canvass; his frustration at the never-ending nature of his dream is something that I could relate to.

If I seem especially derisory towards Waking Life, perhaps I can temper that by saying this is not really my kind of movie. Bought on a whim because it looked intriguing, it quickly became clear that I would struggle to stay interested. Fans of Linklater will no doubt get more from it than I did. For example, having not seen Before Sunrise or its two sequels, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s appearance meant nothing to me, although their bedroom scene, jarring in that our dreamer-protagonist is entirely absent, makes more sense now that I have discovered they were reprising their previous roles. Similarly, certain scenes are reminiscent of Slacker, and a number of familiar faces re-emerge (in a fashion). Yet I found my mind constantly wandering away from the film; I zoned in an out, found myself staring blankly at the screen without hearing anything. Perhaps this is a good way to watch a movie that it in essence about the nature of dreaming, and of mindlessly walking through life, but none of the messages, delivered in their incessantly intellectual manner, actually made any impression on me. By writing a screenplay as a series of monologues, Linklater offers no counter-argument to balance what is being claimed and, without debate, my attention rapidly waned. There is no opportunity for self-discovery, no chance to formulate your own opinions, no need to reach your own conclusions. While I can appreciate Waking Life for its visuals, and can understand how certain audiences could praise both its animated style and intellectual content, neither of these aspects were enough; as an experiment, the film is an interesting curio, but I remain underwhelmed.