PRINT September 2001


Richard Linklater

NOT UNLIKE ONE OF HIS INTELLIGENT, loquacious characters, Richard Linklater wears his artistry lightly. So lightly, in fact, that he's often confused with the slackers who lent his first film its name. But Waking Life—his latest feature, which opens in October—proves he is something more: a supremely attentive craftsman with a feel for the endless searching that lies at the heart of every well-examined life.

Like a lot of other filmmakers, Linklater has recently gone digital, with not one but two new projects. Tape (opening in November) is a nervy little chamber piece made on a shoestring for IFC's InDigEnt project, which sponsors digital moviemaking on B budgets. Based on a play by Off-Off Broadway's Stephen Belber, Tape unfolds in real time in a Michigan motel room. On paper, it looks like your average table-turning three-hander, but Linklater and his cast (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard) are unapologetic about the modesty of the enterprise. The actors bite into the action with gusto, and Linklater works the tight geography of the room with endless ingenuity.

Where Tape is a modest triumph, Waking Life may be the most remarkable thing Linklater's done to date. The film is a flowering of dreamlike encounters contained in a series of actual dreams that become increasingly extended and disturbingly cryptic as the film proceeds. They are dreamed by one of Linklater's relaxed, self-questioning heroes, played by Dazed and Confused's Wiley Wiggins. Part of the excitement of Waking Life is that it seems to be thinking itself through as it goes along—a movie with a brain of its own. Sometimes it feels like the brain belongs to Wiggins, but his point of view keeps thinning out, expanding and dissolving into the events and landscapes he encounters. Thus the scary metaphysical quandary that Linklater fleshes out in this movie: How is it that the world can appear so permanent and yet so fleeting? Does life really amount to anything more (or less) than an ongoing dream?

There's a novel aspect to Waking Life that will doubtless overshadow its subtler qualities. Shot digitally, the film was then animated by thirty artists (including Wiggins) under the supervision of Bob Sabiston, who designed the animation software used on the project. The look of Waking Life has been likened to rotoscoping, in which animator draw over liveaction footage; but it feels more solid, less amorphous, while moving with greater fluidity. Every shape has real presence, and the images are often oddly three-dimensional, with objects on multiple planes gently floating and swaying independently of one another.

Waking Life opens with a boy pondering the message “Dream is destiny” revealed to him in a little girl's “cootie catcher.” He gazes up at a shooting star, wanders over to a car, and holds fast to the door handle as he closes his eyes and dreamily floats off his feet. He wakes up as a young man (Wiggins), sitting on a train, head propped against the window. From there, we move through a chain of visions and encounters: a string quartet rehearsing the stark, aptly dizzying tango score for the film itself; a scientist breathlessly elaborating a paradigm shift in human evolution; a red-faced jailhouse inmate describing in gleeful detail the revenge he has in store for his tormentors; a monkey showing a film collage to a packed university lecture hall. Each new scene is animated by a new artist, and while the world feels different from moment to moment (and style to style), it also remains eerily the same. Linklater articulates something very delicate here—the way that life can seem to keep turning over another page, forever promising that it's bringing us one step closer to some ultimate reality.

Waking Life takes a deceptively simple path, segueing, like Slacker, from one idea, inspiration, and pronouncement to the next, each reckoned definitive by the person voicing it. On the surface, this procession may seem repetitive and hopelessly collegiate, a gaggle of earnest professorial types and eccentrics with big theories about the nature of existence blended with sociopathic malcontents and inner-journeying slackers. but it's the resounding certainty behind the statements more than their actual content that counts, the poignant folly of banking on ideas that promise to Explain It All. As Waking Life moves into its final dream sequences, it becomes less playful, more mysterious and troubling: The very nature of time seems to be urgently imparting itself all at once to this befuddled kid. Soon after a character played by the filmmaker himself admonishes Wiggins to “Just wake up,” he finds himself back at the house where it all began, and the renewed presence of the material world itself suddenly becomes moving. Linklater ends Waking Life with an image perfectly pitched between transcendence and terror.

It's a film that might leave you giddy with its multiplicity of viewpoints, its heady freedom. What touches me most about Waking Life, and about Linklater's work in general, is its devotion to a particular strain of American experience—the act of talking one's way out of metaphysical anxiety. Like the late, great poet James Schuyler, another American artist of deceptively simple means, Linklater affects a posture of nonchalance, a not altogether unreasonable response to life's enigmas.

Kent Jones is a critic and film programmer who lives in New York.