Film Picks: Waking Life

Film Picks: Waking Life

Beth Perkin recommends the fascinating and absorbing Waking Life

What is a dream? How do we know if we are dreaming? Where do our dreams come from? These are just a few of the philosophical questions posed by Richard Linklater in his 2001 film. The hero, played by Wiley Wiggins, the star of Linklater’s earlier Dazed and Confused, gets out of bed and goes outside only to find that it is a false awakening – he is still in a dream. For the rest of the film we follow him as he wanders around a dreamscape of pavements, coffee shops and lecture halls, talking to everyone from academics to bar patrons.

Linklater’s dreamer is a fairly passive one, preferring to listen in conversations rather than speak. He listens to a novelist explain his plotless book, a couple in bed discussing collective consciousness, a man in a car ranting about the “corporate slave state” over a bullhorn.

As the dreamer meanders through his dreamscape he keeps meeting dreamers along the way who talk to him. Is it all in his head and his intellect, picking up on a snippet, or is it tapping into a collective conscious, a universal store of thoughts and information that we are all able to tap into? Sometimes he is not even involved in the conversation, and simply acts as an observer.

The plethora of conversations, rants and monologues that populate Waking Life have been captured by a process called rotoscoping. First digital video of live actors is shot, and then teams of artists draw stylized lines and colours over the frames using computers. Linklater ingeniously proved that this normally pricey process did not have to be, by using off-the-shelf Apple Macs to do the job.

The result is nothing like you’ve seen before. The film seems to flicker between real life and animation in the same way that our dreams seem almost real. Every movement and look of the characters are brought to life in a way that traditional animation techniques fail to do. The film takes on a life of its own, throbbing with the vibrancy of people and life.

The most striking thing about Waking Life is not its decidedly innovative use of motion-capture technology, but its beautifully crafted and intelligent dialogue. Looking at Linklater’s oeuvre it is clear that he is interested in people talking, and the standard for these conversations is very high. His Before trilogy shocked critics and audiences alike when they realized that the dialogue was not in fact improvised, but instead meticulously scripted, to the point that even the slightest hand movement was penned in.

Linklater’s characters read like intellectually heightened versions of ourselves. Their conversations are like the ones we are having – or wish we are having, in our lecture halls and student houses – moving fluidly from metaphysics to posthumanity, in what Roger Ebert so aptly deems “a cold shower of bracing, clarifying ideas.” Even as conversation flows from one weighty topic to another, it never feels heavy or overreaching. Instead it simply feels exciting.

Waking Life is a film of immense passion. Every person that the dreamer encounters is curious, excited about some aspect of life. They burst from the screen, vivid and brilliantly alive.

At its core the film is a celebration of the human capacity for curiosity- the cacaphony of voices constantly questioning everything. For Linklater, to stop being curious is to stop being alive.

It’s an exploration of the human desire to engage – to search for and forge out connections through language, instead of merely sleepwalking through our own lives. The film revels in the ongoing wow- capturing those fleeting moments of beauty that we all too often stop noticing. Linklater’s film serves as a reminder of the infinite, soaring possibilities that life holds. All we have to do is stop being lazy, stop being scared, and just say yes.

Image credit: Cineville 

Beth Perkin