After flirting with the mainstream with his 1998 western The Newton Boys, director Richard Linklater is back on the fringes of the commercial movie world this fall with two new features: the three-character Tape, shot in digital video entirely in a drab motel room; and the even more venturesome Waking Life, an engaging talkfest in which real people are "painted over" via computer animation. Waking Life actually harks back to Linklater's early breakthrough feature, Slacker, a round-robin of voluble ordinary folk walking and talking around the director's home city of Austin, Texas. Like that film, Waking Life has the feel of a two a.m. bull session in a college dorm, and though the preponderance of heady talk may try the patience of some viewers, the movie's combination of deep thoughts and dizzy visuals is often stimulating.
At one point making the argument that the best films aren't tied to "the narrative thing," Waking Life features a cast of more than 50 mostly non-professionals, encountered in a string of unrelated vignettes by Wiley Wiggins, one of the young stars of Linklater's 1993 Dazed and Confused. As Wiggins wanders through the film, it becomes increasingly apparent that his journey is all a dream or even a crossing over into the afterlife. (Hmmm….Wasn't he hit by a car in the first reel?) The talk all corresponds to the dream/existence motif, as the various participants expound on a range of subjects including determinism, free will, spirituality, personal identity, the nature of time, mortality and transcendence. If Wiggins is indeed floating through the afterlife, it doesn't offer so much in the nature of answers, but an overabundance of theories.
Linklater's orators run a gamut of attitudes, from a rabid, red-faced psychopath inside a jail cell to the cheerful spaciness of Speed Levitch, the motormouthed New York City tour guide who starred in the documentary The Cruise. One speaker barks his protests into a microphone while driving through the city; another dramatizes the need to make his voice be heard by setting himself on fire. (Presumably, only his animated alter ego was harmed.) Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the lovers in Linklater's Before Sunrise (which consisted of walking and talking around Vienna), appear in bed together, having a gentle discussion about the collective memories all people share. Director Steven Soderbergh is glimpsed on a TV screen, telling an apt anecdote about an encounter between Billy Wilder and Louis Malle. And Linklater himself turns up near the end, urging Wiggins, "There's only one instant, and it's right now."
If Waking Life consisted purely of this gaggle of gabbers, the audience might begin to feel as if they were trapped in the New Age section of their neighborhood Barnes & Noble. But Linklater makes his talking picture much more accessible through the playfulness of his animators. The process is similar to rotoscoping (creating animation out of actual human movement), but art director Bob Sabiston and his team of animators (each working on different characters) are constantly tweaking the image, overlaying unusual colors and textures, and accenting expressive vocal moments with images like lightning bolts and stars. (When one academic asserts, "I'd rather be a gear in a big deterministic machine than just some random swerving," he literally turns into a big gear-head.) Background elements are constantly bobbing and weaving, which could induce nausea in some viewers, but makes a perfect visual complement to the movie's notion of a waking dream.
With Waking Life, Richard Linklater creates something truly new, a meta-movie that stretches the boundaries of both the audience's consciousness and the medium of film.