Waking Life is an endlessly fascinating film that rarely receives its due credit for exploring a new dimension in animation. Intellectual overload combined with trippy rotoscope animation made for an overwhelming theater experience that twice left me in a daze. Unlike I'm about to do, the Boston Globe's Jay Carr nailed it in a sentence: "Often surreal, Waking Life transcends boundaries of technology, imagination."
Totally. I saw it in the month of October (it was released in 10/19/01), but it's the perfect movie to get lost in on a hot summer night on a huge screen in the dark of your living room. Watch it late and see where your dreams end up taking you.
Written and directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Fast Food Nation), Waking Life was filmed in less than a month during July of 1999 in and around Austin, TX (talk about Texan pride, Linklater seems to film or set as many of his movies as he can there). If you're from Austin you'll probably recognize many of the faces and places in Waking Life, but the rest of us are likely only familiar with Wiley Wiggins, who made his film debut in Linklater's Dazed and Confused, and Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, both of whom also starred in Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Got all that?
Well it's nothing compared to the radical theories and concepts thrown at you over the course of the 99 minutes of Waking Life. The "story" is simple enough: In a series of lucid dreams (the idea of which is amazing to me), our nameless main character (Wiggins) meets a diverse group of people who spend their time pondering, among other things, the very meaning of life. Those of you with advanced degrees in theoretical physics or philosophy may find it laughably elementary. Fortunately for the rest of us, our main character mostly acts as you would expect, politely nodding his head with a puzzled face, trying his best to understand ideas that are way beyond the average person's grasp.
And this is where the main criticism of the film is targeted. Said Mike Clark in USA Today, "It's like being in a college bar and listening to your companion blathering on about the secrets of the world." Others described it as "boring," "endless," "pretentious," "bogged down," "pedantic," "psycho-babbly hooey", and maybe most interestingly, "little more than isolated--and not terribly fulfilling--masturbation."
Clearly, most of the critical critics don't have those advanced degrees I mentioned. Nor do I, of course, but as much as I couldn't immediately process half of what was being said, I actually found Waking Life more fascinating than frustrating - as if I was allowed to just think about how a Rubik's Cube is put together without actually having to solve it. Plus, who can't enjoy a good old rant (one of my favorite scenes) in between all of the philosophizing?
Despite accusations that it celebrates intellectual snobbery, I would argue that appreciating the content in Waking Life is less about intelligence and more about personality type. The "analyticals" who enjoyed those late night college conversations will dig it; the more "emotionals" looking for a fun story or character will despise it. In either case, there's another aspect of Waking Life that we can all enjoy: rotoscope animation.
If you haven't seen it, you've surely seen its byproduct: those idiotic Charles Schwab commercials. You know where your Schwab investment money is going? To pay for some clowns to unnecessarily rotoscope those people whining about their riches. Anyway, the method simply involves animating over frames of live action. This means, of course, that the entire film is shot on video before animators take over for a few months and draw over everything. The result is a third dimension where the physical laws of the universe are tossed out the window: your skin moves separately from your body and the whole world seems wobbly. Probably not recommended viewing for those with motion sickness.
While I was wowed enough by the visuals to keep watching (and the creative use of animation often illustrated the monologues), some critics were still unsatisfied. TV Guide's Frank Lovece found himself bored by "talking heads that no amount of colorfully animated, lava-lamp-like undulations can make less static." Come on, Frank, appreciate the art! Oh well, enough other people did, and Linklater would go on to film 2006's A Scanner Darkly in rotoscope as well, making it and Waking Life the only feature-length rotoscoped films ever made.
Waking Life went on to gross just $2 million at the box office before evidently disappearing from cinematic discourse. No doubt thanks to Roger Ebert's praise, the film was nominated in 2002 for no less than Best Picture by the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA). Meanwhile, the Oscar nominees for the first ever Best Animated Feature film? Shrek (the winner), Monster's Inc., and, of course, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Where did I miss this snub in my list of the worst ever?
Speaking of snubs, Mulholland Drive (ironically, the CFCA's Best Picture winner) was coincidentally released in the U.S. on the exact same day as Waking Life. The latter could be almost be viewed as an animated version of the former, and the movies remain as two of the most mindblowing experiences I've ever had in a theater.
I can't guarantee you'll have the same experience watching Waking Life at home, but at the very least it should satisfy your summer craving for something more substantive than Disaster Movie.