July 31, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Waking Life (2001)

School's out for summer, but that doesn't mean July's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) has to be a mindless blockbuster. In fact, Waking Life is possibly the best antidote one could find for the poisonous images (The Love Guru, et. al.) we're subject to during these dog days of June-August.

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.


  1. Oddly, it doesn't work as well at home as it did in the theatre. It's entire premise and philosophical fabric is admittedly unique--to a lesser degree there was some elements that were replicated in PERSEPOLIS, by WAKING LIFE is no hybrid itself. This kind of cebral animation is bestsuited to a theatre's intimacy, but that argument could also be made for other films, so it's all individual perceptions.
    By the way, the stills really look great here on your web-page!!!

  2. That's interesting, Sam. I saw bits of it on a smaller screen a while back and it really wasn't the same experience. However, I think if you can block out other distractions and focus, it might arrest you regardless of the screen size. Definitely not to be seen on an iPod, though, but nothing is in my opinion.

    And the stills do translate fairly well, don't they? I wish there more to choose from and I don't have a DVD copy to do a screengrab. These were some of the only ones that weren't of the Delpy/Hawke scene in bed.

  3. Great pick for a MOTM - definitely fitting for a proper summer diversion.

    I saw this 3 times in the theater - and loved it each time - and as could be expected by the density of the experience, I learned/watched/heard something new each time. Having bought the DVD though, I have only watched that once, so I would sadly tend to agree with Sam that something was lost for me in seeing it at home. The cinema intimacy definitely made it a more immersive experience. Still, an amazing achievement overall, and I heartily recommend it to everyone.

    The part of me that is an "analytical who enjoyed those late night college conversations" did indeed dig this, and Slacker too, very much.
    But I think I disagree with you, Daniel, in the pairing with Mulholland Drive; the part of me that is one of the "more emotionals" had a much different experience with that film (which I watched only once, in the theater). I found MD to be as emotionally raw and plainly passionate as WL was at times ethereal and esoteric. I was affected by MD on a completely different cerebral plane. Its a pretty big disconnect for me. But it doesn't change the fact that MD is totally a fascinating and worthwhile film.

    Anyway, the mental and visual imagery in Waking Life is mesmerizing, and I seem to remember find the aural aspects intriguing as well -- a very beautiful and intricate production in every way. Thanks again for keeping its flame alive!

  4. The Charles Schwab commercials are actually by the same animation team that did Waking Life. Everybody gotsta eat.

  5. Hmm, that's a pretty good point, Josh. Obviously MD has more of a narrative, and characters that you can invest in, but I guess I was just looking at them both as surreal studies of the dream state. MD obviously disturbed me quite a bit more, but both of them really messed with my head in the same way. Come to think of it, I really wish I would have seen MD again in the theater. Too bad WL doesn't work AS well at home, but as you say, people should still check it out if they haven't seen it.

    Anonymous, you have really blown my hair back. Finding that out was like learning Chipotle is owned by McDonald's. Anyway, the Slate review on your website of the Schwab commercials makes this really interesting observation: "the cartoons force us to focus on what we're hearing". That's totally true.

    Too bad I still don't want to focus on how little money I have compared to these people...

  6. Unfortunately the flatblack website is acting weird so you can't see the other stuff they've done. They have a new short that no one will probably get to see called "the even more fun trip" that is really good. Also the lead programmer is developing a Nintendo DS animation program.

  7. Hmm, the mysterious source is back. Well if you're looking for a place to screen "The Even More Fun Trip," let me know. Seriously, I'll make a show of it here.

    Would the game allow you to animate? Or am I understanding incorrectly?

  8. What a great pick for MOTM! What a surprise to see this movie grace the pages of your blog (or any decent blog for that matter). I personally don't know anyone else who has ever seen this, let alone heard of it but it remains one of my all time favorite movies. I can't count how many times scenes from this movie have popped into my head. On a weekly basis, at the very least. There are so many different topics discussed, that it really takes multiple viewings to even begin processing.

    Sadly, I never saw this in a theater. I was disappointed even without hearing you guys talk about how it doesn't hold up as well at home. I'd kill to have this come to any of the revival/art house theaters in Boston.

    Thanks for offering some nice words for a truly underrated movie. Underrated MOTM is one of my most enjoyed features on your blog but I usually (unsurprisingly) haven't seen any of the ones you review. It pleases me to actually be able to add something to one of these posts.

    For the record, I did get a pseudo-philosophy degree, albeit one from a state college.

  9. Have to say that I'm a huge fan of this one. I'll admit that the philosophy and (obviously) the story presented aren't entirely satisfying...but if you're looking for that, you're watching it the wrong way. This is a movie where you just kick back and let the head trip wash over you. The lukewarm critical response has a lot more to do with people's preconceived notions of what a movie "should be" than it does to do with the intrinsic value of the film.

    It's not completely true that Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly are the only rotoscoped feature-length films, however. Many of Ralph Bakshi's films -- most notable The Lord of the Rings use extensive rotoscoping, and the earliest Disney films used it to great effect as well. Those two Linklater pieces might be the only entirely rotoscoped films, though.

    McDonald's actually divested its interest in Chipotle a couple of years ago. If anyone cares.

  10. I knew there had to be some people out there who appreciate this movie. Based on the limited discussion it almost looked like you were right, Justin. Maybe not a lot of people have seen it.

    Incidentally, I did see it both times in the theater in Boston. I think once at Copley Square and once at Harvard Square? I'm a little surprised it doesn't have more of a foothold in that intellectual market. Maybe you can screen it at your theater.

    I know what you mean about randomly remembering the discussions that take place. I don't even think I've seen it enough to process all of it, but I can recognize that it's pretty rich.

    Thanks for the comment and compliments. Choosing these MOTMs is harder than I originally thought, so finding one that others also like is validating.

    Good points all, Luke, and I should have made it clearer that Linklater's aren't the only films that feature rotoscope, just the only ones that exclusively use it from start to finish. I still can't believe it didn't get an Oscar nod that year, but I understand that some people wouldn't want to categorize it as "animated", and that being the first year of the animated award anyway, voters probably weren't think too far outside the box.

    And yes, I DO care about Chipotle being on its own. Actually I should have known that since my friend Jeff was hot on the tip of its IPO a couple of years ago. He even successfully campaigned the opening of a Chipotle in his neighborhood.


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