Great Films: Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001, USA)

Why do we watch films? This is a question that will elicit many differing answers, but one reason is that we want to see something which allows us to reflect on our own lives and, in a broader sense, the nature of existence. But we are not just shelling out our £6-plus ticket price for just this; if we wanted merely to question the meaning of life, that would be better spent on a half-decent pop-philosophy book. At their best, films are also be about spectacle, a visual communication which cannot be made through any other artform as effectively or elegantly.

A prime example of this would be Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. For anyone who has seen his more recent film, A Scanner Darkly (2006) , it shares the same use of the graphic technique known as ‘digital rotoscoping’; live action footage was shot on DV, and then animators overlaid this footage with roughly approximated graphical versions, creating a simultaneously real yet cartoon-like appearance. The effect can be a little dizzying at first, but is swiftly gotten used to. The technique allows the animators to take liberties with reality; walls shift around unnaturally, faces and bodies seem to metamophose. Within this style, moments of unreality seem perfectly natural and expected.

There is no real plot to speak of; the unnamed protagonist drifts through a dreamlike state, encountering different characters who are conducting monologues and conversations about life. For their screen duration, the film acts as a soapbox for their ideas; along the way, we meet philosophers David Sosa and Robert C. Solomon, eminent chemist Eamonn Healy, actors Speed Levitch and Wiley Wiggins, the characters Celine and Jesse from Linklater’s earlier film Before Sunrise, directors Steven Soderbergh and Linklater himself, among many others. If long discussions about ‘heavy’ topics are not your cup of tea, then this is clearly not the film for you.

Linklater’s films seem to focus on young characters intrigued by life and living, generally motivated by their not really knowing what their role in the grand scheme of things is. This was at the core of his debut feature, the hugely influential Slacker (1991) which Kevin Smith famously credits as inspiring him to make Clerks (1994). Similarly, in Dazed and Confused (1993) we see characters, though this time slightly younger, questioning everything, striving to find the answers that may actually not be out there. Celine and Jesse in Before Sunrise (1995) may be more optimistic, but are still full of the same self-doubts and questions about life, the universe and everything.

And in Waking Life, boy, do they talk. For anyone familiar with Slacker the material can seem slightly derivative: discussions about the significance of dreams, exisitentialist philosophy, the alienation of modern life, reincarnation, free will, the role of the artist in society. These discussions in themselves are all interesting, but on their own do not necessarily make for great cinema. But when fused to the dreamy rotoscoped animation, the words seem to take on a whole different life, and instead of feeling bogged down by concepts and theories, watching the film gives me a feeling of freedom, liquidity and ease. It is a unique and quite extraordinary experience.

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