American filmmaker Richard Linklater is an acquired taste. A strong proponent of humanist ideals, philosophical dialogue and surrealist visuals, Linklater’s movies are often reflections of the varied personalities of Earth’s inhabitants, distilled into films which range from the wittily anarchic (Slacker) to the transmundane (A Scanner Darkly) and the bitterly soul-searching (Boyhood)
Oh, and he also made School of Rock.
Waking Life, recently released by Arrow Video, was an ambitious project by Linklater that was realised in 2001. In the film, a nameless protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) drifts in and out of a series of social scenarios, containing characters from all walks of life, as they muse upon the very concept of being human. Though the choice to participate in the scenarios, or merely observe them, seems to be beyond him. Our hero tries to assess the bizarre situation he has found himself in, where he seems to be living an actual existential crisis, both figuratively and literally.
Told you it was an acquired taste..
The population of the protagonist’s dream-like world is portrayed by a cast of indie darlings including Steven Soderbergh, Adam Goldberg, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, amongst others. Adding to the surrealist style of the film, the entire movie is shot in the classic animation style known as “Rotoscoping” in which the scenes have been shot live, than this footage has been hand-animated, presenting a strange, kinetic, hyper-reality to the whole film. Whilst it makes the visuals quite unusual, it emphasises the fantastical elements of the film’s plot (which I am doing my best to dance around without spoiling). At times the film is exquisitely beautiful, at others, it’s the very worst acid trip you can imagine.
Against this mind-melting backdrop, Waking Life’s cast of characters break down such easygoing subjects as world politics, social awareness, the existence of an afterlife, the submissive nature of man, the spirit of free will and the ultimate question of life itself. These lofty topics are verbalised with naturalistic, semi-improvised dialogue, attempting to encourage the viewer to ask these same questions of themselves. This in itself is a common theme of Linklater’s work, as he often holds a mirror up to his audience, asking them too to confront the big picture of Love, Life, Loss and everything in-between.
This philosophy is what makes Waking Life such a subjective movie, though an expertly produced one. There is no denying that the actors are uniformly excellent, and that the film is made with absolute heart and passion. Like most “Walk and Talk” pictures, it is essential that the viewer knows what they are getting themselves into: a lengthy, reflective look at humanity’s existence, told in heavily metaphoric, dramatic conversation, which may be life-changing for some, but a pretentious exercise in tedium for others.
Arrow Video have treated this release with the usual care and adoration that they have given to all their recent Blu-Rays. Accompanying the sharp 1080p transfer are commentaries from both Linklater himself and the film’s hardworking animation team. There are also a selection of featurettes, including some of the movie’s pre-animation live footage. A wonderful bonus a collection of shorts by Bob Sabiston, who led Waking Life’s animation department. The disc isn’t quite as jam-packed as some of Arrow’s previous releases, but the insightful commentaries and look at the film’s very specific style will definitely please fans.
It is difficult to objectively review some movies, especially ones which choose to file themselves into such a niche and aesthetically unique genre. Whichever way you look at it, it cannot be denied that Waking Life is a powerful and very personal piece, one that uses a crew of talented actors and animators to give life to the philosophies of one of the most divisive auteurs of our generation. Waking Life is a film that implores you to ask big questions of yourself. It is a hypnotic experience, warm, tender and loving, whilst somehow being cold and lonely at one and the same time.
Let the message in, and it could even change your view on your own slice of reality.
Film: 4/5 Release: 4/5
Dir: Richard Linklater
Scr: Richard Linklater
Starring: Wiley Wiggins, Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Nicky Katt, Eamonn Healy
Prd: Tommy Pallotta, Jonah Smith
DOP: Richard Linklater, Tommy Pallotta
Music: Glover Gill
Run Time: 101 mins
Waking Life is now available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.