written and directed by Richard Linklater with Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Timothy "Speed" Levitch, and Steven Soderbergh runs Oct. 26-Nov. 8 at Egyptian
"DREAM IS DESTINY" goes the opening epigram to the first animated effort by Richard Linklater, a film whose episodic structure will remind most people of his 1991 Slacker. Some of Slacker's faces also pop up here, as do some from Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused, whose Wiley Wiggins serves as Waking Life's tour guide—which is to say, its principal dreamer. Or is he? It's an old philosophical conundrum, this distinction between ordinary consciousness and the dream-heightened state. Linklater is essentially asking, What's the difference? And should there be one?
Waking begins with a prologue, Wiley's childhood nightmare—if that's what it is—which bookends the film and haunts his inquiry into the reality or unreality of dreams. It's not exactly a quest for interpretation (Freud is mercifully absent in Waking), more like a series of tutorials and lessons from a gallery of anonymous ranters, cranks, philosophers, and oddballs too numerous to list.
Wiley is mostly the silent student as he listens on our behalf, although Waking does pull away from his perspective occasionally to amplify or illustrate certain themes. The movie's like a cram course in Philosophy 101, with glancing references to Sren Kierkegaard, D. H. Lawrence, Federico Garc???Lorca, Billy Wilder, Louis Malle, Andr頂azin, Thomas Mann, and Philip K. Dick. Love, free will vs. determinism, evolution, ontology, death, existentialism—these and other ideas are bandied about with something less than academic seriousness. Questions are many, and answers few.
If that sounds a little talky and dry, it is. At only 97 minutes, Waking does grow tedious and repeat its core ideas, with precious few laughs to enliven its monologues. Fortunately, the vaguely Middle European cabaret-style music by Tosca Tango Orchestra—mostly accordion, piano, and strings—does help give Waking an almost symphonic sense of movement and structure.
THE REAL REASON to see the film, and you should, is the art. Linklater shot the film in 25 days on DVD, then supervised some 12 months of animation transfer assisted by art director Bob Sabiston, whose work has appeared on MTV and the PBS series Figures of Speech. Over 30 artists contributed to the animation process, each assigned to a given character rendered in a different style. Thus, Waking has no uniform look like Final Fantasy or Toy Story. Since Sabiston's software essentially overlays computer brush strokes on a video image, the effect isn't that of three-dimensional CGI animation but instead a flat, old-school 'toon that's been deconstructed into different jiggling components.
Thus, the elements in a frame that are usually in fixed relation to one another—foreground, background, characters between—are often in flux (sometimes too much so, creating a slightly queasy stomach). Little background details can suddenly flare up; characters change shape; thought bubbles appear to illustrate their ruminations. Since animation's wonderful plasticity allows the sort of transmogrification and surrealism we associate with our dreams, it's the perfect medium for Linklater's musings on illusion and reality.
This constant shifting of the ground beneath Wiley's feet is unsettling for us, too, but that's Waking's entire point. Hitching a ride in a boat-car, our hero is told, "You wanna go with the flow. The ride does not require an explanation, just occupants." Among his fellow passengers is Linklater himself, who reappears at the film's end to add a few more metaphysical notes. Unlike Wiley, Waking may not convince us that it's possible to "pierce the veil of time" and find the eternal in the instant, but it certainly will inspire curious thoughts on the pillow as moviegoers later drift off to sleep— just as Linklater intends.