Richard Linklater has long had a reputation as being an “Indie Film Darling”, stretching all the way back to 1991, when he gave us the “seminal Gen X” film – Slacker, in which a bunch of jackasses from his hometown of Austin, Texas, wax lyrical about life, the universe and whatever topics came from their heads. Over the next 20 years, Linklater definitely came into his own as a storyteller, giving us such classic films as Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bad News Bears (wait, what?) and the two Before films – Sunrise and Sunset. However, in 2001, he revisited the concept he first used in Slacker – the freeform, mostly improvised “piece to camera”, with Waking Life. Only this time, instead of it being a live action piece, the whole film has been run through with a rotoscoping machine. This was a conscious decision by Linklater, as the primary topic of the film is that of the “Lucid Dream” (a dream in which you know you are dreaming), and he wanted the whole film to feel like a dream.
Let me just say right of the bat, that it works, especially since technology has improved greatly since the days of Snow White (one of the most popular works to use rotoscoping in its creation), allowing a merge with digital effects – thus opening up the box of what Linklater was able to pull off and have his characters do, be and look like; much the same as any dream I can think of. Given that the film started off as actual reality, and became what it is, I’ll say that it’s set in unreality.
And, much like a dream, I have no idea where this review will go.
The film follows the dream, or is the dream, of a never named central character who just wanders around a town (once again, Linklater returned to Austin to shoot this, using many of the same places and faces from Slacker, leading me to believe that they both are part of an overall universe), travelling from unnamed point A to unnamed point b. Along the way, he encounters many people who wax lyrical on the philosophy of dreams, of human existence, of being and many stops in between. What you will see, though is the central character becoming a lot more aware of lucid dreams and moves from being a passive participant to actively working to change “his destiny”, at least as it pertains to the film.
As I said at the start, the digital rotoscoping really worked in this, as the film was set up to “be a dream”, and the fact that the whole little universe created is moving and shaking and always changing does nothing but add to that. Yes, it can be unsettling, but isn’t that what unreality is?
Just like a dream, it jumps from scene to scene with no real heed given to a coherent overreaching story arc, asides the various aspects of philosophies. This is summed up best, I feel, in a segment in which two characters are discussing a novel that one is writing:
1: What are you writing?
2: A novel.
1: What's the story?
2: There's no story. It's just ... people, gestures, moments, bits of rapture, fleeting emotions. In short, the greatest stories ever told.
1: Are you in the story?
2: I don't think so. But then, I'm kind of reading it and then writing it.
Are these the greatest stories ever told? No, but some of them are pretty engaging. But that pretty much tells you what this is – people, gestures, moments. Just like a dream. Just like life.
As much as I like this film, and I do (I usually watch it once a year), it’s not something that I can recommend to just anyone, because you have to be on just the right wavelength to watch it. It’s got some pretty interesting musings on life and existence, and puts them all out there for you to think on. As I said above, it sort of a spiritual sequel to Slacker, but, unlike that film, this doesn’t come off as pretentious and “look how deep and alternative we are”. Sure, it says many of the same things the same way (which comes from having a lot of the same voices), but given the art style used to deliver the messages, it works a heck of a lot better.
And that is really all I can say on it.