With Waking Life, writer-director Richard Linklater has created the anti-Slacker, a philosophical flip side to his 1991 zeitgeist-capturing debut feature. If Slacker cannily depicts the comfortable aimlessness of Austin’s perennial underachievers, Waking Life presents that college town as a virtual hotbed of intellectual musings. It’s a cinematic tour through the illustrated Philosophy For Beginners, an animated Mindwalk.
But most of all, the beautiful Waking Life is an experiment in lucid dreaming, a controlled trip through the unconscious threads of a community linked by thought. The denizens of Linklater’s Austin are all concerned — some about their immediate problems (a prisoner detailing his revenge), others about social justice (a band of aphorism-spouting anarchists, a vociferous man engaged in drive-by loudspeaker rabble-rousing) — but most are fixated on the mysterious laws governing the universe. These range from a couple (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke from Before Sunrise) in bed discussing the mechanics of reincarnation, to two women in a coffee house marveling at how the future seemed so fixed when they were young but now seems invigoratingly fluid, to a host of philosophers discussing the optimistic streak in existentialism or how brain biology can’t quite explain the pesky presence of free will. There’s even a side journey to New York City for the warm, wordy embrace of celestial tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch of The Cruise.
Heady stuff, and Linklater isn’t afraid to tickle the cerebral cortex for 97 minutes of dream time. Stringing everything together is a young man (Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused) wandering through a dreamscape that’s alternately mundane and surreal, and who’s beginning to suspect that he’s unable to wake up.
What makes Waking Life so utterly hypnotic is the way the animation team led by art director Bob Sabiston took the live-action footage shot by Linklater and utterly transformed it. In their glorious, quivering colors, the characters come alive in new ways: It’s as if the very words they speak give birth to the images of them that we see.
This vision is a dream to be savored when fully awake.
Visit the official Waking Life Web site at www.wakinglife.com.
Read a dialogue with director Richard Linklater, auteur of the verbose.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.