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Waking Life
cast: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater, and J.C. Shakespeare

director: Richard Linklater

96 minutes (15) 2001
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
"The ongoing wow is going on now!" is one of the expressions summing up from within Richard Linklater's latest exercise, a beguiling and occasionally obscure marathon on the theme of that most common branch of the supernatural, the dream, with much wild theorising and haunting mental perambulation. Either because he understood how daunting this might all become, or defensive of his reputation as, paradoxically, a stalwart of the slacker generation and fearing that the wordiness might make it too dull for most audiences... or, perhaps genuinely, to award the entrapping dream domain with an absurd other dimensional value, the director has beset it to animation, to the procedure known as rotoscoping, the method by which actors are filmed and then painted over. Rotoscoping was a practice popularised by Ralph Bakshi in Lord Of The Rings (1980), Fire And Ice (1982) and Cool World (1990), often ineptly and hastily done. The quantity of superimposition in the middle film, Fire And Ice, gave more of an idea of how potentially rewarding an exercise it might be, though it never overcame its reputation as a cheat form of animation. Today's computer generated animation also being seen as less laborious and time consuming than conventional cell work though loved by audiences and accepted as an art means that new legitimacy can be won by rotoscope; after all, human characters are often composed from human models.
   It could be that the eccentric, colourful device is wholly intended to cover all points awkward, that the director accepts that some of the dialogue may suffer at the delivery of a less interesting voice or out of an unexceptional face, that the paint-box computer overlay will maintain the viewer in a constant state of curiosity, hence occupation, and at this it is most successful. Wiley Wiggins is the young lead in transit, meandering and rebounding like a slow pinball from one great brain to another in a dreamtime quest with the original mission undeclared or plainly forgotten. Few characters are revisited and when they are it is only possibly them as they would generally appear to have become a new character or can hardly be recognised from their original appearance. They, too, are the least intellectual of the interviewees, haunted by their dreams, while the more scholarly are fascinated, by coincidence, fate, dimensions, the naked instance, ugly but exciting truths in human nature, tragic natural equations, perspectives on evolution, quantum dynamics and the occasional deliberate fudge. I can't confess to understanding it all from the one viewing, nor perhaps differentiate the wow from the cow. Some of those visited or met in literal passing might be done so for no more than a short sentence, others are allowed to effuse their concepts more considerably. Notions come thick and fast, and yes, many are exciting observations and surmises. The pace is so up-with-it that it feels right to allow it go past, that you have already decided that you will return to this film and hear more, digest whatever you are able to then, on a later date, on another occasion, look forward to the rediscovery even.
   The viewer is a greater outsider to the proceedings than is Wiley, a character who has questions but is pre-empted on them continuously by the 'interview' subjects. The closer the subject is to his level the more converse he becomes with them, cowardly before the greater intellects. Conversations between others are listened in on, the participants are tuned in to one another and agreeable, and no matter how doom-laden their prophecies might be it works only to broaden their smiles. It is for lesser brains to suffer the logistical fears that any of the notions might bring, the half-empty and unshaped minds of the slacker generation. Yes, they still loiter in Linklater's world, or should I say worlds. Wiley is a slacker, allowing himself to be taken where he is led or left, adrift from codes of etiquette, he proffers no hellos, goodbyes or thank you, be the favour a lift or a world altering connotation, not until, that is an encounter on an underpass, and because that interloper is a cartoon attractive female and backs up for the purpose of it, you suspect that the back brain bed chamber may bring on the manners... though nothing apparently more, after all that might only lead to wet dreams and the end of the film.
   The animation has been conducted by a team of 21 with a redistribution of charge allowing for subtle differentiation of styles from one intelligent personality to the next, from the cheeky to the adventurous, from the intrinsic to the vague, the amusing to the brutal. There is brightness, there is silvery reflection, there are garish, ferocious colours and backgrounds that stay, and backgrounds that shift, like cardboard waves on a theatrical stage. It is Rhubarb And Custard with intellectual attitude. One of the greatest tricks opportunely made by the rotoscoping is that by training the viewer to search for the underlying film and the faces in the digital draft underneath, you query or forgot to question the additions, even when it is all in essence addition, none of the original detail remains... only the direction of the body motions and a fuzzy caricature of the original player. But look you do, to the extent, realising too late, that you have become unable to safely separate the search for the visual truth under the animation when one character pours petrol over his head and sets himself on fire. As the animated body burns black and topples over you cannot pull yourself out of the now inadvertent search, you imagine the self-immolation more than you would from a more directly visualised conflagration.
   Viewers should be warned of the relative narrative and anyone out there more demanding of a storyline might become impatient with the film and quite rightly so. This is insightful and inciting, an invite for one to think, mull, disagree and argue, though with so little disagreement among the occupants of Linklater's world it can inevitably come over as asinine and egotistical. In truth, the real ego is singular, the Wiley traveller, who recognises all the ideas that are put to him; it is his dream after all, so he either originated them or has learned them by study long before sleeping. Either way in the dream domain, he is not only the victim of botheration he is the perpetrator of it also. And so it is ultimately a self-congratulatory journey. Viewers are so trained to separate story-based fiction and notion-ensconced documentary that it is a strain trying to accept a format alluding to both. There is the desire and the need to separate them, enjoy them apart, which is only natural at this stage in the viewer-filmmaker relationship. Obtuse it can be, obstructive also, thick with the language of those who obfuscate or have the leisure time to explore ideas on our behalf. You may be forced to shut down and follow the cartoon for a spell, don't be shy to do so. Take what you can from it with each viewing. As I rate this film currently I understand that with further viewings, with more time affordable to the innumerable fabulous notions and tales within, that I may grow to love Waking Life more. It is too rare that an entire world is successfully managed onto the screen, no matter how much money you pump into the design. Linklater found a world for his loose ends and it is an admirable, potentially intoxicating place. I know that I will be booking more short stay holidays at this hamlet.
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