It would be impossible to discuss Waking Life without weeding out its slacker and stoner roots. While Richard Linklater’s latest is a work of profound originality, how is the director to reconcile the fact that many will undoubtedly construe his animated metaphysic as a mere pot-stoked fantasia? More importantly, is it even possible that anyone other than stoners and fans of writer-director Caveh Zahedi (I Was Possessed By God) will even care? Those fond of cinematic innovation will pay mind as the film’s palette challenges the dimensionality of perspective; shot on video, the film’s images were animated using computer software and a machine called the Wacom Tablet. The effect is hallucinatory as filmic space is turned into a plane-shifting realm nursing free-floating ontology; whether it’s a product of stoic contemplation or reefer madness, Linklater’s waking life becomes an elusive, one-way vehicle to God.
The film’s main character (Wiley Wiggins) remains anonymous throughout the film—names don’t matter here, Linklater’s pawns are everyfolk. He awakes from a dream (or a dream within a dream, not that it really matters), aboard a train heading toward spiritual enlightenment. A little girl’s determinist toy informs a younger version of the film’s journeyman that “dream is destiny.” The boy floats off the ground and, holding onto a parked car’s door handle, returns to Earth. Older, although certainly not wiser, Linklater’s protagonist silently bemoans the abstractness of his geographical foothold (is he awake, dreaming or dead?), oblivious to the essence of his journey which is to float off the ground with God and without fear. As Linklater maps the young man’s run-ins with dozens of “slackers” (their minds, though, are anything but slack), a web of spiritual complacency seems to ebb toward one final encounter with Linklater himself, a more self-aware version of the film’s hero.
The logic of Linklater’s Life is that of a nondenominational fugue state, where everyone is part of God although free from the demands of a group collective. No doubt it’s a challenging goal, which makes much of Life so difficult to take; Linklater’s philosophy, though, isn’t very complex although its fulfillment is difficult to fathom. Linklater’s doppelganger undergoes his “neo-human evolutionary cycle” as friends and strangers deconstruct everything from postmodernism to reincarnation (seen by Julie Delpy’s character as “a poetic expression of collective memory”). While everyone in Life seems to ascribe to the same thought, their free will is painstakingly celebrated through individual color schemes. (Animators on the film were paired with specific characters, thus the film’s vastly heterogeneous landscape.) One character—a man in prison for undisclosed crimes—is, quite literally, red with anger. He dreams of revenge against those responsible for his jail time, seeking to tear their eyelids from their faces (forcing them to stare into the face of a different kind of God, although not quite the devil).
Whether intentional or not, there are few splashes of red throughout Life; the color aptly compliments the angry mugs of two faces (the prisoner and an anti-politician) while violent bloodshed after an ironic barroom brawl subtly condemns guns. A widespread acceptance of the film’s philosophy poses a more complex problem—one that Linklater is more than willing to admit. Following the scene in jail, a fearful thinker poses the question of God as a supreme planner; if God (read: Destiny) exists and has set everything in advance then how can we possess free will? If so, then how can man be held accountable for crimes set in motion by a higher, more abstract order? While justice is necessary in waking life (if only as protection from harm), all rules seem to fall apart in the dreamstate (the kind of deep sleep David Lynch would relish). If destiny lies in dreams—as the little girl says in the beginning of the film—then what is to be made of the lucid dreamer, the one that consciously controls the logic of the dream?
Caveh Zahedi celebrates film theorist André Bazin’s Holy Moment, which asks that we welcome curiosity and strip ourselves of the layers that prevent us from achieving higher consciousness. In the film, Zahedi and a friend literally morph into a puff of clouds after staring into each other’s eyes and embracing their Holy Moment—it’s also a euphoric one, visually splendorous and full of endless spiritual possibilities. Linklater, a pinball machine, The Book of Acts and Philip K. Dick lend perfect credence to the director’s near-tangible fantasia. Even if life is not a “no thank you” to an invitation from God, Waking Life is, at the very least, a humanist embrace of self-affirmation. As in dreams, life is full of endless possibilities and while the film may amount to one monstrous rant from a hardcore stoner, Linklater is willing to admit that active thought is nothing without active action. The film’s journeyman manages to take a plunge and come closer to God, although a larger question remains: what will we do?
Waking Life is presented here in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Even if there were any significant faults on this impeccable transfer it’d be entirely too easy to say it’s all part of Richard Linklater’s wondrously ethereal concept art. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the look of this film; the film’s colors are energetic and while contrast seems a little uneven at times, the dynamic range is incredible. The dialogue-dependent Waking Life gets the Dobly Digital 5.1 treatment and all the essentials (the dialogue, the score) are perfectly audible. Seeing as Linklater paid little attention to surround effects, background noises may be inconsequential though mildly intrusive on this audio transfer.
Fox’s Waking Life DVD comes with your choice of three commentary tracks. The first track features producer Tommy Pallotta, animation director Bob Sabiston, director Richard Linklater and actor Wiley Wiggins and it’s most notable for the connections Linklater makes between scenes and moments from his past (Wiley holding on to his father’s ’55 Chevy and the film’s composite kitchen-sink realism). Most interesting is a discussion on Wiley’s disembodied consciousness. When he does leave the film, the audience begins to watch Waking Life from his point of view even if he is not physically in the same room with some of the film’s über-philosophers. The text commentary is richly informative though it may be too heavy-handed to experience the film while reading the text and listening to any of the disc’s commentary tracks. One of the disc’s more crucial features is a commentary track with the film’s animators. Start here if you’re curious as to how the film’s fluid, multi-layered aesthetic was born of various, very distinctive mindsets. An animation scrap heap includes all sorts of deleted portions, alternate scenes (essentially, scenes from the film as drawn by other credited artists) and test sketches. You can see some of the film’s more distinctive scenes before they made their way through Bob Sabiston’s computer on "The "Greatest Hits: The Live Action Version" section. On "Bob Sabiston’s Animation Tutorial," Sabiston uses the film’s opening scene to show how Waking Life went from live action to fabulous concept art. Also included here is a "Snack and Drink" animated short, an EPK featurette and theatrical trailers for the film and the upcoming The Banger Sisters.
Both crucial and kind of demystifying, this awesome Waking Life DVD package exposes the technical brouhaha behind Linklater’s magical concept art.