Altered States

A masterpiece of animation, 'Waking Life' looks for meaning as life collides with dreams.

November 09, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Waking Life is a beautiful display of celluloid bungee-jumping. This computer-animated cartoon feature for adults takes us on one death-defying leap into one void after another, intermittently tugging us back to a narrative about an innocent young figure (Wiley Wiggins) caught in a dream that won't end. He learns how to stop worrying and love his dreamscape. And so do we.

Wiggins hooks up with, or eavesdrops on, dozens of fascinating characters who talk about the meaning of dreams - and the meaning of life. The characters are shot live-action, then computer-animated. The result is like a cross between My Dinner With Andre and one of those shorts from the Aardman animators (Creature Comforts, Chicken Run) that join tape-recorded conversations to plasticine figures.

Director Richard Linklater plays hide and seek with his story, which is basically a series of inspired existential tangents. Each time the central figure "wakes" he discovers he's still sleeping.

Because this movie is our hero's dream, the people he meets are talking about his world. But it's also writer-director Richard Linklater's world - and ours. What makes the film such a heady experience, in every possible meaning of the word, is that it has one foot planted solidly in actuality and another planted just as firmly, if improbably, in floating conjecture. Linklater, the Austin-based director of Slacker, Dazed and Confused and my own favorite, Before Sunrise, has located a new-millennium version of America's wide-open spaces, and it rests in the home-grown brain. In this film, Yankee ingenuity meets Yankee transcendentalism.

To mesh the real and the surreal, Linklater's animation-direction partner, Bob Sabiston, and a team of 30 animators, work with a computerized version of an old technique called rotoscoping, which allows animators to trace cartoon images from live-action footage. (Ralph Bakshi used it heavily, often disastrously, in the first version of Lord of the Rings.)

Sabiston's computer-animation software opens up and individualizes the whole technique. Sabiston calls it "interpolated rotoscoping," because it allows the animators, without losing the underlying flow of honest action and reaction, to exaggerate certain features of Linklater's characters - a bulbous forehead, or ever-widening eyes - or to doodle whimsical or pointed illustrations of their thoughts and feelings on their faces and bodies. A man who says he'd prefer to be "a gear in a big deterministic machine rather than just some random swerving," for example, actually becomes a man with a gear for a head.

The vibrant backgrounds ignite quizzical details - what is a figurine of Nipper the RCA dog doing next to the gear-head? - or shift color and form with the fluidity and freedom of a 3-D Etch-a-Sketch. Even that eye-popping protean quality is rooted in "live" footage, since Linklater shot it with lightweight, handheld digital cameras. The whole movie interweaves the artificial and the hand-made: if the overhead shots of its dream city quiver with a giddiness different from what you'd find in a typical helicopter shot, it's because Linklater filmed them from a hot-air balloon.

"Lucid dreaming" is what our hero and his new friends call the state where you can be in a dream, realize that you're in one, and use that consciousness to interact with dream people and dream events in a way that adds to your bank of actual experiences. And a lucid dream is just what Linklater's film is. The movie has a loopy structure that lets you experience the dream-traveler's feelings of terror and euphoria while remaining at one remove and seeing how the contradictory views of scientists, artists, academic philosophers and college-fringe types converge at the highest level.

Most of them are looking for more intensity - of feeling, expression, thought or fun - than is usually permitted in conventional society. Others seek an understanding of dream-time and our time on Earth, and of evolutions and revolutions in consciousness. If one word could sum up their warring pursuits, it is "transcendence." To their credit, most of them aren't looking for an easy way out of human dilemmas. Aside from a smattering of nihilists and feckless anarchists, they're looking for a way up.

Movie lovers may recognize a few characters by sight or sound: Before Sunrise fans get to see Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talking in bed; in the previous film, they talked everywhere except in bed. Steve Soderbergh tells a droll anecdote about Billy Wilder and Louis Malle. And Nicky Katt (a Linklater veteran, now on TV's Boston Public) shows up as part of a quartet of self-described social-cultural theorists who are really just intellectual trash-talkers. Some characters register so immediately and viscerally that when a handful turn up in different guises we think we recognize them (though after two viewings, like the hero, I'm still not sure a certain girl is who she says she is).

When a few of them commit or threaten violence to themselves or each other - including ideologically motivated violence - the results are justly upsetting. Yet the dream world of this film gives even the most raucous and bloody moments a philosophic buffer, a space in which irony, thought and tenderness can grow.

Waking Life is a sublime example of the Higher Escapism. The subtitle could have been the name of Delmore Schwartz's famous story: "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."

Waking Life

Starring Wiley Wiggins

Directed by Richard Linklater

Rated R (Language and some violent images)

Released by Fox Searchlight

Running time 97 minutes

Sun score ****

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