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WAKING LIFE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices & Likenesses:  Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater
Director:  Richard Linklater
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  May 7, 2002

“Seems like everyone’s either sleepwalking through their waking state or wake-walking through their dreams.  Either way, they’re not gonna get much out of it.”

Film ****

When the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was once asked what he considered to be the greatest film ever made, his answer was Snow White.  It’s not really so strange a choice.  Animation has always been one of the most purely artistic expressions of cinema, even if it tends to miss respect by being categorized a children’s medium.  Animation knows no limits, no bounds, no rules…anything that can be imagined can be put to paper, and anything that can be put to paper can be photographed.

2001 saw two animated features break through conventional limitations like few such films since Snow White had done.  Final Fantasy raised the bar of creating realism out of nothing into the stratosphere.  Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life created pure art out of realism.  Visually, it’s like the world’s best museums come to life.  Philosophically, it dares to ask the difficult questions, post the challenging theorems, and analyze what can’t be broken down into simple terms.  When those two frontiers combine into a single movie, you have an experience that is bold and daring…and one that doesn’t just smash through boundaries, but obliterates them into nothingness.

Take any frame from your average Disney animated film, blow it up, and hang it on a wall.  Is it art?  Most certainly…but it might look out of place in your average gallery.  Pick any one of the 144,000 or so frames from Waking Life and do the same, and you’ll have a piece that’s as worth of contemplation, study and admiration as anything that has come from the world of painting in the last 100 years.

Yet all of this art is utilized to create a dream world out of a real one.  Linklater and crew actually filmed and edited the entire movie in 6 weeks using digital video cameras and real actors.  Then teams of animators took the live footage and created their magic from there.  The results are striking and beautifully unsettling.  You find yourself marveling about how artificial and yet how incredibly real it all looks at the same time.

There is no plot.  A never-named character wanders through the movie encountering other souls.  Each has definite thoughts about life, death, and dreams…you may not agree with all of them, but you’ll probably be amazed, as I was, at how much real thought was put into these words.  These do not come across as pseudo philosophy, but as real contemplations of subjects both eternal and elusive.

One character, probably my favorite, offers thoughts on lucidity.  How do we control our dreams?  First, we have to realize that we ARE dreaming, and “is this a dream?” is a question that very few people ask, awake or asleep.  He also pointed out something that absolutely stunned me, because he was correct and I had never considered it before.  In dreams, you CAN potentially control everything, EXCEPT…the level of light.  He asks the protagonist if he’s ever flipped a light switch in his dream and found that nothing happened.  He’s right…I suddenly remembered back to many a dream where I toyed with light switches and nothing worked…but I had never considered the meaning.

The film is populated with real actors who, because of the nature of the project, lend both voices and likeness to their characters.  Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, for example, are clearly recognizable even without hearing them speak.  They play a bedroom scene that could have been a continuation of Before Sunrise, and amongst their musings, they discuss why dreams can seem to go on for hours when only a minute or two have passed in real life.  Linklater himself makes an appearance near the end, and his soliloquy is one of the most memorable. 

One of the characters discusses Francois Truffaut’s famous quote about how the best scripts don’t always make the best movies.  Waking Life might even be case in point.  I can’t speculate how this material would read as a screenplay…it might almost be like a textbook…but it’s the combination of the spoken words and the drawn images that elevate the material into something it could have never been otherwise.  It’s as if two forms of art were taking cues from each other, and leading each other through a remarkable metamorphosis. 

The hands of many gifted artists are at play here…one can easily spot shifts in style and technique, and the end result is a work that flows smoothly but not effortlessly.  The vibrancy of the images sometime seem impressionistic, expressionistic, and cubist at the same time, as though perspectives that could never mix in real live are being explored. 

Director Luis Bunuel once remarked that if he had a choice, he would gladly spend only two hours a day in reality and the rest in dreams, provided he could remember them.  As one of the great masters of surrealistic cinema, one can imagine him clapping his hands with glee at a film like Waking Life.  Here is a film that blends animation, philosophy, dreams and life’s great questions, and blends them in away that comes out something very unique and different on the other side.  Different, but delightfully palatable.

Video ****

Fox, as expected, delivers the goods with this stunning anamorphic transfer.  You may not ever see a more colorful cornucopia of images than Waking Life, nor a better way to experience them than this DVD.  This film runs the gamut of the spectrum like a piano that stretches out into infinity in both directions.  There is no bleeding, no grain, and no compression to mar any of it.  Lines are crisp when they need to be, and fluid when required…it’s fairly obvious what the intentions are at all time.  Animation and DVD go together perfectly, and this disc is a shining example of that.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio mix is impressive, but not quite as expansive as you might think.  Despite the visual smorgasbord, this is a movie that is largely dialogue oriented.  There are some subtle ambient effects from the rear channels here and there, and some good and well balanced panning effects on the front stage, but the sound doesn’t come across as involving as the video.  Nevertheless, there is at least one potent moment of surprising dynamic range that punctuates a dialogue scene with wicked precision.  Good marks overall.

Features ****

There are plenty of good extras on this disc, starting with two interesting and informative commentary tracks.  The first is by Richard Linklater and his film crew, the second is by 25 of the movie’s animators.  There is plenty to learn from both tracks about the project’s conception, development, completion and more.  In addition, there is a third text-only track (utilizing the subtitles) that offers more information about each sequence, including the origins of some of the philosophies, the actors in the scenes, and so on…the only drawback is that you sometimes have to read VERY fast.

There are 19, count ‘em, 19 deleted animated scenes, but even better is a compilation of footage from the live action version…it’s a real eye opener to see how they compare with the finished product!  There is a short production featurette, animated shorts by Bob Sabiston (one of which was a test for this movie), a 20 minute tutorial for the revolutionary new animation software used in the movie (very cool), a couple of trailers, talent files, plus some animated menus with sound.  A very cool package!

Summary:

Normally, for a film like Waking Life, this would be the part where I recommend it “for adventurous filmgoers”.  Instead, I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend it for everybody.  If you’re not normally an adventurous filmgoer, I can’t think of a better recent film to expand your horizons a little bit.  Every so often comes a movie that redefines the limitations of our perceptions, and this is definitely the one to do so in the early millennium.