I once asked my old boss, who owns a comic book store and hundreds of thousands of comic books, why comics appealed to him. "In comics," he said. "You can do anything you want to. Characters can seamlessly have the appearance of flying. If you want to go to the moon, you can be there in the next panel."
Though computerized special effects are now approaching believable detail, comics and animation remain the only media where this is reliably true. It’s a fact that The Simpsons uses to absurd advantage. Waking Life, the new film directed by Richard Linklater, seeks to push that envelope, however. Instead of taking a live-action film into the possible worlds opened by animation, though, Linklater uses the movie to point out the differences - and the fuzzy line - between the two.
Linklater shot the film on a bouncing hand-held video camera, then gave the result to a group of animators, who painted over the backgrounds and characters, at times underscoring or exaggerating their real-life features. The result looks like animation but, in retaining so much naturalistic human detail, is also clearly a portrait of real life.
Live-action films that incorporate animation give themselves a lot of options for the fantastical. Linklater and his animators largely refrain, however, from flying epithets, surreal backgrounds or anything that would not appear in the real world.
Only occasionally, as when a character mimics a god throwing a thunderbolt and the trail behind his arm resembles lightning, do such manifestations appear. And even then, these symbols are literal interpretations of the discussion or action. When a character complains that she is tired of feeling like nothing more than an ant, she does not sprout antennae - though in one subtle touch a man does appear as a chimpanzee.
This restraint is particularly notable given the fact that the movie is about the differences between dreaming and the waking life of the title. Though more than 20 animators are each given a scene, the movie’s palette, mood and tendency toward abstraction stay relatively consistent.
The closest thing the movie has to a star is Wiley Wiggins, who reprises his role as Mitch Kramer from Linklater's Dazed and Confused. Wiggins wanders a bizarre world marked by strange encounters, receiving advice, confession or a lecture at every turn. The first third of the movie is almost entirely made up of several long monologues, some from real-life philosophy professors.
Just as the movie is starting to collapse under these speeches - both long and deep - a mystery emerges. Wiggins is unsure whether he is awake. Clearly some of the scenes he sees, like the bedroom discussion between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, are dreamt. Then he wakes up, wanders the streets, goes into the subway and watches TV like a waking person, only to discover he is still dreaming.
It is in this context that the lectures that begin the movie take on meaning. And once he realizes he is dreaming, Wiggins, with the advice of John Christensen, who died after appearing in the movie, is able to manipulate his surroundings and ask the people he meets how they feel as nothing more than figments of his imagination.
Deeper questions emerge too. One character Wiggins meets has a great idea for a soap opera, but it’s nothing Wiley would have ever come up with by himself. Where did it come from? And as Wiggins cannot wake himself, he begins to get the sneaking suspicion that he, like the dead, may never awaken.
Though the movie often serves as little more than a soapbox for a multitude of religious and secular metaphysical theories, it is undeniably fun to watch. In a restaurant, each table and plant seems to be its own island bobbing on a rough sea. The soap-opera woman’s hair curls and twists abstractly, distracting from the dialogue. A quintet of musicians - playing the film’s lively score - are painted in much sharper relief.
The format also makes you realize what pure animators often leave out - camera motion, lively backgrounds, and the atmosphere of sound - background noise, echo and even the inhalation of breath.
By keeping so much of the film on a minimal, literal level, Linklater plays up the tension that animation brings in allowing the fantastical. In dreams, where so little is real and anything can be manipulated, Linklater leaves most of it alone.
Rating: A-Reviewed by Crispin Havernill