The Spool / Filmmaker of the Month
Looking Back at the Rotoscoped Dreams of “Waking Life”
Richard Linklater's 2001 rotoscope experiment gets lost in philosophical aimlessness.
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Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.

“He’s all action and no theory. We’re all theory and no action.”

A group of young philosophizing men throws this observation out into the ether of the film they inhabit – Richard Linklater’s Waking Life – upon witnessing an old man who has climbed up a telephone pole with no reasonable explanation as to why. 

They may as well be commenting on their own cinematic habitat, a realm where the stylistic environment and mind-melting discourse propel around each other, with neither providing any forward momentum for the other. The film comments on itself in such a way to wind up in an ouroboros of its own thought and action: the act of watching Waking Life is as much a reflection of the contents of Waking Life.

Linklater’s 2001 filmmaking experiment masquerading as a pseudo-academic philosophy course is largely devoid of narrative, the only true plot being the camera following an unnamed young man (Wiley Wiggins) as he gravitates from person to person, discussing the nature of free choice, reality, perception, and existence itself. The treatises being rattled off range from the minds of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (reprising their Before Trilogy characters) to late philosophy professor Robert C. Solomon, to Alex Jones (yes, THAT Alex Jones). 

Our protagonist eventually comes to the realization that he has found himself trapped within layers of dreams, and struggles with whether he can truly find his way back to reality. But at the end of the day, what is the true discernable difference between dreaming and reality? Are we all not just in a grand state of dreaming until the end of life when we truly become awake? 

The film’s crafted in a fascinating early-21st-century rotoscoping animation style, live-action footage being overlaid with computer animation to create the illusion of detailed animated movement. It’s arguably the films strongest choice: the best way to retain our focus for an almost two-hour philosophy lecture is to provide some accompanying psychedelic imagery (alongside the haunting music of Glover Gill).

As we hop from “dream” to “dream,” you begin to fall into the lull of the film’s unexpected familiarity. As with much of Linklater’s work, scenes primarily consist of floating from conversation to conversation, usually with characters we don’t revisit at any later point in the film, or if we do, they’ve taken up an entirely new identity entirely (a man driving a car-boat ends up as a liquor store cashier by the film’s end).

The act of watching Waking Life is as much a reflection of the contents of Waking Life.

Waking Life fits neatly into the subsection of Linklater’s filmography dedicated to “hang-out” movies: films with no outstanding plot, more focused on conversation and atmosphere than anything. But films like Dazed and Confused, Slacker, and the Before series were able to plant their conservations in the specifics of those films’ characters, locations, and themes. Waking Life works to tackle the universe, life, and consciousness in its entirety. How do you pin all that down in a way that doesn’t feel loose and interchangeable?

One can argue that, well, you can’t. And thusWaking Life at times feels like you’re trapped in a series of debates and discussions with the students, adjunct professors, and tenured professors of your college of choice, all waxing philosophical on the nature of reality and perception. Your ability to be as passive as our young man is to engage in their monologuing will likely parallel your enjoyment of the film as a whole.

If I sound dismissive in my summation of the film, it’s only because Waking Life comes off as a much broader stroke within the rest of Linklater’s oeuvre. It takes what he does best – an immaculate depiction of the way people talk with each other – and inflates it to such a large scope that any chance of trying to ground the thing comes up empty.

In its attempt at capturing the meaning of everything, the experiential journey of watching Waking Life can sometimes end up meaning nothing. It’s still an essential part of appreciating Linklater’s work as a whole, to see him float up into the sky, disappearing into nothingness, knowing that his strongest work comes to life when his feet are planted on the ground.

Waking Life Trailer: