October 19, 2011

Waking Life was ten years ago (2001-2002-2011)

The US reviews of Waking Life started appearing in October 2001 Jonathan Rosenbaum's in the Chicago Reader was published on October 26, 2001, and was later collected in Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004). In both cases, it was headlined "Good vibrations". I don't know when my review ran in the Listener, although it's likely to have been sometime in 2002 -- the Listener's online archives don't go back that far and I've never kept scrapbooks. Nor do I know what it was headlined. But when Waking Life turned up on Sky TV I re-ran a chunk of the original review on the TV films pages:
How do you like your dream logic? Among other far-out events in Richard Linklater’s superb animated feature Waking Life, a chimpanzee projects a movie that appears to be footage of righteous punk rock action. “Doubt became our narrative,” the chimp says. It was all about, the chimp adds before eating the script, “the quest for true communication”. Later, we meet the lonesome cartoon ghost of Situationist philosopher Guy Debord. Besides absurdism, then, Waking Life has the heartfelt utopianism and nostalgia that has run through Linklater’s best work: “No matter how degraded the world seemed, we knew that anything was possible.”

It may seem that this is a film unlike any other, which is certainly true, even if it also flows naturally from Linklater’s stunning early-mid 90s trilogy Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. It’s inhabited by the same thoughts and the same people. A passive narrator moves through a series of random encounters in Linklater’s college town of Austin, Texas, which was mapped in a similar way in Slacker. That actor is Wiley Wiggins, who appeared in Dazed and Confused. Before Sunrise’s romantic team of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are seen talking about reincarnation, the collective unconscious and a theory that the brain dreams an entire life in the six to 12 minutes between the body dying and the brain dying. Waking Life takes place within that kind of time.

Loosely structured, with themes that emerge clearly only on repeated viewings, the film follows Wiggins as he dreams, wakes from dreams into other dreams and listens to professors, ranters and theorists talk about life, God, free will, films and, of course, dreams. Besides the pop philosophy and pop science, there is also a thread of anti-capitalist rhetoric that feels both sad and urgent. And it’s funnier than it sounds, partly because the animation (from original video that Linklater shot with actors) allows for a shaky, woozy acid-trip quality, but also because Linklater sometimes sends up his own meaningfulness. In one scene, four anarchists walk down a street reciting slogans. They happen upon an old man stuck up a lamp post. Why is there? He can’t say. The anarchists look doleful. “He’s all action and no theory,” one says. “But we’re all theory and no action.”
When I was thinking yesterday about Waking Life ten years on, I was wondering about whether the film's attitudes to activism and action as vital but somehow thwarted or subdued in that era -- somehow anticipated the moment we are now in. Also, amazed and pleased that the Listener's TV pages could ever have talked about the lonesome ghost of Guy Debord ...