Monday, November 12, 2012

Waking Life (2001) : Documentary Cartoon

For 115 screenshots from the movie, click here

When Waking Life first came out its style of animation was something genuinely new, and as far as I know the only other major film to use it since is A Scanner Darkly, also directed by Richard Linklater. I know it’s called ‘rotoscoping’ but I'm still a bit hazy over the technical aspects; in any case conventionally-filmed scenes are somehow overlaid with an animated version of the same scene.  The style produces a look that is more downbeat and (literally) shadowy than any Disney or Miyazaki film, or any episode of The Simpsons or Family Guy.

Waking Life has natural, non-actorish dialogue and intonation, and many of the scenes are like interviews you'd see on an educational channel; it's the only time I've ever seen on film anything that could be called a 'documentary cartoon'. (Structurally, it reminded me of the world music documentary One Giant Leap, which went around the world asking various big names for their thoughts on sex, death, society, etc). However, there's often a deliberately unrealistic quality to the visuals: characters and objects float around against backdrops and sometimes the 'floaty' feeling is so strong it can almost make you feel sea-sick. Some may find this distracting, but I found I soon got used to it, maybe because it seemed to fit in with the restlessness in the dialogue and plotting, in the spiritual quest the central character seems to be on as American professors and writers and thinkers from all kinds of disciplines -literature, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology- regale us with their wisdom and their insights.

It's a brilliant one-of-a-kind film because it mounts a sustained intellectual assault on the viewer and at the same time you get that child-like glee of being in a cartoon world where anything can happen. It centres on a young man, perhaps Asian-American. He wanders round, meets people, asks questions, and gets some very long answers from some very authoritative voices. But the film has many digressions and the monologues and 'lectures' never get boring because the atmosphere remains fairytale-ish; words come out of people's mouths and float through the air, internal organs show through people's skin, a character demonstrates his point about nihilism by dousing himself in petrol and throwing a match on himself and instantly he's a small black crisp in a Buddha-like pose (the image evokes old TV footage of the self-immolating monks of Vietnam in the early 60's)

At the start the young man gets into a 'boat car' and when he wants to get out is given directions by another passenger, who is in fact Richard Linklater. At the end he meets Linklater again, playing pinball, and the director tells an absolutely great story about how Philip K Dick once went through a period of meeting characters in real life who seemed to be out of his own books written a long time ago. Then the film culminates with the all-embracing point (that much Eastern philosophy and Western physics lead to): time is an illusion and there is just one eternal moment.

Watch this film for where else are you going to see a movie that tells you something about free will, God, existentialism, the behaviour of atomic particles, the 'corporate slave state', the ontology of film, the 'quest to be liberated from the negative', self awareness, the barriers that keep humankind from achieving its potential, 'holy moments' and of course dreams and consciousness itself (the title is explained by a dialogue between cartoon representations of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy, playing the characters they were in Linklater's Before Sunset and Before Sunrise). The Guardian called Waking Life a 'wildly invigorating, unexpectedly thrilling and even moving film'. They were right.

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