I just saw Richard Linklater’s Waking Life<(a> last night and it is amazing. It cannot be called a typical film by any standards. It shares very little with his latest blockbusters such as School of Rock or </i>Before Sunrise</i> and Before Sunset. Instead, it can be considered a vignette movie or just an anecdotal one.
The story, such as there is one, is about a guy whose name we never learn arrives at an airport. He gets a ride with a stranger in a boat-car (a car shaped like a boat) and drives around with him and another guy until he is let off. He crosses the street, but stops in the middle of the street to pick up a piece of paper. Looking at it, it reads ‘Look to your right’, where a car coming. He is hit by the car (we presume) and then he wakes up. After this, the film is mostly a series of encounters between our main character and different people who talk about the nature of reality, philosophy and the possibility that life is but a dream within a dream. I take this last bit, which is stated explicitly in the film, to be a reference to Poe’s poem ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ though the conundrum is clearly as old as time itself.
The film itself is animated which should definitely not scare away any viewers as this is hardly Disney, neither in style nor content. It is animation drawn over actual filmed images (called ** if I’m not mistaken), but it creates a beautiful surreal look which suits the film perfectly. Most of the time, backgrounds are swaying back and forth, even the characters are animated unsteadily, giving everything a dream-effect, tying in with the thematics of the film.
As our unnamed protagonist moves from encounter to encounter, the style changes slightly and the beautiful thing is that the animated medium is used to full advantage, creating ‘unrealistc’ effects such as visualizing sounds and commenting on what the characters are saying. The film thus uses its own medium to play with the very questions that the characters pose. Can we know the difference between reality, dream, hallucination? What is the difference between these states? Can we be sure that we are not just sleeping and thus dreaming our own existence?
It is a film which needs to be seen more than once to be fully appreciated, as there are so many slippages between the different layers of reality, or perhaps they are simply diegetic levels we can never be sure, that only repeat viewings will provide full answers. The band which rehearses in the beginning clearly provide the soundtrack for the film and as such stand ‘outside’ the film’s diegesis, but when we encounter them within the narrative, we are caught in a strange loop between the music/soundtrack and the narrative. The film contains many such layers of reality like an onion (what Brian McHale would call Chinese-box worlds, for you academics out there), and although our protagonist is told to wake up at the end of the film (by a character played by Richard Linklater himself, no less), he clearly does not do so, for he drifts away once stepping outside his house.
Is he therefore dead and in the dreamworld which death might by, as suggested by one TV-clip, killed when the car (presumably) hits him, or was he even dreaming before? By not answering this question this is left hanging in the air, much like the protagonist.
This is without a doubt Linklater’s best movie and it makes me really excited to see his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly