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Waking Life (2001)

by on 2011/05/23

“Words are inert. They are just symbols, they are dead.”

* * * *

I’ve spent the last few days in a daze trying to figure out a way to describe this film. The best I’ve come up with so far is Waking Life is an 8x concentrated can of highly caffeinated, dangerously carbonated pop philosophy that’s been shaken violently for 12 hours.

Open at your own risk. (April Foo….Ka-booom!).

What is the nature of life? What is consciousness? Why are we here? What does it all mean?

We follow the unnamed hero played by Wiley Wiggins through a technicolour dreamscape, meeting an eclectic string of thinkers, artists and raging cranks along the way.

Is the protagonist awake? Is he dead?

Does it matter?

What seems like 100s of years ago, I minored in philosophy while studying journalism. It was a strange, almost schizophrenic, combination. My more practical-minded peers were all taking economics, political science, law and history.

I struggled with razor blade editing of reel-to-reel radio documentaries, and then caved my head in with Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and particularly David Hume’s empiricism.

Through my studies, I was inspired to raze my entire belief system down to the smoldering, salted earth, and adopted radical skepticism.

I can’t say that process was the most fun I’ve ever had – not the reel-to-reel tape editing which sucked- but the several-year bout with radical skepticism. It did create a certain disciplined ruthlessness in my thought patterns which I believe now makes me a very poor target for charismatic cult leaders, homeopathic doctors and drum circles.

Written and directed by Richard Linklater, Waking Life is a visually gorgeous film, made using live-action actors, writers and philosophers. The footage was then overlaid with animation.

The animation over the live-action vignettes becomes a subtext in and of itself. A raging prisoner ranting revenge fantasies in a cell is depicted as a flame-red monster. Faces warp and fluctuate to emphasize a point. A man talking about radical subjectivity becomes all teeth and eyes.  “Yes, it is empty with such fullness.”

The feeling that characters are floating through the landscape is done with a rotoscoping technique – our unnamed hero seems to amble, slide and fly through increasing more surreal environments.

Particularly trippy for me was the scene with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) from Before Sunrise where Celine recounts her speech from that movie, wondering if she’s simply an old woman simply remembering herself young and in love. Céline and Jesse lying in bed together were nothing more than thoughts and remembrances.

Other voices from this film are not so wistful and romantic. One man tells us that “man has to have a orgiastic state of death and destruction” then calmly douses himself in gasoline and sets himself alight.

Each character our hero meets has a different, fascinating, and at times, troubling point of view. Overall, the entire film was akin to a religious experience. Well, it would have been, if only I hadn’t read so much Hume and Bertrand Russell.

Waking Life brought me back to those early days of arranging the mental furniture of my own waking life. “The worst mistake that you can make is to think you’re alive when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room.”

There’s deep, life-shaking wisdom in every moment of Waking Life. It woke me up to something I had forgotten a long time ago.

“I don’t want a straw. I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be an ant, you know?”

* * * *

99 minutes

Rate 14A for mind-blowing profundity

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