Richard Linklater's latest film Boyhood has earned quite a lot of press by accomplishing the unprecedented cinematic feat of telling a story over a decade long with a production over a decade long, following the same characters, played by the same growing and aging actors, the whole time through. Viewers have understandably found it a striking viewing experience, but most of Linklater's projects do something no other film has done before. His 1990s "Indiewood" breakout Slacker (watch it online), for instance, offered not just the portrait of the so-called Generation-X, and not just a portrait of the then-rising American countercultural Mecca of Austin, Texas, but a form of storytelling that seemed to drift freely from one character to the next, crossing town on the winds of idle, everyday, intense, and even nonsensical conversation.
And what does Waking Life do? Released in 2001, Linklater's first animated film (he would make a second, the Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, in 2006) not only further develops the neglected branch of animation known as rotoscoping, which involves drawing over live-action footage, but puts it to work for the cause of the philosophical film. But rather than approaching that enterprise straight on, the movie interprets the philosophy with which it deals through a vast cast of characters both eccentric and mundane — intellectuals, often, but also crackpots, gadflies, and just plain slackers. When they speak their thoughts aloud, as they do in the short clips featured here, they speak on themes as varied, but as intriguingly interconnected, as reality, free will, anarchy, suicide, and cinema, all of which the animation vividly illustrates.
"Waking Life could not come at a better time," wrote Roger Ebert when the movie opened, less than a month after 9/11. "It celebrates a series of articulate, intelligent characters who seek out the meaning of their existence and do not have the answers. At a time when madmen think they have the right to kill us because of what they think they know about an afterlife, which is by definition unknowable, those who don't know the answers are the only ones asking sane questions. True believers owe it to the rest of us to seek solutions that are reasonable in the visible world." Some viewers will no doubt write off Waking Life's dialogue — whether spoken by actors, professors, Linklater regulars, or utter randoms — as mere "dorm room conversation," but the film seems to ask an important question on that very point: are you really having more interesting conversations now than you did in the dorms?
It's also worth noting that Waking Life appears on the list we recently explored, 44 Essential Movies for the Student of Philosophy.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.