Scenes from Waking Life, Richard Linklater’s Philosophical, Feature-Length Animated Film (2001)

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?

If you have a sub­scrip­tion to Ama­zon Prime, you can watch Wak­ing Life for free right now. A ver­sion appears on Youtube for $2.99.

It’s also worth not­ing that Wak­ing Life appears on the list we recent­ly explored, 44 Essen­tial Movies for the Stu­dent of Phi­los­o­phy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Watch The Idea, the First Ani­mat­ed Film to Deal with Big, Philo­soph­i­cal Ideas (1932)

Orson Welles Nar­rates Ani­ma­tion of Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry

Watch Free Online: Richard Linklater’s Slack­er, the Clas­sic Gen‑X Indie Film

In Dark PSA, Direc­tor Richard Lin­klater Sug­gests Rad­i­cal Steps for Deal­ing with Tex­ters in Cin­e­mas

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.

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