The Rick-trospective: Waking Life

A salute to Richard Linklater's body of work, one film at a time

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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.


With 2001’s Waking Life, Richard Linklater made his most formal inquiry into the Big Questions. Though also his most boldly experimental, the film can be read as something of a companion piece to his 1991 film, Slacker—both generously afford their multiple subjects spacious platforms in which to espouse their views. Waking Life draws upon a method of delivery that more closely matches the ephemeral nature of those intellectual and existential musings, and places the setting—appropriately—inside the dream of an introspective and curious young man.

Employing an economical (the animation team reportedly worked only with basic, retail-level Macs), but ingenious, rotoscopic animation technique pioneered by Art Director Bob Sabiston, Waking Life’s signature visual style is as elegant and variable as the dream world it inhabits. Sometimes wild and chaotic, sometimes gently shifting and tranquil, the choice to digitally paint over the video allowed Linklater the additional freedom to interpret the segment jumps both fluidly and with vivid, expressionistic flair, calling out artistic movements spanning over a century.

Linklater has explored many of these questions before, mostly with the aforementioned Slacker, but the decision to animate the proceedings, with changeable styles to pair with the monologues and discussions, makes the film comparable to a more “serious” academic prospect: the Fine Art Show. For all its deliberation (and sometimes, angry hand-wringing), Waking Life is highly accessible, but it clearly reads more as a guided tour—a well-curated exhibition for whom the gallery’s guest is the Dreamer the film follows.

(Thanks to 12 years worth of hindsight, the inclusion of colleague Stephen Soderbergh, a maestro filmmaker on par with Linklater himself—and one who’s recently traded his screenplay and storyboard for a canvas and brush —lends the “film as art show” perspective even more credence.)

Is it intellectual and artistic indulgence, then, that drives the narrative? You bet. And so what? If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously argued, then, in this case, the artist simply made a choice as shrewd as to reach multiple museum wings at once. And there’s enough substance to the delivery that Linklater and Sabiston could easily justify utilizing the stylistic medium to his (highly underrated and sadly underperforming) adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Between the gravitating markers of Slacker and A Scanner Darkly, Linklater created a gratifyingly intellectual and stylistic film that isn’t yet regarded as the touchstone it is. Waking Life is every bit the curatorial exploration it aims to be, and even more the near-perfect expression the chosen medium can afford. One can regard the arguments within as pedantic, but the surrounding endeavor supports them far better than it needs to. After all, if what dreamer wants to interrupt the dream before the tour’s concluded? Even if while lucid dreaming, one is still in another, more fantastic world outside the norm. As such, Waking Life provides the viewer plenty to contemplate and be dazzled by.


21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.

Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.

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