Film Review: Waking Life

An aesthetic, philosophic journey meant to be had outside of the cinema medium.

(Image from

As much a cinematic voyage as a philosophic one, Richard Linklater’s 2001 flick Waking Life ushers the viewer into a 99-minute dissertation defense that both enraptures and alienates.  Aesthetically dominate with impressionist rotoscopic animations, the film consistently foregrounds its “unreality” in favor of a trip through the uncanny valley at least and total spatial disassociation at most. While it overly favors the inquiry of vast questions over divining answers, the film does force the spectator into the mental spaces and quandaries of the filmmakers and thus is successful in its artistic endeavors.

The film explores concepts of reality with a man (Wiley Wiggins) standing in for the everyman.  Loosely structured around the idea that the main character is lucid dreaming and unable to wake up, the narrative consists of vignettes – people talking more or less scripted conversations about philosophy, art, etc.  Some sequences are more pointed than others, minor departures into strange settings and bizarre caricatures, but most depict seemingly real people discussing reality in armchair interviews.  A notable case includes an early scene where the main character is picked up from the airport in a boat-car and chauffeured into the dream world where he (and by extension we) must “go with the flow” in this “constant departure.”

Waking Life is a challenging film to experience because, unlike traditional cinema which ushers the viewer into a lulled escape from the actual, Linklater’s film never allows one access to the world within the screen.  There is an immediately recognizable absurdity to the film’s exposure of hyper-intelligent, hyper-well-read individuals sitting, discussing philosophy, which reminds viewers this is a directed experience.  The animations make the environments swim unnaturally, foregrounding the medium and the experience thereof, and occasionally makes a character visually indecipherable – a Picasso person conversion across the coffee table.  It falls into the “hyperreality” of Umberto Eco, presenting a amalgam of reality, which we know is false, and beckoning us to accept the substitution as genuine.

What strikes most when the film is put in its production context is that the film demonstrates a pinnacle of the Generation X rebellion and disillusionment.  Casting young people almost exclusively as ones with the right mentality, Waking Life seems to collate the many existential doubts of the generation and place them all in one text for examination by future scholars.  Each individual met posits some grand theory of the meaninglessness of life or man’s fundamental misunderstanding of it, which is presented neither positively nor negatively, but for the audience to discuss and divine.

Amidst the numerous ideologies and teleologies posited, the question ultimately posed by the generation of this film, by the filmmaker himself, to audiences across time is one that dates back to the Bible: How then shall we live?  Choosing to merely exposit the questions, Linklater clearly wants any answering to be engaged outside of the film amongst our own peers and community – a noble and dangerous goal that he accomplishes well.  Artistically a treasure and a realism scholar’s wet dream, Waking Life is a must for your next existentialist dinner party.


Film Review: Boyhood

A nostalgia trip that seems to end stuck on the side of the road

Image from Hypable
Image from Hypable

Lauded as a “12-years-in-the-making masterpiece“, Richard Linklater’s experiment in long-term production schedules found some success at the box office despite a limited opening in the middle of the summer season.  Audiences drawn by its chronological gimmick found a very relatable picture. Boyhood is a nostalgia machine, a snapshot of societal values of the millennial age.  Yet, though it presents a beautifully natural image of the American family, the film loses its way along the journey and would have benefited from some trimming on the back-end.

Blurred between parallel narrative and real-life coming-of-age stories, Boyhood meanders through the childhood and adolescence of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his Texan family.  Growing up with his motivated mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha – played by director’s daughter Lorelei – he goes to school, makes friends, deals with common life situations. Stitched throughout are resurgences of his divorced namesake, played by Ethan Hawke, acting as brief narrative and philosophical eddies. A focus on day-to-day interactions, relationship squabbles, and developmental dialogues helps the film demonstrate rather than declare the state of the modern family.

While Boyhood is a masterfully un-invasive depiction of domestic life, the primary question about it is whether it will stand through time.  Many of the references invoked throughout land with the 18 to 25 crowd; the film seems to relish in capturing that generation’s upbringing.  However, one wonders if this film holds the same weight for older and future audiences. Looking at critics’ responses, it is appreciated for its portrayal of life and for the plights of the estranged parents.  But for not-yet-born audiences, will Boyhood be as accurately reflective or will it consist of citations long since forgotten?

In answer to that, let it be said that Linklater has created a remarkably relatable transcendent film. Rather than forcefully spelling out the director’s view of the proper family, Boyhood allows the characters to respond naturally to each ensuing situation.  It balances real-life naturalism with subtle underlying structure and cinematically designed drama.  Though a few moments feel starkly scripted, those scenes are few and late in the narrative, detracting only slightly from the former acts’ brilliance. Ellar grows from a stiff child actor into someone who clearly enjoys what he is doing, and observing that transformation alone is worth the watch.

Though it is possible Coltrane will garner an Oscar nomination, this film will quietly pass from society’s consciousness and onto the fast-track to Criterion preservation.  Social anthropologists of the 3020s will dig this up and look back over their ancestors’ lives in this cultural time-capsule.  Much like the film, the story of Linklater’s experiment will not end in a loud bang or a soft whimper, but rather in a meaty pop that disturbs the air briefly before dissipating into the silence.  Though, perhaps in the future some will look back and reflect on that sound and know something more about us than we do now.