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Reanimated: Waking Life

Austin American-Statesman | February 1, 2001
By Jason Cohen


PARK CITY, UTAH -- "How many of you out there tonight are on drugs?"

The Sundance Film Festival's 1270-seat Eccles Theater is full-up and abuzz for the first-ever screening of Richard Linklater's newest film. The director's introductory comment is a preemptive strike, acknowledging the surreal, sometimes esoteric nature of his animated movie. A few dozen hands reach for air.

"Most of you," the goateed, Caesar-cut Linklater deadpans. "You're in for a treat. The rest of you, bear with us."

Minutes earlier, Sundance guru Geoff Gilmore had introduced Linklater as "a very special independent filmmaker . . . (of) intelligence and courage. He doesn't stay in the same vein, and he's doing something truly original."

For the next 97 minutes, "Waking Life" proves Gilmore's point. It is beautiful and arresting from its first vignette, a scene between two children that concludes with the maxim, "Dream is Destiny." The handheld camera then wanders by rehearsal for Austin tango ensemble Tosca, which also provides the score. The musicians are all brightly colored eyes and dramatic mouths, with rosy lines and hollows that move and recede with each expression. Color, shadow, texture and space coalesce as fingers strike piano keys. You can almost see the air. A cigarette's glowing ember roots the moment in the physical world. You are watching a cartoon, but you are also watching something more.

"Waking Life" follows a single character, played by Austinite and "Dazed and Confused" co-star Wiley Wiggins, through a series of lucid dreams and false awakenings. Along the way, our hero encounters dozens of oddball characters -- tour guides to the world of ideas, the world of the unconscious and the world beyond the living. A verbiage-rich philosophical tone poem, it's like "My Dinner With Andre" times 60.

But the most obvious -- and openly acknowledged -- antecedent is "Slacker," which played at Sundance exactly 10 years ago. Where "Slacker" began with the Greyhound depot, we first meet Wiggins' character at a train station. Instead of hopping into a cab, he's offered a lift by a mysterious "boat-car" driver. The other passenger is Linklater, who, naturally, gives him direction(s). Soon after, he visits Quack's in Hyde Park, a small tribute to both "Slacker" and an Austin that no longer exists.

We go on to hear about existentialism and Sartre, different aspects of dreaming, the theories of Cahiers du Cinema founder Andre Bazin, mortality, reincarnation and humankind's inability to reach its true potential. Certain scenes have the distilled characterization and emotional grace of short fiction, while others are just chatter. The animation keeps the film active, even during its most static moments. The backgrounds and faces tremble and flow, trippily engulfed in light, color and aura.

"I could have said, well, those of you who aren't on drugs, you will be soon," Linklater says. "We're all on drugs every night when we dream. It's the same effect."

The Sundance crowd breaks into applause after certain monologues, like a theater audience. The standing ovation at the end is immediate and genuine. "Variety" will describe the film as "tumultuously received," while "Rough Cut" 's David Poland anoints "Waking Life" as "the only true `it' movie of Sundance 2001." Fine Line ends up with the distribution rights, for an expected summer release. During the Q&A, as Linklater, Wiggins, producer Tommy Pallotta and animation director Bob Sabiston talk about the film, esteemed critic Roger Ebert scoots down front to take a snapshot.


Linklater actually has two movies at Sundance. After the animation for "Waking Life" was under way, he worked on "Tape," a one-room, three-character drama based on a play by Stephen Belber and starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard. The digital video production took two weeks to rehearse and six days to shoot, with one camera on Linklater's shoulder and the other in the hands of cinematographer Maryse Alberti.

Two films means twice as many obligations. Linklater's Sundance interview schedule dominoes quickly. In rapid succession he does a balcony TV shoot, a three-reporter round-table and a joint magazine/TV interrogation (by the same reporter) that leaves him seated in front of a hotel suite fireplace, a rustic little statue of two deer nestling in his lap. No sooner has the next conversation begun then it's time to get over to a "Tape" screening at Prospector Square. All Linklater really has to do is say, "Hi, I'll be here after," but the symbolic gesture is important. He continues to answer questions in the back seat of the car. By the time the screening has begun, he'll have moved on to a reporter from Premiere magazine.

"It's a comedy. Have fun," is Linklater's instruction to the "Tape" audience.

Indeed. His kinetic direction, combined with Hawke's surprisingly charming performance, transforms what could have been a claustrophobic effort into a fast-paced exercise in comic malevolence.

To say much more about Belber's story would spoil its nasty pleasures. Hawke and Leonard play old high school pals, back home for a film festival honoring Leonard's character. Thurman is -- inevitably -- the dream girl they haven't seen since the senior prom. In classical fashion (think "True West" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"), the three friends are forced to confront their history. What they think they know about themselves and each other is in constant flux.

"It was such a wicked piece of writing," Linklater says. Hawke, who'd been considering the play for his theater company, brought it to his attention. The director loved the idea of doing a one-room, real-time film, "like Bergman did with `Winter Light.'

"Tape" has been picked up for distribution by Lion's Gate, but at Sundance, it hadn't yet been blown up to 35 mm -- you could really taste the pixels. While both of his new movies were made possible by the economy and versatility of digital video, Linklater is not ready to join his fellow Sundancers (both of this year's Grand Jury winners used the format) as a digital evangelist.

"For me it's just a low-rent tool," he says. "I've done eight features now. I've used Super 8, 16 millimeter, 35, 35 Cinescope, DV, animation. None of that matters."

Linklater also suggests that Sundance hasn't changed much since he first came to Park City with "Slacker." "I know people want to impose, `Oh it's different, it's all commercial' on it, but it honestly feels the same to me. They were saying that stuff 10 years ago."

Linklater, Allison Anders, Tom DiCillo and Christopher Munch are each presenting films here for the second, third or fourth time. For all the hype that gets put onto a single film like "Blair Witch Project" or on certain big-budget acquisitions, the career artists are the true and quiet heart of independent film.

"They give you points if you just keep doing it," Linklater says. "Like, `Wow! You're back and you're still doing this!' I don't know what else you're supposed to do.

"But I was never some big Sundance success story," he continues. " `Slacker' was kind of a weird film which found its audience. Some people liked it and a lot of people walked out. Now I'm back 10 years later with another weird film."

Linklater shies away from indie godfather status, deferring to his own predecessors, such as Jim Jarmusch, Robert Frank and John Cassavetes. But his impact is hard to deny, be it on Kevin Smith, whose breakthrough Sundance effort "Clerks" was directly inspired by "Slacker," or his own collaborators. Tommy Pallotta was a production assistant (and cast member) on "Slacker." Bob Sabiston says he moved to Austin in part because of it.

"All these filmmakers saw `Slacker' and it wasn't like, `That's the greatest film ever made,' " Linklater says. "It was more like, `I could do that.' "


All movies are collaborations, but "Waking Life" is a particularly distinctive partnership. Essentially, Linklater co-directed it, with Sabiston, Pallotta and 30 animation artists as the other half of the equation.

Linklater first had the idea some years ago. Sabiston and Pallotta's shorts, including "Roadhead," "Figures of Speech" and "Snack and Drink" (the latter of which is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art) sparked his imagination.

"Rick had just gotten off `The Newton Boys,' and I think he was in a situation where he wanted to try something new," Pallotta says. "I think `Snack and Drink' started something in his mind, where he knew we could try and pull off a narrative using this animation. We started throwing around different ideas of different projects and it evolved fairly quickly into `Waking Life.' "

"I had the idea that a cartoon character could only be so pretentious," Linklater says. "If it was live action, you'd want to kill these people."

The process began with Linklater shooting and editing a live-action film on digital video, which was then dumped into a computer and painted using touch-sensitive Wacom tablets. Sabiston and his crew spent a year on the finished product, clocking three daily four-hour shifts on 16 Macintosh computers. The work, using software Sabiston wrote himself, is based on traditional rotoscoping technique. Instead of frame-by-frame drawing, the animators have a foundation to work with, freeing them to concentrate on image and feeling.

"You're not coming up with any original motion," Sabiston says. "It's more about, 'What's your visual aesthetic?' The base idea is to match the emotion of what the person is talking about."

The dual process is a unique exercise in form-as-content. "There's such a tension," Linklater says. "You stay kind of glued to it, because your brain's taking it as real, and yet it's this moving painting."

Each minute of the film reflects about 250 hours of an artist's labor. There is a certain unity of tone, an overall ethereal darkness, but from scene to scene the style changes depending upon who drew it. The artists were encouraged to add their own inspiration. One discussion of quantum physics is illustrated with a fez-wearing, car-driving, Shriner-aping atom.

"Working with the animators was a lot like working with an actor or composer," Linklater says. "You talk about the theme, the emotions, the story structure, whatever. They bring their skill set to it, and you collaborate from there."

Wiggins, an experienced artist and computer graphics nut, was also one of the animators. He was confronted with his own face every minute of every working day. "It made me really self-conscious," he says. "Here are all these people that I really like, the animators are all really cool, and they have to draw my nose 6 million times a day. They probably hated my guts at that point."

The actor took a shot at drawing his own character, but wasn't really into it. Linklater thought the self-portrait looked like a 12-year-old. "Everybody wanted to leave it in," Linklater says. "They just liked the idea that Wiley drew his own guy, but I was like, no! No no no no no."

Most of the artists came to Utah for the initial screening. At the after-party, actress Julie Delpy, who reprises her "Before Sunrise" role along with a Superman-blue-haired Ethan Hawke, encountered her animator in the restroom and burst into tears of joy.


For all of "Waking Life" 's positive reception, there's been a funny, backhanded bit of subtext to it, an implication that the DVD will be best-suited for the dorm-room shelf, right between the bong and the dog-eared copies of "Being and Time" and "Still Life With Woodpecker." Even in the context of Sundance, people are nonplussed by the idea that a film can concern itself with deep thoughts and academic truths.

"The eagerness and earnestness with which the picture addresses its subjects, and the lack of cynicism with which it does so, is something most people don't encounter in life after college," Variety's Todd McCarthy, who loved the film, said in his review. "One can take only so much of this sort of intellectual posturing."

"Cinema is sort of anti-idea," Link-later says. "Film 101: Don't talk about things, show things! But I was never afraid to throw that out there, even if it's laughed at or scorned. We all have intelligent friends, we all talk about real things. But some people just hate that. Like, `I don't go pay $9.50 to listen to a bunch of people talk smart.' "

Even at the Sundance screenings, Linklater was somewhat bemused that most questions were about process, or how big the budget was. "Doesn't anyone want to talk about the characters, or the story?" he wondered after "Tape."

He felt better at the second "Waking Life" screening, a 9 a.m. exhibition followed by inquiries of a more metaphysical sort. "One woman was like, `I think I have to leave the theater here and live life more purpose- fully,' " Linklater says. "That was neat. I'll probably never have that again."

Both "Waking Life" and "Tape" are movies that non-arthouse types may view with skepticism, but in practice, both are highly entertaining. Even at his most obtuse, Linklater's gift for speechifying is leavened with hilarity. And he knows his job is not just art- ist/ pop philosopher, but also enter- tainer/storyteller.

"That's the great tradition," he says. "It's a pretty natural human thing. Even if you have alienating elements, or from a conceptual level have made it difficult, you still have the impulse to tell stories."

Another bit of conventional wisdom running through Linklater's Sundance 2001 is the notion that the two films signify a renaissance. Linklater stands by the overlooked/underrated "Suburbia" as well as the studio-financed critical punching bag "The Newton Boys." Don't call it a comeback.

"Certainly it doesn't feel that way to me. I'm just following my own impulses and interests. What they're really saying is, I'm making the kind of movie that they like for me to make. And that's fine, too."

Jason Cohen's first assignment for a national magazine was covering "Dazed and Confused" for Details. He still writes about film, music, TV and books, in between working the Ice Bats beat for the American-Statesman.

Last modified November 1, 2005