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Waking Life (Richard Linklater) 2001
The first sequence in Richard Linklater's animated masterpiece Waking Life shows a young boy as he begins to drift away. He grabs a car door handle, anchoring himself to reality. Then the film reveals, for the first time, that what we were seeing was a dream. But, how could it have been anything else? The animation has a gently pulsating, dreamlike quality. The logic of the scene didn't quite apply to reality. The film takes place entirely within a dream (within a dream, within a dream...), but really doesn't try to even suggest it's another reality we're looking at. The characters pontificate to the narrator about a huge variety of subjects, but most of them seem preoccupied with the "big questions", such as "what is free will?" or "what is death?".
What stands out in this film, and elevates it, is its incredible sense of community. Wiley, our guide, visits with an entire cross-section of people, listening to their theories. Sometimes, he isn't present as he we watch a character ramble. The film is concerned with each opinion. Every one of them is treated with a sense of respect. Whether it is the ramblings of a madman, half-thought through hogwash, or a genuinely mind-blowing sermon, each one is savored by the film. It's as if the act of trying to attain true profundity is all that is asked for. The result is far less important than the attempt. In the dream, the speakers' ideas are all made literal. Everyone together seems to be questioning the unanswerables in the same way. The uniting factor of humanity is a sense of yearning, says the film. The characters discuss the current generation's knowledge as an amalgamation of all that has come before, suggesting any sense of community that does not take in all of humanity is incomplete. We all yearn to learn. The act of questioning seems to be more important to the film than the answers. This film, which doesn't presume to answer the questions it poses, doesn't dictate to the audience, but instead generously gives the audience tools to further its cause. Watching the film, we realize that each of us in the audience is a participant in the procession. On a more literal level, almost every film in the community of Linklater's films gets referenced here. The film features over forty actors that play the characters that our lead interacts with. It was animated by over thirty animators. The script is not so much the work of one man, but, rather, is the amalgamation of many different philosophers' work. There's something beautiful about this huge group of people collaborating as they attempt to wake life through cinema. The film celebrates this community to a greater extent than any narrative film I can think of.
I don't want to ignore the loose narrative that exists here. Wiley begins his dream as a boy, and when he wakes, he immediately wants to tell his friend of the dream, but cannot reach him on the phone. As he continues to wake from his dreams, he is continually unable to connect with that friend. About halfway through the film, in what is probably the film's centerpiece, he speaks with a girl, and actively acknowledges he is in a dream. Wiley's level of control shifts after this scene. He no longer is a spectator, but becomes a participant. Until this point, he felt he had nothing to say to those who talked to him, but afterwards, he converses with the people he meets. He fully enters the community of ideas. He has no need to call his friend to tell him of the dream he's had, as he is able to join the universal discourse. This film is a major entry in that discourse. Even if some of the segments are more engaging than other, none of them are anywhere near boring. The film is boldly original in its look and structure. I can think of no feature that is quite like it. When the film's ultimate theme (humanity is working together for a greater cause - that we're all trying to unlock our potential by waking life) emerges, the film begins to give the audience so much. Few films leave so much up to the viewer, yet leave the viewer as fulfilled as this one. Its generosity is moving.