Waking Life was an experimental animation film from 2001 that I thought I wanted to see. Thanks to Netflix, I finally got it. Unfortunately. “Experimental” means “fucking weird”, of course.
A one-word review: “Queasy”.
The trailer makes it look interesting and implies a narrative much more cohesive than actually exists. In reality, the plot can be summed up by “A guy is dreaming and slowly comes to realize that. Along the way, he dreams about people expounding on philosophy.”
Yeah, it’s just about that exciting. Frankly, any movie that references existentialism and quotes Kierkegaard and Thomas Mann — and not just uses their words but directly says stuff like “Thomas Mann wrote that <blah blah blah>” — is clearly not intended as either entertaining or educational. Masturbatory, maybe.
There is a really narrow audience who gives a shit that you can quote Thomas Mann, but there’s a broader audience who would rather you present those ideas to us as ideas rather than as quotes, and as dialogue rather than as monologue. Talk to us, don’t preach at us.
So to expand, this movie is a bunch of disconnected monologues about philosophy and dreaming and the meaning of life, where one character expounds on some deep matter to an ostensibly main character who mostly just sits there and nods. (As opposed to me, who would have nodded off if I were just sitting and watching rather than ironing clothes as I watched. That shit puts me right to sleep; maybe it’s a defense mechanism to prevent me from having to struggle to decipher what is being said.) Each monologue is software animated by a different person, which results in some bizarre and sometimes jarring art styles.
For the first half of the movie, neither the viewer nor the main character has a grasp on what is going on. (Well, the viewer has the title to go by, which leads you to get that it’s all a dream before the character does.) Eventually the character understands that he is dreaming the whole thing, including the bits where he thinks he is waking up, and then then he starts to say what the viewer is thinking: “What the fuck is this? What does this have to do with anything?”
(There is a truism in comics — where the writer often has much more control over the final product than is usually the case in film — that if the characters start to say that the story is stupid, then the writer agrees. I felt that way with Waking Life.)
I’ll spoil the ending right now (highlight to read):
The lead character doesn’t wake up, and nothing is resolved. Maybe he’s dead.Now, in comics, sometimes a crap story can be saved by cool (good, innovative, intriguing) art. Does that happen here?
Hell no. The entire film is rotoscoped, with underlying video used as the basis for the animation. The computer software they use for this does interpolation, so they can (for example) draw the curve of a character’s face in two key frames and have the software map that curve through the intermediate frames. This saves an immense amount of work, of course, and sometimes it produces great work (but too few frames interpolated and it becomes jumpy). But they also tend to use interpolation for all the static elements in a scene, individually. This wall, that wall, the floor, each table… all their own layers, interpolated. (Compare to the minimalist work with static and even reused backgrounds don by Hanna-Barbera.) And since the video is from hand-held cameras, the viewing point moves throughout the scenes, which means that the view of each static element changes a little all through. The result is that each static item in the scene “floats”, moving independently of all the others. Result to the views: nausea.
Now, any individual one of these monologue scenes — ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes — as a self-contained bit can be quite interesting. But string them together, with art styles changing throughout and no graspable narrative from one to the next, and you end up with a jumbled mess that doesn’t build to a value greater than the parts.
Now, I’m sure some people would try to defend this entire process, saying that the art styles and the floating animated items and the minimal narrative work in concert with the dream nature of the plot, and I can’t really disagree on that front. It is all very dreamlike. (Although I’ve never in my life had lucidity in dreams sufficient to sustain several minutes of philosophy monologue.) The problem with is that “experimental” goes fine for 10 or 20 minutes, maybe, but this film is 100 minutes long. Intellectual curiosity fades into boredom quickly, and allows the nausea-inducing animation to rule.