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"Waking Life" could not come at a better time. Opening in these sad and fearful days after Sept. 11, it celebrates a series of articulate, intelligent characters who seek out the meaning of their existence and do not have the answers. At a time when madmen think they have the right to kill us because of what they think they know about an afterlife, which is by definition unknowable, those who don't know the answers are the only ones asking sane questions. True believers owe it to the rest of us to seek solutions that are reasonable in the visible world.
The movie is like a cold shower of bracing, clarifying ideas. We feel cleansed of boredom, indifference, futility and the deadening tyranny of the mundane. The characters walk around passionately discussing ideas, theories, ultimate purposes--just as we've started doing again since the complacent routine of our society was shaken. When we were students we often spoke like this, but in adult life, it is hard to find intelligent conversation. "What is my purpose?" is replaced by "What did the market do today?" The movie is as exhilarating in its style and visuals as in its ideas--indeed, the two are interlocked. Richard Linklater and his collaborators have filmed a series of conversations, debates, rants, monologues and speculations, and then animated their film using a new process which creates a shimmering, pulsating life on the screen: This movie seems alive, seems vibrating with urgency and excitement.
The animation is curiously realistic. A still from the film would look to you like a drawing. But go to www.wakinglifemovie.com and click on the clips to see how the sound and movement have an effect that is eerily lifelike. The most difficult thing for an animator may be to capture an unplanned, spontaneous movement that expresses personality. By filming real people and then animating them, "Waking Life" captures little moments of real life: A musician putting down her cigarette, a double-take, someone listening while eager to start talking again, a guy smiling as if to say, "I'm not really smiling." And the dialogue has the true ring of everyday life, perhaps because most of the actors helped create their own words: The movie doesn't sound like a script but like eavesdropping.
The film's hero, not given a name, is played by Wiley Wiggins as a young man who has returned to the town where once, years ago, a playmate's folding paper toy (we used to call them "cootie catchers") unfolded to show him the words, "dream is destiny." He seems to be in a dream, and complains that although he knows it's a dream, he can't awaken. He wanders from one person and place to another (something like the camera did in Linklater's first film, "Slacker"). He encounters theories, beliefs, sanity, nuttiness. People try to explain what they believe, but he is overwhelmed until finally he is able to see that the answer is--curiosity itself. To not have the answers is expected. To not ask questions is a crime against your own mind.
If I have made the movie sound somber and contemplative, I have been unfair to it. Few movies are more cheerful and alive. The people encountered by the dreamer in his journey are intoxicated by their ideas--deliriously verbal. We recognize some of them: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, from Linklater's "Before Sunrise," continue their conversation. Speed Levitch, the manic tour guide from the documentary "Cruise," is still on his guided tour of life. Other characters are long known to Linklater, including Robert C. Solomon, a philosopher at the University of Texas, who comes onscreen to say something Linklater remembers him saying in a lecture years ago, that existentialism offers more hope than predestination, because it gives us a reason to try to change things.
I have seen "Waking Life" three times now. I want to see it again--not to master it, or even to remember it better (I would not want to read the screenplay), but simply to experience all of these ideas, all of this passion, the very act of trying to figure things out. It must be depressing to believe that you have been supplied with all the answers, that you must believe them and to question them is disloyal, or a sin. Were we given minds in order to fear their questions?