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MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Richard Linklater is growing in power.

He released Slacker in 1991, a wandering, shapeless film following character after character in their daily lives meandering through the streets of Austin, Texas. The inexpensive, chaotic film gained critical acclaim and remarkable box office returns, particularly for a film about basically nothing (or, maybe “a film about anything” would be more accurate).

Film, as a medium that records reality, is too literalFast forward two years. Linklater directs Dazed and Confused, a cult classic destined to be viewed through a thick haze of marijuana smoke for generations to come. Follow that with Before Sunrise – another rambler of a film, following two strangers who’ve met on a train as they spend the night talking to each other on the streets of Vienna. After a minor misstep with a screen version of the Eric Bogosian play Suburbia and a straightforward, major studio take on 20’s robbers The Newton Boys, Linklater comes out this year with two of the year’s most well executed films in Tape and Waking Life.

Following the lineage is pretty exciting.

When Slacker first hit the big screen, it served as a kind of beacon of hope for kids like me growing up in the heartland. If a guy from Austin could make a film about his hometown following the strange people from his daily life around, I reckoned, then so could I. You don’t have to be living in Hollywood or N.Y. after all, I thought. Of course, when I watch Slacker now I realize that it suffers from some occasionally woodlike dialogue and is occasionally (gasp) kind of boring. As you watch Linklater’s concepts gel in later films like Before Sunrise, you can see how the dialogue has matured as Linklater learns how to handle the delicate transition from free-form life ponderings to compelling cinematic moments.

That maturation is fully evident in Linklater’s latest work – the truly masterful Waking Life.

A River Refuses No Streams

If there is a plot to Waking Life, it concerns the world of Wiley Wiggins. Best known for his role in Dazed and Confused, Wiggins’ character finds himself trapped in a gorgeously animated dream that he can’t get out of. He walks around a nameless city/cities, holding conversations with and listening to a cornucopia of thinkers, from beautiful sex objects to idiot savants. As in Slacker, the characters he meets represent a wide range of philosophies, backgrounds, and ambitions. The discussion is the thematic centerpiece for the film, though visually, it’s all about the animation.

Rare Blend of Technology and Human Artistic Intention

Giving Richard Linklater all the credit for Waking Life would be a little like complimenting the Spice Girls and only congratulating Posh Spice. While Posh may be the one with the best clothes sense and positive poutability, how could one forget the somersaults and kicks that made Sporty Spice so damn sporty?

Seriously though, what makes Waking Life a brilliant film is the animation, the brainchild of Austin-based artist/inventor Bob Sabiston.

Sabiston put the BS and masters degrees in Computer Graphics Research he received from MIT to good use, developing custom software called Rotoshop. The software is an extension of a popular animation technique called rotoscoping, used in films as early as Disney’s Snow White. Sabiston utilized the software for a number of well-received shorts (including some infamous MTV spots) and built his company FlatBlack Films around that success.

Sabiston’s “Rotoshop” software simplifies the animation process significantly, giving artists more extensive freedom of expression and producers and directors a cheaper tool for professional quality animation. Sabiston’s standard reply to the question “how much did it cost to animate Waking Life?” is “as much as it cost to animate that little animated gingerbread man in Shrek.”

Independent animators are chomping at the bit for a chance to utilize Sabiston’s technology, and rightfully so. Where companies like Pixar spend millions on hardware to develop their animation properties, Sabiston’s software runs just fine on a top shelf Mac desktop. No to mention, of course, the amazing results.

Waking Life features some of the most complex and original visual imagery ever put to celluloid. Where films like Toy Story and Final Fantasy lose some aspect of the wonder and amazement as the film goes on, Rotoshop allows for extreme variety – and a kind of mesmerizing floaty, ethereal background. It truly and absolutely must be seen.

An Unapologetically Intellectual Punk-Surrealist Filmmaking Manifesto

Besides providing awesome visuals, the film poses some challenging questions about film, art, life, and a whole slew of other issues.

Waking Life, for example, pays obvious homage to surrealism.

The Surrealists believed rationality, reality, and religion to be limiting structures that kept us from fully exploring all the possibilities for wonder and amazement with the world around us. To them, the solution was to challenge these structures by promoting and pursuing absurdity, social anarchy, and artistic disobedience.

One way to fulfill these goals was to spend more time pursuing what Andre Breton called “waking life” - opening oneself up to the possibilities of the dream world while not necessarily retreating into its confines.

Linklater’s characters consistently refer to this desire to transcend the confines of societal structures through imagination. Characters stop each other on the street, vocally acknowledging some sort of subconscious conversation they’ve already been having. Talking heads give nods to the evolution of human and “neo-human” intelligence. A man drives through the streets (as in Slacker) shouting through a megaphone for the dream city’s inhabitants to regain “control and identity” through disobedience and creativity.

At times, Linklater’s pursuits of these themes come off as a sort of intellectual and artistic call to arms. One of his characters launches into a speech about reclaiming significance as he pours gasoline on his body and lights himself on fire. In another scene, a group of young, fit men virtually march through the streets spouting anarchist ideology. The men are portrayed as strong and positive, a nod to the respect and fascination with anarchy Linklater has displayed in virtually all of his films.

The Medium is the Message

As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”. In Waking Life the message, though appropriately complex and involved enough to invite several viewings, is largely to be seen in the way the film has been made. Linklater continues to delve into the type of filmmaking in which “a river refuses no streams”. As in Slacker, Suburbia, and Before Sunrise, the film is a kind of loose, frenetic, anarchic free-for-alls where truth in complexity is given far more credence than the need for continuity.

The animation behind the film fits in well with Linklater’s leanings. Rather than hiring hundreds of animators all striving to make a film look like one continuous scene, Bob Sabiston’s animation team of thirty were each assigned one character, which they painted individually. The resulting awe-inspiring visuals capture everything that is good about trusting artists to create without a muzzle. While the folks at Pixar may be putting out technically exciting work, Waking Life serves as a sort of righteously bared middle finger to the quivering mentality that turns talented artists into Disneyfied yes-men.

While the film tackles a huge range of concepts, with nods to Sartre, Kierkegaard, Yeats, and a long list of intellectual and literary figures, the theme that seemed to jump out at me the most was the self-reflexive statement on where art was going and where it should go.

While it certainly doesn’t seem like Linklater is specifically suggesting that the audience go out and start a revolution, this is the kind of exhilarating, intelligent, original film that may inspire a generation of filmmakers to do so.