Existentialism brought to ‘Life’

Writing about the film “Waking Life,” showing this week at Images, leaves me feeling a little bit unqualified. Because “Waking Life” focuses on neither plot nor character development, it seems inappropriate to explore the film in any straightforward movie-review fashion. “Waking Life” is best described as a collection of articulate, incomplete essays, rather than a traditional narrative film. It seems to span an entire liberal arts education – wandering from philosophy to biology to film theory. I find myself only partially familiar with all the references and questions it considers, so how can I elaborate without first confronting the improbable task of reading up on Nietzsche, Lawrence and Truffaut over the weekend?

The film begins with two children playing in their sunny front yard, reading each others’ fortunes. When we step into the scene a question has already been posed. The girl gives a fortune-cookie answer: “dream is destiny.” It is both profound and meaningless, and the boy to her side considers this vague response for a moment. He then walks over to the family car, grabs the handle and begins to float away.

That car handle and this character’s specific childhood will serve as one of the only anchors for the audience in the film. This is the closest thing to home base the audience is going to get, and the character performed by actor Wiley Wiggins is the next best thing to a protagonist. More so than most protagonists, he is the audience’s surrogate – in one scene where he is sitting in a movie theater, this is taken quite literally – and for most of the film he is as uncertain as the audience is.

As the pseudo-narrative unfolds, Wiggins’ nameless character is on his way to visit a friend in some unknown town. When no one picks him up at the train station, he takes a cab (or more specifically, a “boat-car”) and begins to realize that he is not functioning in the real world.

This dreamscape is articulated through a unique animated process that begins with live footage of the actors. Photographic images are manipulated to mimic flat ink and paint animation, as if each frame were traced and painted over – sometimes within the lines, sometimes not. The style serves several purposes, one of which is simply to create an alternate dream world.

It is also somewhat of a gimmick, a gorgeous distraction from the fact that writer and director Richard Linklater has created another intensely conversational film – one full of talk and deficient in action. His filmography includes “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise” and “Tape,” the latter featured last fall in the Williamstown Film Festival. One of the sequences in the current film actually drifts back into the lives of characters portrayed in the past by “Waking Life” actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also acted the main parts in “Before Sunrise,” picking up on their pseudo-intellectual musings without constraining them to a realistic space.

When Hawke and Delpy would run out of things to say in “Before Sunrise,” the scene-shifts were often awkward and a bit contrived. At one point in that film, Hawke announces they are going to drop the subject, and move on to something else.

The surreal structure and look of “Waking Life” allows Linklater to examine what he is really interested in: ordinary people confronting unanswerable questions in the course of their daily lives. Wiggins spends most of the film sitting and listening to others philosophize about the nature of consciousness and their role in the grand scheme of things.

The film addresses the inherent flaw in Hollywood narrative filmmaking to invariably point to a specific actor, capturing him and not his character. The animation of “Waking Life” attempts to subvert this tendency, and hence create a more universal world for its audience.

Similarly, the philosophical source material that Linklater appropriates works on its own terms within the film. While these characters are not experts or philosophers, the questions they are dealing with are relevant to their lives. All the name-dropping and inflated language indicates a close familiarity with the great thinkers of all time, but it becomes clear that the film takes them with a grain of salt. When a physicist explains the problem of free will to Wiggins, mocking animations of deterministic atoms dance about the screen.

The film allows its viewer to map his own life into its meandering musings. We are encouraged to fit ourselves into the dynamic. If you’ve ever had a meaningful exchange with a stranger or a dream about your past, such experience is the hook.

Or maybe you’ve happened to have read a lot of Kierkegaard. “Waking Life” strives to make individual dream space accessible, but also authentic. At one point Wiggins encounters a hobo who asks, “Are you a dreamer? I haven’t seen that many around lately.” The irony is clearly that every one of us is a dreamer, and the epithet isn’t quite as unique and romantic as we might like it to be.