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Up and At 'Em

Richard Linklater's odd and animated feature Waking Life.



Richard Linklater's Waking Life certainly isn't one of the best films I've ever seen, but in a way it's one of the most wondrous. One of the most significant graduates of the late-'80s indie scene (and another graduate, Steven Soderbergh, appears in Waking Life), Linklater has built a varied body of work through five features, tackling a romance (Before Sunrise), a Western (The Newton Boys), a teen movie or two (Dazed and Confused, Suburbia), and a narrative experiment (Slacker). Now, with feature number six (his seventh film, Tape, is being released simultaneously with Waking Life but hasn't hit Memphis yet), he's become one of the few important live-action directors to try his hand at a cartoon.

Waking Life is a visual experiment first and foremost, and on that level it's an outrageous success. Linklater shot the film with live actors, mostly friends and colleagues, on digital video and then edited it into a complete film. This footage was then processed with computer software and a device called a Wacom Tablet created by the film's art director, Bob Sabiston. Sabiston's creation allowed animators to paint over the video with an electronic pen. Waking Life employed 31 animators, roughly matching the number of characters in the film and allowing most characters to be depicted in individual animation styles. The film's mise-en-scène is largely abstracted, a shifting, constantly flowing patchwork quilt of images that gives the film an expressionistic grandeur that knows no precedent. But the faces of the individual characters are amazingly precise, which helps draw the audience into the situations being dramatized. The only other film I can think of that has a similar visual impact is Jacques Tati's Playtime, which is composed entirely of immaculately orchestrated long shots, giving it a live-action Where's Waldo quality. Both Waking Life and Playtime, and nothing else I can remember seeing, have the power to physically alter your perceptions upon leaving the theater. In other words, the world will look a little different for a little while after seeing this film.

Waking Life revisits characters and actors from previous Linklater films (including a marvelous scene with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke seemingly reprising their roles in Before Sunrise), and the whole thing is like a less comic, more philosophically weighty reinterpretation of Slacker. Like Slacker, Waking Life is less a narrative than a tour of personalities, a series of moments. But where Slacker was constructed as an interlocking chain, in which one set of characters meets another and then the film follows the new characters to another situation and so on, Waking Life primarily follows a single protagonist (Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused) through a waking dream where he meets a succession of loquacious characters.

The Wiggins character appears to be drifting through some type of permanent dream state, with many of the conversations he has along the way concerning the nature of dreams and of free will, which makes the film's visual style a perfect match for its content. Wiggins moves from one monologue-spouting character to another and acts mostly as a passive receiver of the film's philosophical queries. (Waking Life also has the same college-town communal vibe as Slacker, even if Linklater's native Austin doesn't seem to be an explicit location.) Waking Life is a more serious film than Slacker, its verbal barrage intelligent rather than pretentious. But I still treasure Slacker's offhand humor and bemusing pace more. Waking Life is an odd creature indeed -- a visual marvel that is also the weightiest talkfest since My Dinner With Andre.

-- Chris Herrington

Ticket Of Gold

I remember watching Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory starring that annoying little British kid and his golden ticket. With that one magic pass, all class distinctions melted like gooey caramel so that he -- a poor kid with no money and just a little luck -- hit the jackpot: the entire Wonka candy kingdom.

I was made to feel the same way when I was handed a pass for a preview of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. These tickets were hot property. Normally, four tickets per seat are handed out for movie previews in hopes of getting a full house and, in turn, a lot of interest for the film. Since Potter was sure to sell out, the Warner Bros. regional distributor handed out only one-and-a-half times as many tickets for its preview held last Sunday afternoon.

That left me with one ticket for one seat in my one hand. I needed another for my "associate" reviewer (aka my wife, who would not forgive me if I got to go and she -- the consummate J.K. Rowling fan -- did not). I made some calls, was told to wait in line and hope for the best. There was no chance, none, nada, of being guaranteed a seat.

Arriving at noon for the 2 p.m. screening, a mere eight people stood in line. Things looked good. Twenty minutes later, 60 more people had arrived, each trading in his preview pass for a magical red ticket. It's an ordinary red ticket, like the kind that allows you in the county fair. Ordinary anywhere but here at this movie theater, where the red ticket has immeasurable value.

Fifteen minutes later -- a full hour and 25 minutes before the movie was set to start -- the place was full of red-ticket holders. I wasn't one of them. My associate reviewer had already taken my one ticket. I was reduced to groveling before various theater personnel who began to shoot me multiple nasty looks.

I also had a chance to chat with any number of Potter faithful, movie preview junkies, and -- of course -- little kids. They were forming a sort of impromptu community. Each had a ticket, that token of belonging. The rich were made equal to the poor, and I, the writer, stood to the side and watched, pathetically casting a glance here or there for a companion who might recognize my plight and get me one of those damned tickets.

And then, with about an hour to spare before the movie, a little red slip of affirmation fell into my hand. A fellow at the top of the line was given two tickets when he walked in. The movie attendant -- one of the gatekeepers watching me with suspecting eyes -- had made a mistake and doled out to this man double the reward for his golden ticket. And then this fine man handed his extra to me. When the moment came to flash my ticket and smile, the gatekeepers had no choice but to let me into the group, to acknowledge my existence. And then my associate reviewer even let me buy her some popcorn. -- Chris Przybyszewski

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