Waking Life: “recess is a bummer, man…”

July 11, 2009

Waking Life
Directed and written by Richard Linklater
Starring Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Richard Linklater, etc.
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 99 Minutes, 2002.


I r like recessI saw this movie in theaters when I was in high school. At the time I thought it was mind-blowing, brah. Back then, when no one understood me, I smoked pot and was an individual (whereas now I am a cog). Without a resolute endless well of personal faith (which I drink of now, even as said cog) I needed outside cultural resources to create an original identity that I was comfortable with. How ironic that perceived individuality is composed of commercial choices…

Anyway, then I became a man and put away childish things. But because me and my friends all did drugs back then and Waking Life talked a lot about being smart/introspective/creative, I thought it was a brilliant movie at the time.

And now I’m kinda sober and realize it was all ca-ca. I wrote a review of this movie on IMDb a while back, and was absolutely mortified to discover that “0 of 3 people” found my review “useful”. So I plowed to the nearest computer and decided to address this issue of import with great haste.

The issue here is one of blatancy — Linklater has made a movie that is eye-candy and ear-candy and barely attempts to masquerade itself as philosophical and artistic. In that sense, it’s a lot like indie-rock music or goth metal music genres: way too blatantly style over any sort of substance, and then tries to make up for it by talking a lot about its substance and depth — when it doesn’t actually have anything to say about it. It’s endless name-dropping and smoke-blowing. Like, it features the self-congratulatory emotional feedback that annoying smart people have, but nothing intellectual or psychologically rewarding.

He uses the same camera-observer style he used in Slacker, where the camera keeps on rolling without cuts, moving from conversation to conversation, as the characters (often strangers) pass each other on the street or wherever they are, stream-of-consciousness style. It is, and was, definitely fun and clever, but perhaps a little kitschy because it was what got the movie its attention. This film is all drawn over and animated by artists of some kind, which seems cool, but again — a novelty. Eventually I find it annoying and just want to watch the movie. Linklater did something similar with the unimpressive adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. These techniques are questionable because now everyone can invert the colors on their digital film and run it through a mosaic, so these tricks just look really amateur. Of course, that’s part of the indie-rock aesthetic — ironically being bad at stuff. Genius!

I do actually like the stream-of-consciousness observer camera mode, and that is much more appropriate here, in a movie about dreams, than in Slacker. The thing is, the movie is poppy and trinket-y. The movie never really approaches serious metaphysical questions, because it doesn’t have a point or a solution (most people will tell you the “point” is to “have fun”, and since masturbation is kinda fun, I won’t disagree). There is also strict avoidance of any spiritual/religious questions, a la New Age tactics (i.e. Eastern religious philosophy, hermetics or the occult, OOBEs and psychedelics) because it’s specifically gearing itself toward an urban upper-middle-class, non-religious elite. Science and white people — w00t!

The irony is that Buddhist explanations of rebirth are directly metaphorical to the way dreams and conversations develop, ebb and flow, not to mention there are legitimate traditions of Tibetan and Hindu dream yoga, yogi/nis and monks/nuns who vow to stay aware even in unconsciousness, etc. However, if it did start talking about that stuff all forwardly, the movie would be really crappy, and I think Linklater knows it. But that’s because he’s talking about stuff way too blatantly in the first place. The audience is being lectured at, not being interacted with.

What’s so annoying about this, which further expands the Indie Rock/music-style parallel, is that it is disingenuous marketing to people who desire to have an aesthetic of intelligence (whatever the hell that might be) rather than any sort of personal fulfillment in knowledge or imagination. On that note, it means the film succumbs to the ploy of mainstream movie blockbusters and ends up being manipulative in a commercial way (a strategy further fulfilled by Juno — but I also don’t think Linklater is actually malicious, just kinda bubbly).

So my point is pretty much just that the movie markets itself as counter-cultural, intellectual, and artistic, but is in actuality none of those things. Which is cool and fine, but I do think in turn, this means it has the potential to make some of those who watch this movie, and claim to find it stimulating or intellectually rewarding, into lazier people. It’s superficial padding for people who want to look smart or sophisticated in the high school or college cafeteria. I suggest people instead watch Ghostbusters and listen to Judas Priest. Follow your dreams, don’t talk about them.

@ Amazon
@ IMDb


* Not to be obnoxious, but I should remark I don’t recall seeing any non-white people as notable characters in this film (but it was hard to tell with all the animated/colored film)


3 Responses to “Waking Life: “recess is a bummer, man…””

  1. JonBro Says:



    this is not a filter.
    it is computer assisted, yes, but someone with artistic intent wrote the software that powers it.
    I am trying to find project incognito, because I think it is some of the better stuff he did before teaming up with linklater
    kind of augmented man on the street interviews.
    the artists hand was overshadowed to a great extent by the directors intent on waking life.
    but it is still there.
    worth watching some of his older stuff for context
    also, the technique is fucking thrown out the window by the point they did scanner darkly.
    or at least the reason for animation.
    which seems to be (on these older ones at least) to make the inner reality of the character something that the audience can share in
    aww fuck it, reposting to yur comments section.

  2. moviemasher Says:

    Thanks for giving me the heads-up on that — I’ll point to it at the top of the post.

  3. moviemasher Says:

    Yeah, I gotta say: although that guy definitely has some creative talent, I don’t think that software itself is brilliant art or anything. The films (Waking Life, as well as those short films) themselves are pretty boring without the layered animation, and the animation is not really making any kind of artistic statement about the film. How is it any different than making a good fractal plug-in for Winamp?

    I think Linklater is pretty much a hack, and the animator’s artwork is stylistically charming, but ultimately devoid of any real depth. Besides, it looks like that kind of stuff has been co-opted for commercials anyway, which is the ultimate end of any successful graphic design, and the real argument against it being artistically valid as fine art. Boo-urns.

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