Metaphysician, Heal Thyself


The restless, gabby intelligence behind Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and this season’s left-field double Waking Life and Tape, filmmaker Richard Linklater remains one of the greatest and most surprising gifts of the Sundance indie wave. Unlike most of the credit-card auteurs that rose from the ashes of John Cassavetes (Lee, Van Sant, Hartley, Tarantino, Gomez, Haynes, Solondz, etc.), Linklater continues to reinvent how American movies are made and watched, as if success were measured only by how much fun he has gently mutating the medium to resemble the wanderings in his head. Normally, not much happens in a Linklater film—things just are, and are talked about. But that hardly means they’re simple—Waking Life (currently in theaters) is a shape-shifting head trip that ruminates on psychodynamic experience as it visually captures the essence of subjectivity in a manner no film ever has before.

“People like to say the camera stands in for the human eye,” the predictably affable Linklater says. “But it just doesn’t. Try to reproduce something as simple as an eye shift, a glance. It’d make for an awkward-ass camera move. Film is a very harsh medium; even if you’re filming something that’s not realistic, it still has this photographic quality that’s very real.” For a filmmaker who has gloried in formal departures, Waking Life is a fresh step beyond the boundaries. Using a new digital-animation software and the painterly contributions of more than 30 graphic artists, the movie is a free-fall plunge into unexpected territory.

“The original concept for Waking Life is old,” Linklater says. “It goes back for me 20 years, it even predates my interest in making movies. It was simply stuff I was thinking about based on stuff that’d happened to me personally. But this one didn’t get very far, and I think that had everything to do with the live-action-ness of the film I was imagining in my head. So, when I saw Bob [Sabiston]’s animation software—he and his partner Tommy Pallotta, we’re all just friends from Austin—the marriage was made in my mind: That’s how the film should look.”

Waking Life‘s text is a collage of impassioned speculative voices, as many superbly reasoned as flat-out deranged, and the subject is consciousness. “I’m always trying to think how to make things that don’t sound like films work as a film,” Linklater says. This time, the digital visuals were the key to the black box. “There’s a disjunction with these visuals. It’s the realistic properties of the film: the sound, the live-action gestures—it’s not some artist in a room saying ‘Oh, I think they’d move their hand like this’; a human really did it. So your brain is processing it somehow as ‘real,’ while it’s obviously not, so it’s a contradiction that puts your brain in the ideal space for this material to be worked out. At the same time, I wanted an unmediated experience between the idea and the audience member. So, these characters don’t even have names, they’re just mouths with ideas. And yet they’re very distinct: I got people with very strong personalities, a lot of vibrant life quality.”

The movie can be read as oneirological essay, philosophical notebook, social-system critique, or study in human uncertainty. But the groobiest high to be had is the rare pleasure of simple auteur-audience congress. Waking Life, like Linklater’s best films, is both wondrously idiosyncratic and immediately accessible. The elements that make his films fascinating and endearing—the respect for eccentricities, the circular babbling, the joy in minutiae, the empathic narrative voice, the delighted focus on American fringe-dwellers hunting for existential significance—are also what make them indisputably Linklater’s. To put it another way, it is possible that no one in this country makes friendlier, more humane movies.

“It’s definitely not my birthright, making movies—I’m a white-trash kid from east Texas, and grew up feeling the world owed me something. But you can’t expect anything in this world. Once I got going, though, I felt that I had a lot of films in me, so I’m very lucky.” What’s more, he seems to be one of the few filmmaking presences around ready to wrangle with basic philosophical and metaphysical concepts. “When it comes to philosophical discourse, of course our culture frowns on it, but movies have been particularly resistant. Even a Bergman movie deals with personal psychology, not ideas by themselves. Me, I’m a promiscuous thinker. I’ve always resisted any single ‘ism,’ I can’t get with any one program. It’s like religion, I study all of them, but I can’t buy into any one of them. I approach the world like they’re all interesting, but they’re all probably wrong. It’s not the answers, for me, but the interesting questions, interesting lines of inquiry.”

Linklater’s only-connect sensibility and gracious structuralism remain in plain sight when reconsidering his career—eight films in 14 years, including a Super-8 feature titled It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books—but the movies do not flock together thematically except in terms of the average age of their protagonists. “My concerns aren’t particularly generational,” Linklater maintains. “That generally gets ascribed. It might sound pretentious, but I’m always looking for eternal situations and ideas.” So how does The Newton Boys, his most orthodox studio production, fit in? “Funny, we go through life looking for differences instead of similarities, and yet . . . I don’t have an overarching plan. I just make what I’m interested in. I kind of discovered that story, this chunk of forgotten gold, this true Texas story I’d never heard of, no one had, really. And so it was this huge challenge, we spent three years doing research, it was the farthest thing you can imagine from a ‘for hire’ deal; everybody accused me of selling out, but to me that’s as personal as any movie I’ve done. I know I’m supposed to eat shit with this, because it did badly at the box office, but I had too good a creative experience. That’s my kind of studio movie.”

The creative experience, not even the film that results from it, is what gets Linklater out of bed in the morning. Working fast and loose is half the party: The adaptation of Stephen Belber’s play Tape, which trapped Linklater and his camera in a motel room with Uma Thurman, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke, was shot quickly on digital video (as was the live-action source footage of Waking Life). “Tape came up rather spontaneously during the postproduction of Waking Life,” says Linklater. “We spent pretty much the whole calendar year of 2000 animating Waking Life, and once the artists had locked in the character designs, my responsibilities were less and less. It got pretty tedious; I would’ve gone crazy last year if it weren’t for Tape. We rehearsed it for a few weeks, shot it in one, it was just that kind of movie. I loved it; I could do two films a year for life.”

The thicket of conflicting information in Waking Life suggests that if Linklater isn’t the most libertine reader in American film culture, he at least makes the most of what he’s consumed. “I read all the time, but not nearly enough. For Waking Life, it was great: I had to immerse myself into all this scientific stuff, psychology and dreams and quantum physics. I just finished this book about near-death experiences: The author explains exactly what’s going on in your brain, chemically. So many people go, oh, I left my body and went to a real place and came back. It’s like: Well, no, you didn’t, here’s what was going on in your brain at that moment. I have to keep myself in check, though. I don’t want to invalidate people’s experience because I truly believe in the experience. I think our ‘unreal’ experiences are very valid and important; I think we need to go through life and not be too materialistic about it, and think, ‘Oh, it’s not valid if it’s not real.’ That’s all it is: Be kind to your imaginative self.”

Related articles:

J. Hoberman’s review of Waking Life

Amazed and Confused at Sundance,” by Amy Taubin