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Retrospective: Richard Linklater Part Four: Channel-Switching With the Third Eye

It makes perfect sense that I discovered Richard Linklater’s Waking Life while I was helping someone housesit for a couple in California. Being so close to San Francisco was nice, but the fact that the couple was extremely big fans of medicinal marijuana was pretty nice, too. That’s not to say that Waking Life has to be seen with a few chemicals battling for control of how you view reality. I’m just saying that it’s probably one of those movies that people are tempted to experience, in such a way as to get as close to the tone of the film as possible.

Whether or not you do opt for a drug of choice or two (to me, pot is the most logical choice, but I suppose shrooms would be interesting, too) is your call to make. I would suggest the argument that your first viewing of the movie (even if you don’t like Waking Life, you may find yourself compelled to watch it more than once) should be with the clearest mindset possible. I first saw Waking Life in the summer of 2007, although it was originally released in 2001. I’ve seen it three times since then. With the first viewing, I had the benefit of the hospitality of the house I was staying at. To put it another way, I was so stoned, the walls were trying to lull me to sleep, with a lullaby in the form of an interpretive dance.

I also ate five Big Macs, so I felt afterwards that I probably hadn’t given the film much of a fair shot. I remembered it well enough. Thanks to the film’s arresting animation style, filming live-action scenes, and then animating them, I remembered feeling as though my body and surroundings were subject to the same swaying chaos as the movie’s visuals. I had zero faith in my surroundings, as my mind tried to construct an understanding of the film that would get me as close to simple as possible. What I would learn through repeat examinations was that defining the movie in neat, tidy terms was simply unrealistic. Waking Life was Linklater’s first crack at combining animation with philosophy and commentary. He would take another, albeit slightly different, crack at the concept in 2006’s A Scanner Darkly. Both films are difficult to define in the ways in which we normally define films. You can provide a synopsis, but you can’t present either movie in just a couple of sentences. The best you can do is to relate to them why either movie is well worth watching.

Waking Life is even more difficult to explain than A Scanner Darkly. I don’t know if that makes Waking Life the better film (although I liked it just a bit more, for reasons I will explain later), but when I tried to describe the movie to someone the next day, after seeing it for the first time, I had a lot of trouble doing so. I could only string together a few vague, trailing sentences, before telling them that they definitely needed to see it for themselves.

It was in trying to explain the movie to somebody that I knew without question that I was going to see the film again. I had to. If only because I wanted to see if watching the movie sober would be a different experience. I wanted to find out if the intense distrust I had in the world around me after the movie, the notion that gravity could betray me at any time, that a stranger in either the waking world or the dream world could turn a casual conversation into a complete deconstruction of all the philosophies I hold dear. I had to see if those thoughts would be there again after a second watch.

different animation styles in Waking Life (Image © Fox Searchlight)

different animation styles in Waking Life (Image © Fox Searchlight)

The second viewing of Waking Life, the tee-total edition, gave me the ability to at least describe the skeleton of the movie clearly. The broadest definition of the nature of Waking Life is that it’s a movie about dreaming. A young man (Wiley Wiggins, who also appeared in Dazed an Confused) finds himself gently careening from one moment or encounter to the next, slowly begins to realize he’s stuck in a series of dreams, and becomes terrified of his slowly dawning comprehension that waking up might be impossible. Linklater’s career is one of deeply personal projects, such as Dazed and Confused or Slacker, and films that aim for a slightly broader, more commerical appeal (which Dazed and Confused also sought). These include School of Rock and The Bad News Bears. It isn’t unreasonable to make a case for Waking Life being the most personal film he has made so far.

You can call Waking Life a stoner movie, but that depiction isn’t entirely accurate.

You can make an equally strong case for something like Slacker, but Waking Life has the distinct quality of being the most challenging film Linklater has created at this point. Every other film in Linklater’s canon falls somewhere on the scale as either very straightforward, or being open to a certain extent to appealing to you in a variety of ways. Waking Life is a constant, heady brew of philosophy, with some social and political ideology thrown in on occasion. It is because Waking Life is a bizarrely animated film, in which a young man wanders a dreamscape, teeming with philosophers in every possible locale, that it’s easy to understand why some label the film as a “stoner movie.” It seems like the kind of movie, in which a five minute conversation about a single scene winds up taking up the better part of three hours. Either because the movie is that open to conversation, or because everyone is just too stoned to realize their sentence started forty-five minutes earlier, and still has not ended. Because of the movie’s own sense of wanderlust, in terms of how it relates the story (such as it is), in terms of how the laws of physics are just guidelines to ignore freely, it’s not hard to imagine someone telling you “Dude, you’ve gotta see this trippy-ass movie.”

You can call Waking Life a stoner movie, but that depiction isn’t entirely accurate. It doesn’t tell the whole story, and it sets up anyone who doesn’t indulge in drugs to assume the movie is just a lot of spaced-out visuals and existential jabbering.

After seeing the film, you may still leave with that assessment. That’s perfectly fine. This is not something that is screaming for attention. It’s difficult to envision Linklater making this with the ambition of reaching the mainstream promise land dancing in his mind. Other Richard Linklater films touch on the ideas that Waking Life exists within. Slacker is probably the most prominent example. A Scanner Darkly, taken from a Phillip K. Dick story (Waking Life touches on his work, too) is another good example of Linklater infusing his film with strong philosophical overtones. However, both of those movies, and others in his filmography, still adhere to certain principles of filmmaking. Even the loose structure of Slacker makes sense in its own way. The movie is a tour of Austin, Texas’ counterculture. Even with the commentary Slacker includes in the dialog of its many characters, it’s still a fairly straightforward, although certainly brilliantly-executed, concept. Other films in Richard Linklater’s career, for all their creativity and subtle, brilliant filmmaking touches, tend to stick with for the most part patterns we’re used to in most of the movies we watch.

Waking Life is a tour of sorts, too. It’s just the sort of trip, in which we have no idea what’s going to happen from moment to moment. Dreams typically are not subject to the same kind of structure as other narrative types. Here, Linklater makes a distinct effort to recreate that uncertainty, to make sure that we understand from the beginning that anything is possible. That isn’t to say that it’s randomized bedlam. It’s not a series of contradictory images that are thrown together without care, leaving us to look for meaning that isn’t really there. But without a need to respect to having to tell the kind of narrative we generally expect in most of the movies we watch, Waking Life is free to do whatever Linklater wants it to do. Using a wide range of ideas regarding what dreams may or may not mean, and the extent to which we can control them, we are able to get the strongest example of the themes and ideas Linklater has expressed in other films. Using the erratic terrain of dreams, and a running time of about 100 minutes, he can relate to us his ideas about God, the mind, humanity, death, life, whether or not our concept of time as a linear design is altogether accurate, and much more. He can do this, without the need to ever really pause to explain something, deal with a protagonist/antagonist relationship, introduce a romantic subplot, (although Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy cameo, possibly as their characters from their trilogy of romantic films with Linklater, discussing the idea of reincarnation while in bed) or make room for any of the things that generally have to be in place in a film.

To put the nature of Waking Life another way, it’s less like watching a traditional movie, and more like attended a hallucinatory lecture. And this lecture has influences from a wide range of writers, thinkers, lunatics, and idealists. All of it exists in the world of Waking Life as tangible things that are simply floating in the air, waiting for someone to reach up, and grab one or two of them. This is what we follow Wiley Wiggins’ anonymous character through. Only he doesn’t understand at the beginning where he is, what’s going on, or what any of it means. We examine Waking Life’s very sane madness through his eyes, and we discover things as he discovers them. Just as the most likely conclusion of the anonymous character’s journey is uncertain throughout the film, the same can be said for what we can take away from the movie.

You may love Waking Life, for the way your mind works with its ideas, and for the way the world looks, after the movie has finished. You may find it silly, naïve rambling. You might even simply find it all very boring and pointless. Whatever you wind up thinking, it’s important to save that opinion for the end of the movie. Don’t make up your mind in the first fifteen minutes, or decide on what you feel about it all halfway through. Wait for the end. Relax. Try to just go along with the movie’s rhythm. That’s something you should do for every movie, but that rule is never more necessary than it is here. Waking Life is not an aggressive film, even when a character is screaming bloody (to the point in which his face becomes a discomforting, frightening shade of red) revenge on his captors from a prison cell, or when another is calmly dousing his body in gasoline, all the while discussing his thoughts on humanity’s great, enduring love affair with anarchy. Even when these things are going on, Waking Life is not a hostile experience. We move as the anonymous character moves, and those movements take us to a lot of interesting, rich places. The fact that the character doesn’t know where he’s going, or even what’s going on, a great deal of the time, makes those destinations so rewarding.

Wiggins’ character meets a number of individuals in the film. Using a mix of non-actors, established actors, and part-time actors, Linklater creates a collection of performances similar in some ways toSlacker. Everyone has a reason to be there, and choosing a favorite above all the others is tough. They each establish wonderfully singular personalities that mix to create a unique dreamscape populace.

You’re free to believe that Wiley Wiggins’ anonymous character is meant to embody all of us. That’s the most popular and likely interpretation of the character. A talented actor, Wiggins is able to play the character in a deliberately low-key fashion, and we mistake the performance, and not the character, for being overly passive. The anonymous character is indeed quite passive for much of the movie’s running time. He rarely contributes anything meaningful on his own, instead giving brief answers and occasionally asking questions. It’s easy to see the character in this light, because that is likely what makes transferring ourselves onto him so easy. Only when he begins to suspect that he will never wake up, does Wiggins’ character become a little more proactive about his situation. Much of what the character’s own mind puts him through seems designed to alert him to the fact that for him, floating through the dream world is about the same as floating through the real world. Through this realization, we inevitably ask the same question of ourselves. Through a revitalizing crash course in philosophy, through a movie that suggests God, but never forces us to subscribe to a definitive opinion about such a thing, the anonymous young man is forced to find definition in a swirling array of ideas and conversations. We are left to do the same. Even if we don’t know a thing about concepts like post-modernism, neo-Darwinism, or reincarnation, we are given enough in the way of theory and construction to wonder about these things, in ways that we have never wondered about them before. The anonymous character is left to do the same during his journey. Although he never quite figures out if he is alive and trapped in his dreams, or dead and trapped in his dreams.

It doesn’t really matter if he does. What matters, what Richard Linklater tries to impart with Waking Life, is what we take from the film. If the speech given by Linklater’s character (another anonymous character, albeit much further down the consciousness road than Wiggins’ anonymous character) makes everything in the world around you suddenly seem as if it’s on the verge of dissolving, and then reassembling itself into something else entirely, completely of its own free will, then Waking Life is a resounding success. It was never designed to storm the box office, but from one viewer to the next, it makes itself available to be virtually anything each viewer wants it to be. That’s how the movie lives or dies. Linklater deserves to be commended for creating a film that is so entirely dependent on that, while never compromising its ideals.

Keanu Reeves appears in rotoscoped form in A Scanner Darkly (Image © Warner Bros.)

Keanu Reeves appears in rotoscoped form in A Scanner Darkly (Image © Warner Bros.)

A Scanner Darkly doesn’t seek to compromise either. Most of the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s stories, even the good ones, have had to settle for various compromises, to ensure a smoother transition to film. For something as autobiographical as A Scanner Darkly, taken from Dick’s long, brutal drug history, compromise would be impossible. A film version would have to embrace the source material entirely, or opt for something that resembles the original story in name only. Richard Linklater’s love of writers like Philip K. Dick is no great mystery, and Dick’s influence in particular on films like Waking Life and even Slacker is clear. Although both Charlie Kaufman and Terry Gilliam were both loosely attached to the Scanner Darkly movie project over the years, it is perhaps best that Linklater got the job. He even went so far as to seek approval on the project from the writer’s daughters and the Philip K. Dick Trust. That gesture alone suggests Linklater understood that to make a worthwhile adaptation of such a dark, surrealistic story, the idea of concession had to be ignored.

To that end, it’s impressive that A Scanner Darkly even got made at all. I remember a fairly enthusiastic marketing campaign for it, with a trailer that did the best job it could at explaining what the movie had to offer, hinting at a science fiction mindfuck in the spirit of The Matrix trilogy. The film itself opened to pretty good reviews, and a box office that fell just shy of its 8.7-million dollar budget. From those standpoints alone, the film could hardly be considered a failure.

It’s impressive that A Scanner Darkly even got made at all

For fans of Linklater, it’s one of the strongest films, most fearless films he’s ever made. For fans of Phillip K. Dick, it’s arguably one of the most loyal film editions of his work ever created. If there is any distinct reason as to why A Scanner Darkly succeeds at this, while still being a compelling, exciting cinematic ride, it would have to be the decision to revisit the animation style used in Waking Life.

The animation used in A Scanner Darkly is similar to Waking Life, in that both used interpolated rotoscoping. However, whereas Waking Life animated world had a quality of seeming as though it was only halfway to being fully-formed (that’s not a bad thing), A Scanner Darkly is depicted with frightening levels of detail. Given the larger staff (whose difficulty in animating the film caused a delay in its release) and bigger budget, I suppose that makes sense. Animation was the best way to relate the ideas and uncertainty of Waking Life’s world. The same can be said of A Scanner Darkly. Set in the year 2013, America’s war on drugs is even more of a failure than it is our actual world. It has gotten to the point that an exhaustively elaborate network of informants and surveillance is set in place. Draw all the parallels to the America we actually live in you’d like (and there’s a lot of those to be found here, particularly when comparing the film’s surveillance network to how we battle terrorists), but Linklater establishes almost immediately that the world he has filmed and animated over is going to adhere to the original story as closely as possible. Phillip K. Dick’s story is one of crumbling self-destruction in a dystopian, absolutely believable world of paranoia and confusion. Examples of that world could be found in reality, at the time the book was written. However, because we are more aware than ever of the suspicion that we are nearly as free as our historical documents suggests, A Scanner Darkly takes on a level of relevancy that perhaps even Dick didn’t anticipate.

Linklater reconstructs the novel’s world in his screenplay, but it’s in the animation that ideas and visuals as intense and hellish as what we find in A Scanner Darkly is able to take hold of us. We see it right at the beginning of the film, as narcotics agent Bob Archer (Keanu Reeves), while giving a speech on the “good work” being done by his organization, at an Orange County, California fraternal organization, suddenly and briefly deviates from the script that was prepared for him. It’s one of the funniest scenes in a movie that manages throughout to find humor in a fairly bleak world. As Archer is dully assuring the members of The Brown Bear that the Substance D drug problem that has ravaged the country is actually well under control, things take a turn. The “scramble suit” Archer is wearing, a technological disguise that protects the wearer by scrambling things like gender and ethnicity to the naked eye, suddenly glitches, causing Archer to mock the values and identities of the people he’s speaking to. The animation of the scramble suit itself gives a good indication of what we’re in for in terms of style. Thousands of faces flash across the blank canvas of the suit. Inside, Archer soldiers through the script, talks to headquarters, and wonders after the fact what caused things to go wrong for a moment. We understand almost immediately that Archer is already sinking, and we don’t have to wait very long to find out why that is.

A Scanner Darkly blurs reality, druggy madness, and outright, dreamlike dementia pretty early on. That approach includes the double-life Archer leads, living one moment as a Narcotics agent, the next moment as a man who left behind his family and middle-class suburban slavery (in his view) for Substance D-fueled adventures with a group of fringe losers (Robert Downey Jr. Rory Cochran, Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder). Substance D itself is explained beautifully in the film’s opening sequence, featuring Robert Downey Jr., just beginning one of the most impressive comebacks in recent Hollywood history, and Rory Cochran. When we meet Cochran’s character Charles Freck, Substance D, which is exactly the sort of powerhouse, all-encompassing, fictional hallucinogen you would expect it to be, has already all but finished him off. We watch imaginary bugs crawl through his hair. We see his wide-eyed terror at a world with the imagined threats of violence in every square inch that is closing in on him. Then we watch with guarded amusement, as he jabbers hopelessly to James Barris, played by Robert Downey Jr., who calmly, almost distractedly explains to him that he’s simply feeling the side effects of Substance D, and that he’ll likely be fine. Downey’s performance is one of the gems of the film, displaying casual, manic flashes of genius with rapid-fire delivery. The fact that Downey wasn’t too far removed from his own array of drug scandals probably didn’t hurt the ease with which he seems to play this character. It’s the type of performance we take for granted from him now, but at the time of A Scanner Darkly’s release, it was just a hint of bigger things to come.

Perhaps because the movie was originally filmed in live-action, everyone in the cast is able to contribute something meaningful. It’s not just a question of voice-acting. I’ve always considered Keanu Reeves to be a solid actor, whose occasional poor choices in film roles threw him so laughably far out of his depth, it’s hard to remember that there are several examples of him being capable of very good work. Even the worst moments of Bob Archer’s breakdown demand subtlety (the full-on Peter Lorre-style madness belongs to Cochrane, who is both hilarious and horrifying) to be believable. Reeves handles that so well that it’s easy to mistake his quiet performance for someone who is “just playing themselves.” Archer is a complex character, and Reeves shifts from one complexity to another with understated style. Winona Ryder, whose godfather was Dr. Timothy Leary (who was also a friend of Dick’s), has an equally difficult role to play. As Archer’s drug dealer and sort-of girlfriend, Ryder creates a striking character, whose fragile state of mind is not entirely sincere. Woody Harrelson’s own legacy in the modern drug culture is well known. His role here is a small one, but as one of the addicts in the house where Archer lives, and in spite of playing the least deranged person in the group, he manages to stand out. This is particularly noticeable in every interaction he has with Downey’s Barris character.

Talking as though he can barely hide his hidden agenda, whatever that might be, Barris’ explanation of the drug helps us to understand those blurred lines that Linklater so brilliantly pulls from Dick’s story, but it’s that animation that truly sends the chilling consequences of the drug home. A Scanner Darkly is an anti-drug story in its own way, but it’s not a preachy, moralistic one. It doesn’t judge the characters, nor does it cast drug use as a clear-cut boogeyman. It simply shows an outcome. It displays a conclusion that awaits many of those who chose one thing or another, to try to forget how suffocating an act as simple as talking to your neighbor about the weather can be.

Philip K. Dick’s own struggles with drugs are well-documented. For everything they may have or may not have done for his imagination (it depends on your opinions about substance abuse and creativity), in the end, his drug use ravaged his mind, destroyed his health, and left him not unlike the disintegrating characters in A Scanner Darkly. The end of the novel features a long list of people Dick knew who suffered permanent physical or psychological damage through drug use, which includes his own name, as well. Linklater repeats that list, adding University of Austin professor and philosopher Louis H. Mackey (who also appeared in both Slacker and Waking Life) to the unfortunate roll call.

If you do look at A Scanner Darkly as an anti-drug film, it perhaps functions so well in that regard because it’s not a propaganda piece. Philip K. Dick aspired to show the process of drug addiction, from the initial pleasures and giddy escapism (which is captured nicely in the film, particularly in scenes featuring both Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr.), to the empty, bewildered wasteland of the mind and spirit that many wind up residing in for the rest of their unhappy, delirious lives. The novel is a powerful in this regard. As Linklater unfolds Archer’s dual existences crashing into each other, a consequence of his growing addiction to Substance D, as he shows us Freck’s hysterical, grimly funny dissolution and failed suicide attempt, he replicates the accomplishments of the novel. With a faithful screenplay, the assistance of producer Tommy Pallotta (who also produced Waking Life) and conceptual, disturbing animation, he takes those accomplishments even further. From Archer’s relationship with Winona Ryder’s character Donna (who in of herself is another example of the film smashing fantasy and reality together, resulting in an undistinguishable mess), to the true purpose of Substance D, to the corporate-sponsored rehabilitation clinic and prison farm Archer winds up at, after Substance D has turned his brain into a big bowl of spoiled tapioca pudding, Linklater doesn’t pull a single punch. And as a pure cinematic experience, it’s distressing, riveting stuff. It succeeds in combining strong cinema with other components in a way that Linklater’s Fast Food Nation failed.

You certainly don’t have to have substance abuse problems or experiences with those who do to relate to A Scanner Darkly. Having either or both of those things will certainly give you an added element, but it’s thankfully not essential. It is perhaps another side of why the film has the capacity to hit you as hard as it can. Because the movie portrays drug addiction in a claustrophobic, doomed police state so well, it has the ability to seize and dominate the consciousnesses of people who have those problems or experiences, as easily as it can with the people who don’t. The dilapidated house where portions of the movie take place was very familiar to me. I’ve been to a few versions of the house where Archer and the others get high, babble mindlessly about absolutely nothing of importance, and giggle whenever a week passes by with the speed of a few seconds. It’s probablygood that my addictive personality has never really gone towards deep dependency on one illegal drug or another. Yet the experiences I have had came roaring to the forefront of my mind, the first time I saw A Scanner Darkly. I remembered them all at once and entirely too well (in some cases, as best I could).

As Philip K. Dick and Richard Linklater’s roll call of the devastated appeared before the end credits, I had no choice but to make a list in my own head. I know a great many people who dabble in various things, and I don’t foresee anything in their lives ever being negatively affected by that. Unfortunately, I know a few who went the other way. I truly don’t think I need any of this to appreciate A Scanner Darkly, but because the story blends hauntingly relatable autobiographical material, and because it blends our world with science fiction so flawlessly, and because Linklater recreates that to perfection in the film, avoiding a personal interaction is almost impossible. For me, that seems to be a trend with the best examples of Linklater’s work.

Keep in mind that Richard Linklater’s attention to the details of the novel means that some people just aren’t going to be up for the film’s atmosphere of justifiable paranoia and crazed commentary. For others, A Scanner Darkly will be an experience somewhat similar to Waking Life. The difference between the two being that while Waking Life suggest limitless possibilities, A Scanner Darklyreminds you of suggestions that freedom is an illusion, temporary escapes from this aren’t even remotely free, and things are probably never going to change for the better. They go about the business of doing so in different ways, but both films leave you contemplating severe trust issues with whatever time and place you’re occupying at the end of each one. Waking Life is just a little more positive and open-ended about it.

As Waking Life is considerably more optimistic than A Scanner Darkly, it’s an interesting experience to watch the films together. Shared traits aside (such as how both movies have their own links to drug culture), they are two very different animated films, and two further examples of Linklater’s creative energies. Waking Life shows his creative potential, when there is almost nothing holding it back. A Scanner Darkly showcases his ability to adapt difficult material, infusing it with his own views and talents, and coming up with something that doesn’t completely match anything else. He can work with an expensive, commerical property, but his most exciting films are still the ones in which his primary responsibility is to satisfy his own plans. Nothing better illustrates the diversity of those plans than either A Scanner Darkly or Waking Life.