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'Waking Life'

Movie delivers an intensive tour of the mind

Thursday, November 22, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Are we sleep-walking through our waking state or wake-walking through our dreams?

    "Waking Life"

RATING: R for language and adult themes.

STARRING: Images and voices of Wiley Wiggins and 60 others, including Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh

DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater



That is the very animated question asked by Wiley Wiggins as he somnambulates through the surreal terrain of "Waking Life," an extraordinary visual and philosophical tour de force from director Richard Linklater showing at the Squirrel Hill Theater.

It's a film entirely about the mind, originally shot as live action and then computer-"painted" frame by frame by a team of 30 artist-animators. The result is a kind of psychedelic impressionist painting -- literally, a moving picture -- that throbs with color and light. One minute you're watching a 3-D Renoir, the next minute it's a Van Gogh metamorphosing into a Warhol.

Writer-director Linklater ("Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "The Newton Boys") joins forces here with computer-animator Bob Saviston's "interpolated rotoscoping" software to illustrate actor Wiggins' amazing philosophical encounters with three dozen characters who take him (and us) through everything from evolution to levitation. Among the voiced images are those of Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Steven Soderbergh, each "painted" by a different animator in his or her distinct style.

A monkey runs a movie projector -- with a distracting hair caught in a corner of the frame. A gorgeous girl's curls twine like Medusa snakes around her head as she speaks. Wiggins' beautiful face is "colorized" like an out-of-control paint-by-numbers kit, "dancing with confusion."

With the talk of evolution comes more talk of de-evolution -- the shift of "human analog" to "neo-human digital." One conversant calmly immolates himself. A muttering homicidal lunatic in prison plots his revenge. The Second Amendment comes in for the drubbing it deserves. Buckminster Fuller's ideas come into play: "Truth, justice and love are the new manifestations we'd like to see" -- or are we forever orgiastically drawn to death and destruction?

And if reincarnation is the ticket, there isn't a sufficient supply of old souls to meet the demand -- where do all the NEW souls come from? How can you be free if God knows in advance everything you're going to do? What do you think about -- or where do you go -- during those 6 to 12 seconds of remaining brain activity after death?

Death -- hah, it's a joke, Linklater maintains: The post-mortal state is the same as the mortal state, except you can no longer wake up!

Meanwhile, there are endless false awakenings into other dreams in life and in "Waking Life," and colorful quantum particles jump around on screen to punctuate and illustrate them. "Waking Life" bubbles with question marks, literally and figuratively, for 97 intense minutes, at the end of which we are finally prepared to answer the opening question: Sleep-walking through awakeness or wake-walking through our dreams?


Brilliantly depicted and explored.

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