When he was a boy in Texas, Richard Linklater thought he might grow up one day to live in a cartoon. "The cartoons you watched, it just seemed like they were all having so much fun," says the director of "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." "Seriously, I think I was in the first grade before it was made clear to me that I would be a human my whole life and that I couldn't be the Pink Panther or Bugs Bunny. I wanted that range of opportunity they had."
The longing for the cartoon life never really deserted Linklater, to judge from his latest film, "Waking Life," which utilizes a new technique marrying digital animation to live action in a story that might be said to be about the metaphysics of dreams. But he would prefer to put it another way. "It sounds so boring to say this is a movie about dreams because it's not really about , it's more like the effect of....It's about the fundamental questions you can't answer."
Indeed, "Waking Life," a Fox Searchlight film scheduled to open Friday, is not a movie easily summarized, categorized or merchandized, although it's being called "the first independent computer-animated feature." Like "Slacker," it is something of a shaggy dog story, or, to put it more grandiosely, a nonlinear meandering through the oddly enchanted post-grad universe of Austin and beyond. In the opening scene of "Slacker," the low-budget indie hit released in 1991, Linklater, playing himself, unwound an impassioned rant about the nature of reality to a memorably unresponsive cab driver who didn't seem to care one whit about the question of whether life could be a dream or a dream could be life. (Those cabdrivers.)
"They're really the flip side of one another," Linklater says, on a recent morning in Los Angeles, when asked about the apparent connection of "Slacker's" opening sequence to "Waking Life." As usual, he was in town for only 24 hours and would be flying home before dark to the land of George W. Bush and Lyle Lovett. He winces at a reporter's mention of Bush being the latest symbol of Texas. "I tell people Nader got 38% in my district. Austin is a city apart culturally and politically from the rest of Texas."
"Superficially, it's my own personal film history," he says about the two films. "In one way, the dream I'm talking about in that cab is the dream this movie is based on. It's one of the dreams I would have over the years that I took as big experiences." His dream was, very much to the point, a "lucid dream," meaning he was aware that he was dreaming and wondering where that state of consciousness ended and the other one began. "Most dreams you just wake up and say, 'Oh, that was a dream.' But lucid dreaming is to know 'Oh, I'm in a dream right now.' I would say lucid dreaming is one step deeper than regular dreaming."
The film, he says, "was my way to finally research and learn more about the whole lucid dreaming process, this thing that had always come pretty naturally to me, being conscious in your dreams. I figured out that I had some sort of temporal lobe instability--that's where you have hallucinations or see things as real that aren't." Possibly a gift for a filmmaker, but, he acknowledges, "it could be dangerous."
Such mind-bending reverie, in any case, inspired "Waking Life," a sort of cross between "My Dinner With Andre" and "Yellow Submarine," in which a few actors (including Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg, all Linklater film veterans) and many nonactors are transformed into artists' renditions of themselves by computer animation while discoursing on the meaning of life, love, free will, identity and, yes, dreams, to a soundtrack of playfully somber chamber music with a tango beat. It's all talk, no action--let's just say "Rush Hour 3" it's not.
Wiley Wiggins, the actor who serves as the central character on a quest possibly to discover the meaning of it all, concedes that "Waking Life" is hard to describe. "It's a whole big mess of stuff," he says. "Stuff you worried about in college, the timeless questions that never got answered."
Linklater long wanted to explore this idea in a film but realized the difficulty of making a film about an idea in the first place. It wasn't until he encountered Austin computer animator Bob Sabiston and his new software about three years ago that he saw the possibility of leaping beyond the literal realm of cinema. "Live action never worked in my head for this, but when I saw what Bob was doing, I thought, 'That's the way it should look.' Because that's the way your brain reconstructs memory and dreams."
Sabiston, a graduate of MIT and a graphic artist, invented a process that extended an old technique known as "rotoscoping," or painting on film. The new technique allies hand-drawing with digital effects, creating a softly floating movement of gestures and facial expressions--so floating, in fact, that it can leave some filmgoers feeling seasick.