In the fall of 2001, Richard Linklater showed off his versatility – along with his willingness to experiment and embrace new technology – with a pair of films released two weeks apart. This spirit is best exemplified by Waking Life, which was shot on video and was one of the first features edited with Final Cut Pro. The footage was then handed off to 30 animators working under Bob Sabiston, whose Rotoshop software gives the film its unique look. Meanwhile, for Tape, Linklater took full advantage of the flexibility Mini DV afforded camera operators when it comes to shooting in confined spaces – in this case, a motel room – and likewise edited the results with Final Cut Pro. That, plus the presence of Ethan Hawke in both films, is about the only thing they have in common.
Arriving a full decade after Slacker added a new term to the cultural lexicon and heralded Linklater as a filmmaker to watch, Waking Life and Tape do a good job of encapsulating his career up to that point. From Slacker, Waking Life picks up its discursive structure and branching narrative. From 1993’s Dazed and Confused, the film recasts Wiley Wiggins as its audience surrogate (who’s never even given a name). Waking Life also borrows Celine and Jesse from 1995’s Before Sunrise, putting them in bed for a scene flatly contradicted by Before Sunset three years later, as well as its peripatetic plot driven by talkative characters given to philosophical musings.
As for Tape, it shares with 1996’s SubUrbia its origin as a stage play (something Tape doesn’t try to hide in any way) and characters obsessed with authenticity. There are also parallels between Jon, the hot young director back in his hometown for a film festival who meets up with an old high school friend, and the friend-turned-rock star in SubUrbia who’s passing through while on tour. The odd one out, then, is 1998’s The Newton Boys, which was Linklater’s first studio film and his most expensive one to date. In the wake of its failure to light up the box office, Linklater quickly regrouped, filming Waking Life in and around his home base of Austin in the summer of 1999 for a fraction of what The Newton Boys cost.
“This is like my little window to the world, and every minute’s a different show.” So says the guy who picks Wiggins up at the train station in a boat car and subtly prepares him (and the viewer) for the surreal turn his life (and the film) is about to take. With its myriad animation styles, ranging from expressionistic to painterly and realistic to symbolic, Waking Life initially presents itself as a series of discrete monologues on the subjects of philosophy, science, language, and sociology, with Wiggins as a passive listener/observer, before expanding its scope to incorporate conversations and scenes his character isn’t privy to. Things get a little headier after he wakes up for a second time, does some channel surfing, and one of the talking heads mentions lucid dreaming, leading Wiggins to believe there may be a reason why his reality is suddenly so curiously malleable.
In contrast, Tape has a consistently scuzzy, lo-res aesthetic, with harsh lighting accentuating the anonymity of Room 19 at the Motor Palace, where Vince (Ethan Hawke) sets the stage for Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) by making it appear he’s downed twice as many beers as he has and greeting him at the door in a T-shirt and boxers. “I swear to God, man, you get stranger every year,” Jon says, and in the decade since they graduated from high school they’ve definitely taken different paths in life. While Jon has made his way in the world, only returning home because one of his films is showing there, Vince has been content to drift along, plying the same trade he did in high school (dealing drugs) and indulging in the “violent tendencies” Jon chides him about. This is all preamble, however, for the main event, as their shared history with a former classmate (now the local assistant district attorney) comes out and Vince prods Jon into a confession with serious repercussions for their already-tenuous friendship. This becomes especially acute after Vince reveals he’s recorded their entire conversation on audiotape and, oh yes, the subject of their most damning exchanges is on her way over.
That’s the basic setup of Stephen Belber’s drama, which Hawke and Leonard deliver on, but Tape really gets in gear with the arrival of Uma Thurman as Amy, who’s all smiles when Vince answers the door and whose demeanor visibly changes when she finds out Jon is also there. (Vince is definitely the type of guy who likes to spring surprises on people.) Similarly, the camerawork matches the energy of the room, with Linklater and director of photography Maryse Alberti indulging in ostentatious camera angles when Jon is bouncing off the walls early on and employing whip-pans when the back-and-forth gets heated. Not impossible to pull off if you’re shooting on film, but much easier with the lightweight cameras they were using.
Since the one-two punch of Waking Life and Tape, Linklater has continued to flex his creative muscles in different ways. In fact, it was not long after that he embarked on the twelve-year project that became Boyhood, in the midst of which he twice picked up the story of Celine and Jesse (in 2004 and 2013), turned out a second animated feature (2006’s A Scanner Darkly, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, who’s name-checked by Linklater’s pinball player in Waking Life), and found critical and commercial success with the crowd-pleasing School of Rock, a hit unlike any he’d had before. “Things have been tough lately for dreamers,” says one of the figures in Waking Life. “They say dreaming’s dead and no one does it anymore.” Well, as dreamers go, Linklater seems to be managing just fine.