I wrote this essay in a few hours for my university course, like all my essays I left it until the last day before the deadline to start it. I didn’t have time to spell check or reference at all but I really enjoyed writing it, I don’t want to change anything (spellings/grammar) because I feel it needs to stay the same as the original.
Anyway watch the above clip and read the article if its something you’re interested in.
Avant-Garde, from the French: vanguard literally means fore-guard or advanced guard, the first into battle and the head of the movement. Less literal interpretations are originality, unconventionality or visionary. Often, when media texts are dubbed Avant-Garde, it is years perhaps centuries after they were originally created, being only recognised after a long period of time. A typical Avant-Garde film will contain a non-linear narrative structure; a strong emphasis on editing and/or visuals; subconscious themes which are hard to understand or difficult to define and will often be produced on a very small budget. This results in technical sacrifices being made such as the film being shot on DV and possibly include gorilla filmmaking where a large payoff to film is required.
Examples of pure cinema and experimentation include the early work of David Lynch. Eraserhead for example, which, despite its now legendary reputation was originally rejected by all the Hollywood studios Lynch tried to get involved. Because of unreliable and often non-existent funds, Eraserhead was filmed on and off from 1971 to 1976. More recently the films of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham reflect Avant-Garde in the post-modern world. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry) for example maintains the characteristics of an experimental Avant-Garde with its non-linear narrative, complex plot and focus on visual trickery. If everything has been done already then surely the Avant-Garde is a dead ‘genre’ as they call it. I disagree, films like these don’t come alone very often but when they do a new way of thinking or revolutionary technique is discovered leading to our social understanding of the film’s subject or subjects being widened or added to. “pure cinema did not reject sensitivity or drama, but it tried to retain them through purely visual elements”
Waking Life (2001), the themes of this essay is massively obscure in contrast with the films above, reinforcing another Avant-Garde characteristic, unappreciated in its time. Written and Directed by Richard Linklater, more famous for his films: Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, sets his films within a twenty four hour time frame. He seems believe in using the same actors in his films, using intertextual referencing from his own work and including cameos from himself, his family and the stars of his films. The budget for Waking Life is unknown which probably means its obscurity and unconventionality led to funds being few and far between, and above all, part personally funded. The film’s worldwide gross was only $3,176,880, compared with Dazed and Confused, which grossed $7,993,039 domestically.
In this essay I will discuss the film Waking Life in relation to its content, form and context. Avant-Garde is a classification often only associated with high art media texts from history, but not usually as an active option in filmmaking or the creative arts. I will challenge this view and do my best to persuade you that like many other contemporary films, Waking Life is Avant-Garde.
Avant-Garde content in Waking Life
Waking Life is essentially structured into many different sections of philosophical musing and discussion by talking heads and walking thinkers, its loosely held together by the premise of a young man’s lucid dreams and his journey through them. Unlike other films that pose only one or two questions that relate to their theme, then try to discuss or even answer those questions through the narrative exposition, Waking Life poses a multitude of questions, simple and existential which then instead of being answered or dwelled upon are left unanswered for the audience then find the answers themselves. This rejection of storytelling in a conventional way leads to the feeling of having your mind expanded in a live action, colourful and impossible sociology lecture. Waking Life is a hybrid themed text containing discussions on subjects like neo-human evolution, socio-political mind control, free will and the origins of the soul.
Waking Life is not only philosophical but also a self conscious and self-referential film. It deals with the relationship between lucid dreams and lucid dreamers, characters and actors, between art and the artist. An example of this is at about 52 minutes and 28 seconds in, where filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and a man talk about Andre Bazin and appreciating the holy moment as they call it, Man: “Everything is layers isn’t it.” Zahedi: “yeah.” Man: “There’s the holy moment and then there’s the awareness of trying to have the holy moment. In the same way that the film is the actual moment really happening but then the character pretending to be in a different reality…”
This raises the question what makes a person engage with a story even if they know it’s not real, what makes me want to watch a film that isn’t hiding the fact? Its not unlike lucid dreams, which features heavily throughout the film, if you are dreaming and suddenly you come to realise that you are not experiencing reality as it truly is, why do you remain dreaming? Logically your mind would either reject your realisation and go back to its non-lucid state or reject the fake reality and force you to reawaken.
The political and social issues of America are addressed in several talking head discussions and vaguely acted out examples. A man paces back and forth behind prison bars, reciting a monologue aimed at the guards about all the torture and death and despair that will reign the earth as soon as he gets “…out of this shit hole…” this scene doesn’t relate directly to any other themes in the film, the main character (if he can be called that) isn’t even in the scene.
A man sits in a bar talking to the barman about how he shot a thief who was rushing at him with a knife, the barman is enjoying the reenactment and laughing with the man, then suddenly the man says that’s why i always carry this and put his gun on the bar facing towards the barman. Barman: “I’ll drink to that, a well armed populous is the best defense against tyranny.” After a drink the man shoots the barman who then gets back up, pulls a pistol from under the bar and blows the man’s head off, they both die on the floor. This is such an Avant-Garde set piece because we know its not real and we don’t think of the characters with the same concern we do with characters from conventional narratives, this means think only of the meaning and feel no emotion. What does this mean and why did they show it to me like that?
As well as actors appearing in the film there are also a number of cameo appearances from well-established talkers: Louis H. Mackey, David Sosa, Robert C. Solomon and Kim Krizan. This not only makes the film seem more qualified to ask the questions it does but also makes it more a record of the intellectual thought of the era.
Avant-Garde Form in Waking Life
The visuals in Waking Life are unique, used only once more so far and by the same director in his film A Scanner Darkly, Avant-Garde is all about pioneering new things experiences and techniques and in that respect Waking Life is the exact definition of Avant-Garde. First the film is shot on low resolution DV format then a team of digital and freehand artists and animators draw over the frames, morphing and exaggeration as they go the desired features of the image to best match the mood or intent of the subject. Because the film consists mainly of talking heads and lengthy monologue scenes, this visual style is perfect for maintaining the audience’s attention by constantly moving and changing, while emphasising the punctuation of the point being put across, making it enjoyable to listen to and understand.
The music is all from the same orchestra and while not being diegetic throughout the whole film the opening five minutes is the orchestra warming up and talking about pacing, this is very self conscious and sets it up to be Avant-Garde right from the start. The music is used more as a tool to get from one talking head to another rather than an emotional underscore which goes hand in hand with the minimalist, non forceful “this is what you need to feel” of the typical Hollywood score.
As well as being defined as an Avant-Garde film on many personal blogs, reviews and web pages scattered all over the Internet, Add Movies.com defines it thus as well:
Director: Richard Linklater
Oct/2001 Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke etc.
he problem with recognition is that Avant-Garde is an extremely hard thing to define and therefore Waking Life has not been officially classified thus. This however is partly the purpose of this essay and apart from personal statements there is no proof Waking Life is an Avant-Garde film apart from the identical conventions they both share.
To summaries, Waking Life looks like an Avant-Garde film; the animation even strays towards Picasso like similarities. It sounds like one, with the diegetic/non-diegetic music that interacts with the viewer both aesthetically and functionally. The narrative structure is wild and indefinable, it has no three-act structure, no true beginning middle and end, And above all it doesn’t so much as tell stories than ask questions, questions after questions which instead of drawing us into the world of the film pulls us out into ourselves and our own perception of the world around us.