Waking Life

Provost's Film Series

September 27, 2005




When he introduced his animated film Waking Life at the Sundance Festival, director Richard Linklater asked if anyone in the crowd was on drugs.  Several hands went up.  “Good,” he said.  “This is for you.  The rest of you, just bear with me.”

For some, Waking Life is one fabulous journey; for others, it is nearly unbearable. The film’s dazzling and innovative animation can be both exhilarating and exhausting.  Depicting a long dream sequence, the movie deluges viewers with constantly shifting visual styles and wavy, undulating images, as if the dreamer is tossing and turning on a waterbed.  As he wanders on this hallucinogenic trip, the protagonist—an unnamed Gen-Xer played by Wily Wiggins—listens to endless rants, diatribes and ruminations from café philosophers, old friends, and just plain kooks. For just over ninety minutes we literally bounce from one street monologue to another, and the film becomes a pastiche of metaphysics, anecdotes and neurotic confessions.  Wiggins indeed wants to wake up from all this—but he can’t.  He’s caught in the quicksand of his dream.  Some viewers lament that the film has to end.  Others leave the theatre ready to scream. 

Completed just before September 11, 2001, Waking Life inevitably became defined by the dread of the hour.  Roger Ebert suggests that the film can be seen as a time capsule of the American mood on the eve of the attacks, a mix of optimism, malaise and moral quandary that marked the turn of the millennium, at least before our anxieties hardened into fear and paranoia.  The film may not linger for long on any of its philosophical tangents, but for many viewers the cascade of ideas reopens possibilities for moral discourse that had been suppressed by political posturing.  For others, such as J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, the film merely traps you in one “endless bull session.”  Yet there are enough fragments here to make quite a mosaic of ideas—musings about quantum mechanics, reincarnation, love, death, free will, existentialism, filmmaking, anarchy and the “telescoping nature of the evolutionary paradigm.”  It may all seem a little loony at times, but it does jar the mind and rekindle the big metaphysical questions.      



Whether critics loved or hated the film, there was wide acclaim for its innovative animation techniques.  The National Society of Film Critics hailed it as the “best experimental film” in 2002 and the New York Film Critics named it the “best animated film” of the year.  Waking Life reworks motifs from Linklater’s earlier films, most of all Slacker, an offbeat, non-linear tale set in the director’s home base of Austin, Texas.  In Slacker the narrative leapfrogs from one character to another, as several scenes or vignettes introduce distractions that will draw the camera and director off in new and seemingly random directions.  Linklater follows the same pattern in Waking Life.  He filmed over 50 characters talking about their ideas and experiences, as one scene jumps or dissolves into another.  Yet, in this case, he turned the footage over to animators.  Designing a software technique called “interpolated rotoscoping,” art director Bob Sabiston enables animators literally to “computer-paint over the pictures.”  Some 30 animators were given short scenes of the film and asked to rotoscope them, and each animator brought a unique touch to the task.  Some scenes become impressionist—or roughly drawn, like a hasty Picasso sketch.  Some writhe and twist like a Salvador Dali panting.  Others throb with fast-frame energy, like early MTV videos.  A few scenes are nearly life-like, as if an old black-and-white classic had been “colorized” in vibrant pastels.  Many of the characters from Linklater’s earlier films—such as Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke from his romantic tale Before Sunrise—reappear in Waking Life.  As Richard Luck of the BBC claims, Linklater seems intent on revisiting his “former characters with his camera and a pack a crayons.”


"Salsa Dancing with My Confusion"

If there is a prevailing theme in Waking Life, it is the hazy boundary between dreaming and living. The jittering animation, along with the disjointed, seemingly unstructured narrative, keeps Wiggins and the viewers striving to sort out truth from illusion.

One can view the film primarily as a depiction of the neurological activity of the brain during dreaming.  Wiggins finds himself in a stage of consciousness called “lucid dreaming,” part of the fifth and final phase of sleep before waking, a time when the brain’s beta waves and rapid eye movements are most active.  Although the expression “lucid dreaming” was coined merely to describe a late stage of REM, today there are Lucid Dreaming Societies that teach how to use a semi-alert consciousness to “control” one’s dreams.  If “dream is destiny,” as Waking Life intimates at the outset, then controlling dreams is the key to happiness.  The irony, though, is that Wiggins cannot control anything.  He is stuck in his own dreams.

On the other hand, there are hints that Wiggins is not just dreaming but is actually dead or dying, caught in the limbo between consciousness and darkness.  The film starts with Wiggins being hit by a car.  Is this long dream sequence, then, merely the life that flashes before his eyes just as he fades away in death?  Near the end of the film Linklater actually appears in the film, and his cartoon persona describes time as a way of forestalling reality, of saying “no” to “God’s invitation” to be in “eternity.”  Time may be, he implies, a demonic invention to keep us away from God.  He urges Wiggins to say “yes” to God’s call.

Then there is Linklater’s dead-serious discussion in the film of an essay by science fiction writer Philip Dick.  In “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” Dick recalls discovering that a story he once wrote was virtually identical to a scene from the Book of Acts.  The striking thing, according to Dick, was that he had never read Acts.  So he offers the wild speculation that “time is not real,” that somehow he and all of humanity had been present at the same moment around 50 A.D., when the events in Acts took place.  “A specific permanent landscape underlies the world of change,” Dick writes, “and that this invisible underlying landscape is that of the Bible; it, specifically, is the period immediately following the death and resurrection of Christ.” Waking Life teases us with multiple possibilities—that our minds are nothing more than random neurological impulses, that all of philosophy is merely a collage of unanswerable questions, or that somehow, beyond the chaos and confusion of our own consciousness, there is a moral and divine architecture that provides stability and meaning. 

Then, again, maybe this film is less serious than sportive. Gregory Weinkauf of the New Times, who likes the visual splendor of the film, encourages us to laugh at its “fruity metaphysics.”   With gentle affection, Jan Stuart of Newsday writes that Waking Life is “as delirious, discombobulating and queasily funny as a post-pizza dream.”  As one character tells Wily, life is about taking things in stride, about going “salsa dancing with my confusion.”