Waking Life begins with two kids (Trevor Jack Brooks and Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the film’s director Richard Linklater) playing a paper hand-puzzle game. When the children follow the rules—count off the letters in a randomly selected color name, then a randomly selected number—they arrive at the boy’s apparent fortune: “Dream is destiny.” At this point, the kids’ part is done, and they move on, out of the movie. For you, however, the game is just beginning.
Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Lorelei Linklater, Timothy Speed Levitch
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)
The game in Linklater’s Waking Life is elaborate and engrossing, part dream, part animated jaunt, part narrative shake-up. Set up as the ongoing dream of one unnamed character (played/voiced by Wiley Wiggins, from Linklater’s Dazed and Confused), the film was shot as live action in Austin, San Antonio, and New York City, with lightweight, handheld video cameras. The footage was digitized and then animated, in a process that art director Bob Sabiston calls “interpolated rotoscoping.” This involved some 30 artists, so that each character has his or her own visual style—times two, that is, with input from both the actor and the animator. This means that the movie’s appearance is quite unlike anything you’ve seen in feature filmmaking, and it takes some getting used to: the environment shimmers and shakes, as unstable as the characters in it, with floors and windows and sidewalks in constant motion.
“Wiley” (as we might as well call him, as Linklater does when talking about the film) is on a quest, though he’s not quite sure what he’s seeking (since he doesn’t know his own name, it’s understandable that he’s a little confused as to his purpose). He appears a few minutes into the film, riding on a train. At the station, he catches a ride with a guy driving (or is it captaining?) a car-boat, literally a boat on wheels. “Don’t miss the boat!” the captain calls out cheerfully, before explaining why this boat is the perfect mode of transport, an extension of his personality: “We should stay in a state of constant departure while always arriving.” His fellow passenger is Linklater himself, or Linklater animated, reprising, sort of, his early appearance in Slacker, and holding forth on the nature of experience, time, and identity (“There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity”), before he instructs the driver exactly where to let off Wiley, so that he might confront his own “eternity.”
At the appointed place, Wiley finds a note in the middle of the street, telling him to “look right.” He does, and he’s immediately hit by a car: boom. He wakes up, the dream continues, and he moves on to the next conversation. Some of these chats, however, (which he may or may not be dreaming) don’t even include him. Eventually, the film becomes its own thing, without a clear point of view. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy show up, apparently post-coital, apparently still living inside
Before Sunrise, speculating about the relationship between dreams and reincarnation. From this lovely, intimate scene, the film cuts (or more precisely, floats) to a prisoner (Charles Gunning) in his cell, pacing and grumbling about all the “motherfuckers” on whom he’ll have his revenge, with methods ranging from a “hot cigar in your eye” to “molten lead up your ass.”
The juxtaposition of these two scenes may be the most startling moment in the film, as it lurches from movie-star-ish privilege and possibility to harrowing despair. This brief in-your-face ugliness underlines what the rest of the film, so replete with theoretical talk, hints at: if the concept of the “waking life” has to do with coming to clarity and self-consciousness, the most profound conditions for the journey are disturbingly material. The theorists can’t quite reach this acute state, but neither can the prisoner see beyond his walls. To survive (in his mind?), he directs his pain outward, but he also consumes himself, confined inside his immediate conditions: walls, bars, rage. Where the Hawke and Delpy scene conjures a lovely, solicitous fantasy, the inmate is upsetting. But his appearance—startling as it is—is easily forgotten amid the rush and rattle of all the soaring Big Ideas in Waking Life.
The rest of the film concerns Wiley’s rather less disquieting probing around for a range of people’s opinions on the interrelations of consciousness, free will, community, the effects of media saturation, and quantum mechanics (these academic chatty cathys include professors Louis Mackey and Robert Solomon, of the University of Texas). As he wanders through this dream, Wiley becomes increasingly conscious that it is a dream (he can’t read the digital clock, a sure sign that you’re dreaming, according to one of his encounters), and the movie itself becomes “conscious” of itself as a movie. Or better, a series of movies: Wiley attends one film screening that’s projected by a talking chimp, another in which Caveh Zahedi discusses Andre Bazin’s faith in film’s capacity to capture, even create, a “holy moment.” In other brief appearances, Steven Soderbergh pipes up about the business of filmmaking, and in New York, Wiley runs into Speed Levitch, beloved protagonist of the 1998 documentary The Cruise, still cruising.
Above all, the movie asks you to be awake as you watch it, so you are not consuming so much as you are processing, in a very self-conscious way. Waking Life is as interested in itself as it wants you to be, and pushes the point about film’s shifty status as entertainment and/or art. Indeed, the website invites you to “read all about it,” listing the famous names dropped in the film, including the usual suspects in philosophy (Sartre, Plato, Nietzsche, et. al.), as well as cultural theorists like Guy Debord, Philip K. Dick, and Benedict Anderson—whose notion of “imagined communities” might be the very one underlying all filmmaking and film viewing. Going to the movies is an adventure, and the more conscious you are about it, the better.