Waking Life is an animated feature film released in 2002, directed by Richard Linklater, the guy who brought us Dazed and Confused and Slacker. This movie is a must-see for anyone interested in dreams, consciousness and how our visionary states play out in modern life.
Like Linklater’s previous works, Waking Life is a film constructed of moments in time, depending more on the viewer’s fascination with the characters’ worldviews rather than a exciting plot sequence. But Waking Life is radically different than his earlier projects, and not just because it’s animated. What makes this film so unusual is the deep philosophical waters it explores as the protagonist (Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins), tries to figure out what has happened to him after being hit by a car in the first scene.
The movie can be summed up with this question: Are we sleep-walking through our waking state or wake-walking through our dreams?“
As Wiley goes about his day – which Slacker-style, seems to consist of bumping into strange and talkative people in an American suburban environment –- we are treated to a shifting display of “reality” as Wiley’s consciousness changes moment to moment. Sometimes he’s clear and the animation becomes gritty, laying bare the filmed scene underneath. And other times, the world is a bubbling cauldron of sense impressions that are more dream-like than anything else.
Which is precisely why you should check this movie out if you are into dream studies, and especially movies about dreams. Although the philosophical themes in Waking Life range from “the telescopic nature of evolution” to the existential bummer of modern life (yes, this movie is very “talky” in the tradition of Woody Allen but without the New York anxiety), behind the talk is a meditation on the dream-like qualities of waking life.
How lucid are we anyways?
Because we’re really not as lucid in our waking life as we like to think we are. We are often eclipsed by thought habits and emotional clouds that are almost as old as our bodies, and we co-create the world we are accustomed to being in. As Paul Simon says in the Boxer, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Lie-da-lie.” But of course we are granted moments of lucidity – those sudden opportunities to break out of our everyday thought addictions – and it is precisely these “aha” moments that Linklater is stalking through his character Wiley.
The film also offers up a fairly base depiction of lucid dreaming as it is most often marketed as in the commercial media. A portly trickster figure tells Wiley how, through “waking up” in his dreams, he can have “so much damn fun.” He leans in and leers, “you can have all the sex you want.” I laughed so hard the first time I saw this, as here is the cultural zeitgeist of lucid dreaming that I am trying my darnest to dispell.
But this character is balanced by other characters who show him how lucidity can be turned, like a mirror, towards deeper questions without losing the exuberance of living passionately.
It’s a beautiful film, in short, even though the dialogue can get tiresome at times. Still, Waking Life is one of the best meditations I’ve seen yet on how our consciousness and our mortality are all tied up in a double helix. I own it on VHS (remember those?) but the DVD includes a short film as well. This movie is a must-have for the dream film collector.
Waking Life can be found at most video rental stores and the occasional switched-on public library. To add it to your collection, it retails for less than $10 on amazon.