Waking Life (2001)
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Wiley Wiggins
My Rating: ★★★★★, or 10/10
In Short: Transcends the description of “dreamlike” – utterly enthralling, provocative and beautiful
When writers or critics use words like “thought-provoking,” exactly what do we mean? All films can be bestowed with this subtitle technically, since all films at least provide us with something to think about. But I think the term is a little more specific than this. Films like Richard Linklater’s Waking Life are the films that emphasise this term, define it, and prove it as a worthy part of a critic’s vocabulary. If there are any films that provoke serious contemplation, Waking Life must inarguably be one of them, if not the defining one; possibly even the most important one.
I saw Waking Life just over a week ago after stumbling onto it online. It was 2am on a Sunday morning and as I began watching I fell into a rabbit hole of incredible, awakening thought and self-discussion. I woke my sleeping girlfriend because I needed someone to talk about it with, and even though she hadn’t seen it and our discussion ended rather quickly, I felt relieved that I had someone next to me to whom I could relate these thoughts and perhaps find some empathy for my affected state of mind. The second I had finished watching the film, my brain was flooded with emotions, realizations of incomprehensible thoughts I myself couldn’t explain but gained so much pleasure from simply possessing amongst the thousands of whispering and pounding images that stream through the mind every minute.
“There’s only one instant. And it’s right now. And it’s eternity.” Waking Life follows the unnamed Main Character (Wiley Wiggins, whom you may remember from Linklater’s Dazed and Confused) through a series of dreams from which he never seems to actually wake up. In these dreams, he has deeply philosophical conversations with various characters he encounters, about the nature of dreaming and the existential crises that seem impossible to decode, but that colour our lives and enrich our dreams. If you’re capable of thinking on a level beyond normal (which I believe most people are, even if they don’t choose to), then the issues brought up through the various opinions of the characters in this film will interest you. Even if they don’t interest you, they will have an effect on you. This is a film it is very easy to lose interest and focus in, but if you look at it closely, and take the time to watch it carefully, you might just fall for it like I did.
The film was shot on video, then edited and then animated, using vivid colours that are strikingly attractive, and a shaky (dare I say “dreamlike”?) style that it at first unnerving but soon becomes incredibly luminous and unique. It is an interesting technique that elevates this film to the true dream universe; visually, it has the same feel as a dream: shaky, textured with bright colours and, while standing back it looks nothing like real life, it feels accurate. They say in a dream everything is tilted 45 degrees. That is exactly how Waking Life feels, but the dialogue and perfectly restrained pace keeps everything steady.
Indeed it is the dialogue, not the visuals, that are the rock of this film. Though the stunning imagery does play a pivotal part, the language of the characters, in true Linklater fashion, is what we really remember. Many will be reminded of the conversations of the various characters in Linklater’s earlier indie debut Slacker, but unlike that film, the dialogue serves as material to actually dwell on and consider deeply, rather than to just admire for its authenticity. Lines like “They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same about life?” are not only well-constructed and delivered, but seriously provocative. Every minute of this glorious film, we are thrown new and equally valid opinions from dozens of characters that it’s enough to make your head spin. That is why Waking Life is best viewed several times, because as one critic put it: “The incredible discussions are so rapidly thrown together that it seems we miss two or three lines while we’re thinking about the ones that came before.” I understand what he means, but I disagree. I never found Waking Life difficult to follow. It’s a different story to try and understand it, but then again it’s not the film that demands comprehension and an understanding of its whole. It is more about throwing thoughts into our heads, and letting us construct them to ourselves and reveal whatever we believe to be their meaning.
Each of the characters have different thoughts on what they believe “the meaning” to be. Some talk about dreams, some about God. Are we all part of God’s dream, or are we just an existent thought amongst nothingness, developing ourselves through time using only the gift of our own thoughts and interactions? Perhaps. The answer to all the questions raised through these characters could conceivably and correctly be “perhaps.” There is no definitive answer, only thoughts. And everyone’s thoughts are unique. That’s what the Main Character discovers, as he tumbles through the minds of various people and discovers, from them, incredible revelations that cause him to question the nature of his dream. How could he be dreaming about discovering such in depth, brilliant things that he himself could conceivably never know?
I’m beginning to run out of things to say about Waking Life. The film itself says these things far better than I could articulate, and in words that all mentally mature people can understand. Waking Life is not a difficult film. However, some will find it boring, tiresome or simply too far out of their reach. Perhaps. I think that the key to loving and knowing this film is simply in letting it take hold of you and melt you into its own sea of consciousness, wherein we can discover things about ourselves we never knew, contemplate things we thought too difficult to comprehend, and wade deeper into the darker waters of our minds and dreams, wherein the possibilities of living and learning are as endless as the constant time and space from which we all came.