Life Is But a Dream
Michael Joshua Rowin on Waking Life

It’s fitting that the feature-length filmmaking career of Richard Linklater opens with a dream, or, to be more precise, the recollection of a dream—which amounts essentially to the same thing. Dreams reorganize, interpret, and filter the story of our lives during sleep; recollecting a dream reorganizes, interprets, and filters the elements of unconscious processes. Linklater himself initiates his debut film, Slacker, with a monologue about the dream he just experienced, setting off a Joyceian/Buñuelian odyssey within Austin that encompasses the lives and stories of a daydreaming populace. At one point in this speech Linklater muses that “every thought you have creates its own reality . . . the thing you choose not to do fractions off and becomes its own reality.” Dreams, he figures, provide “just a momentary glimpse into this other reality”: the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of reality become the dreams that confound and multiply those stories, this reality, even bypassing the surface of cognition to engage our unrealized, undiscovered lives.

In a sense, all of Linklater’s films are dreams in the way his verbose characters evoke alternate realities from an endless stream of thoughts, ideas, and stories, often engaging with those of others to create a sublime dialogue, nearly erotic in its hypnotism. But if the work of Linklater suggests at its core a dream-story, and if the cinema is a medium in which to visually enact this dream-story, then what are we to make of Waking Life, Linklater’s brilliant, forward-looking experiment in philosophical animation (or—animated philosophy?), a film just as invested in gauging how people understand their dreams as in subjectively rendering that uncanny nether region? Slacker, the film in Linklater’s oeuvre that most resembles Waking Life (indeed, Waking Life uses many of the same actors, locations, and scenarios as in Slacker), may be dream-like, but its action unfolds linearly, realistically. Slacker provides a cornucopia of stories as dreams—alternate realities possibly lived, possibly not—but only hints at the visual and narrative vertigo of Waking Life. Whereas the former reveals the sacredness of the oneiric everyday through various forms of storytelling and monologue, the latter, still maintaining those modes of address, also delves into dream structure and atmosphere. In other words, Slacker relates a dream; Waking Life lives it.

To advance the comparison, and state the most obvious difference between the two films: whereas Slacker is organic, growing from a real city’s layout and inhabitants, with scenes that flow into each other in a connect-the-dots-that-never-connect-back structure, Waking Life’s animated dreamscapes are both abstracted and hyperreal with its characters rendered in hallucinatory forms and colors (facilitated by a multitude of animators, even the drawing and coloring style changes, sometimes within a single shot). Just as dreams and stories add to their source material, reality, so does the animation of Waking Life construe a new cinematic world out of digital video’s immediacy in which to navigate. Furthermore, story-level fragmentation compliments visual abstraction, as scenes cut from one to another—gracefully traversing spatial and temporal coordinates—with only the loosest of thematic connections to structure them. Even the nameless protagonist (played by Wiley Wiggins, in a performance remarkable for its empathetic quality, especially considering his often thankless role as stand-in for the viewer), often falls away from the action altogether, becoming, as Linklater puts it, a “disembodied consciousness,” a common dream-like change in perspective.

These amorphous and aleatory devices structurally embody the very concepts underlying the film. Just as Linklater’s speech in Slacker sets its tone and course, the first scene of Waking Life does the same. A little girl operates one of those small, origami “fortune-tellers” that almost everybody has played with as a child. A young boy picks several numbers (but first, appropriately, one of four colors) and the girl, folding and unfolding the device, eventually reveals his fortune, “dream is destinie” [sic]: randomness and fate, ineffably intertwined. Later that night, the young boy starts to float to the sky after watching a shooting star but prevents himself from doing so by hanging onto the handle of a car door: the mystery of dream, its infinite possibilities.

Wiggins’s dream-journeys contain such possibilities, not only in the monologues on existentialism, language, free will, and reincarnation that he absorbs, but also in the violent stories, voiced frustrations, and angry rants from certain individuals he encounters. This pluralism provides a particular showcase for the limitless potential of dreaming—and the possibilities of animation—while also representing various responses to the new millennium’s endless information stream and daily apocalypses. Utopian and dystopian, hopeful and disaffected, thoughtful and irrational views collide as Wiggins, barely participating in his own dreams, listens on.

Linklater has noted that Waking Life’s characters exhibit an interconnectedness unrealized among their counterparts in Slacker. True, the former characters express exuberance in the face of daunting contemporary challenges (“Speed” Levitch speaks for most of them when he says, “This entire thing we’re involved with called the world is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be”), but they never physically create a human cityscape like the latter form. This can be seen as Linklater’s latent science fiction interest finally blooming (mind trumps body, selves become only empty forms housing universal abstractions), but it also proves that structuring a film thematically at the expense of traditional narrative never completely erases the lonely searching at the heart of this auteur’s work.

Wiggins’s melancholic quest leads to chance gradually merging with fate. In typical Linklater fashion, night sneaks up on day as bouncy pastels yield to plaintive, bold tones. And the wide range of ideas and considerations that marked Waking Life’s first half now flow to the same river—existence as dream, characterized either as death or the eternal present, emerges as the film’s overriding theme. The latter manifestation of this overreaching dream-state comes to the fore in what may be the film’s most poignant—and memorable—scene, titled “The Holy Moment.” In an empty movie theater Wiggins watches a film-within-a-film in which filmmaker Caveh Zahedi poetically explicates André Bazin’s realist principles. Bazin, Zahedi states, was a religious Christian who thought cinema could reveal each present moment as “holy” by capturing external reality, a particular time and place, with nearly objective verisimilitude. Since God suffuses all of life, film can cut through the encrusted vision with which we usually view this reality and reveal the Eternal.

The brilliance of this scene lies not only in Zahedi’s energy and enthusiasm for the subject, and not only in containing one of those spontaneous moments that only cinema can represent in all its awkward glory (Zahedi attempts to swat a fly from companion David Jewell’s face), but in its complete negation of Bazinian principles—what could be any less Bazinian than animation? Playful interpretations infuse Zahedi’s already animated gestures, as with the lightning bolts that fly from his hands. Later, after attempting to engage in a wordless “holy moment” of their own, Zahedi and Jewell, post-Zen, turn into cloud formations. Not exactly Bazinian realism. But then, we’re in a dream here: flights of animated fancy embellish an improvised sketch so as to intensify and not merely record “the holy moment.” Animation thus becomes realism of the imagination.

The scene perfectly encapsulates the reason for Linklater’s experimentation in style. Waking Life’s rotoscopic animation, as overseen by art director Bob Sabiston, reveals the fullness of each of the film’s moments. By colliding with the ontological fidelity of the video image, quivering, shifting, frame-by-frame animated interpretations magnify the power of every camera movement, each character’s idiosyncratic gestures and peculiarities of appearance. The hints of lo-fi visual playfulness strewn about in Slacker—Pixelvision, Day-Glo-tinged Super-8—flower into full-blown computer-assisted impressionism, even expressionism. More a case of image layering than traditional cartoon-y exaggeration (“Everything is layers, isn’t it?” Jewell exclaims), Waking Life addends to—while challenging—the Bazinian notion of cinema’s ontological mission. In response to a plot-driven film culture that often relegates the image to the low end of the aesthetic hierarchy, Waking Life revives and restores the lost sense of wonder of the moving image that accompanied the Lumière Brothers’ first projections of reproduced life. (Kracauer on the Lumière films: “It was life at its least controllable and most unconscious moments, a jumble of transient, forever dissolving patterns accessible only to the camera”).

Death, the flipside of the bountifulness of the holy moment—one might say its anti-matter—pervades Waking Life at Wiggins’s third or fourth “false awakening,” the state of thinking one has awakened and yet finding oneself still within a dream. Flipping through television channels, Wiggins comes across a mysterious woman who ominously suggests death might be one long dream from which it is impossible to awake (earlier, in his encounter with the self-proclaimed “oneironauts,” explorers of lucid dreams, Wiggins is told that “the worst mistake that you can make is to think that you are alive when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room”). When a woman paints a portrait of her elderly friend the result turns out to be a likeness of Wiggins. Although the film still adheres to the delicate touch Linklater places on all his work, a dark, unexpected gravitas starts to infuse Waking Life. Something more is at stake than the sampling of philosophies. “As the pattern gets more intricate and subtle, being swept along is no longer enough,” says a mysterious old man who crosses Wiggins’s path outside a convenience store.

Who better to make sense of the pattern than the director himself? Linklater had entered the narrative at the beginning of the film as Wiggins’s fellow passenger, setting off the protagonist’s journey by capriciously selecting his drop-off point. Now the director appears playing—what else?—pinball, and gives the protagonist advice on breaking the cycle of endless false awakenings. By way of Philip K. Dick, the Book of Acts, a patron of Yeats named Lady Gregory, and a dream-visitation to the Land of the Dead, Linklater arrives at a possibility for the purposeful and yet unstable nature of Wiggins’s trip: reality—waking life—is an illusion preventing us from fully engaging in the eternal present, the holy moment. God continually asks us if we want to accept him, to be one with eternity, and we, consumed and subsumed by an imposed, distracting reality with all its pleasures and disasters, continually refuse. Time is the refusal. All of life, Linklater goes on, consists of the move from this “No” to an inevitable, resounding “Yes” in the face of God’s perpetual question. A dream’s ability to provide a momentary glimpse into another reality now assumes a greater, life-altering role: Wiggins’s dream allows him to see through reality, a visionary moment that places everything in doubt.

Thus Waking Life introduces an element otherwise unknown in Linklater’s canon: religion. If such a thing exists in his other films it is of a humble, almost unassuming quality, a sort of secular, quotidian spirituality. Never does the G-word come up. Which is not to say Waking Life testifies to a religious conversion on the part of its director—if anything, it addresses despair and the coming to terms with mortality in an affirming but substantially different way than in Slacker, where at the finale the gyrating, handheld point of view of fun-loving youth displaces the constricted space inside the car of a psychotic death-monger. When Linklater interjects with the notion that waking up from dream-death involves self-awareness of the moment, the instant as eternity, he references the power of cinematographic illusion and the aesthetic strategy of his own film. And he also hints at what was earlier suggested in Waking Life as the key to self-awareness: the realization of being a character in someone else’s dream. At the end, Wiggins—perhaps waking up for real this time or perhaps going through another false awakening—repeats the dream of the boy from the opening moments, this time floating to the sky. We have no idea where he’s headed or even who he is, but Otto Hofmann’s words from earlier in the film rightfully come to mind: “Once having said yes to the instant, the affirmation is contagious. It bursts into a chain of affirmations that knows no limit. To say yes to one instant is to say yes to all of existence . . .” Waking Life is such an affirmation, no more so than in this final floating voyage to infinity. Bazin has been given a new life—animated—yet again.