Richard Linklater: ‘Waking Life’

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) is, even for such an unusual director, an unusual film. From the very beginning, the bizarre ‘Rotoscope’ animation technique, (also used in A Scanner Darkly, 2006) jars the viewer, challenging us to take on the tension between the cartoon fabric of fantasy and the apparently ‘live action’ movements and articulations of the actors behind the art. The technique prepares us for the philosophical thesis to come: this is a challenge to our regular experience of film, asking us to ‘combine [our] rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of [our] dreams.’ Waking Life is our inception (yes, recently-hyped film reference intended) into the dream-world conceived of by Linklater. However, while the film is an expression of a personal philosophy, its diversity and breadth of material make it sing: interweaving the voices of Linklater’s friends and influences, like the strange chamber music that links one scene to another.

The film follows a central character, a young man who is only referred to as a ‘dreamer’ (Wiley Wiggins), as he travels through various levels of dream experience. Each of the short scenes introduces ideas and concepts, quickly building up a density of thought which tells you that you’re going to want to watch this film a few times through. Yet, you’re in for the ride already, and the whole journey is essential to the understanding of the film: watching a scene in isolation on YouTube does not do justice to any of the ideas presented. The recommended experience, then, is to – in the words of the film – ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…’. Concepts crystalise and resonate, with different ideas rising to the surface with successive viewings. You get the impression that the sheer density of thought presented allows for a selective, open experience that is less possible in films with more traditional narrative investment.

I first watched this film in my undergraduate years, and then revisited it in several viewings a year or so ago. On the more recent viewings, I was reading Sartre, and Robert C. Solomon’s conversation with ‘the dreamer’ about the importance of Existentialist thought in our contemporary culture struck a chord. ‘Your life is yours to create’, he concludes, and Waking Life gives an inspiring presentation for what’s possible with that freedom. Among others, a virtuouso performance by the poet Timothy “Speed” Levitch provides some of the best lines of the film, while illustrating a ‘poetry of the immediate’:

“But didn’t I mention the ongoing ‘wow’ is happening right now?”

“This entire thing we’re involved with called the world, is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be.
Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments, flabbergasted to be in each other’s presence.
The world is an exam to see if we can rise into direct experience.
Our eyesight is here as a test to see if we can see beyond it. Matter is here as a test for our curiosity. Doubt is here as an exam for our vitality.”

“An assumption develops that you cannot understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely.
Which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say that life understood is life lived.
But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me.
And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.
Before you drift off, don’t forget. Which is to say, remember.
Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting.”


Scenes like this one are filmic scripture, providing an extraordinary density of provocation in the screenplay, which, when combined with the visual presentation, approaches ecstasy.

Although this film has been loved by everyone I’ve ever spoken to about it, I can’t help but think it had an especially lasting impression on me. For weeks after viewing both times, I renewed my explorations of the dream world, fascinated by the possibilities of lucidity as a way to explore the hitherto-locked territories of my psyche. Although I haven’t yet learned to retain my consciousness while crossing the threshold into dreaming, perhaps one day I’ll get there. Dreaming isn’t only a sleep-based activity, anyway. Because of my upbringing, where the power of imagination and story was always emphasised, Waking Life reminded me of the extraordinary creative potential of the mind, when left to play. Dreams are just such a playground, where we have nowhere else to be. The mind is safe in this time, to explore and build. Other ‘safe’ places for creativity include quiet moments when you can look out of a window, time spent pegging out laundry or on long walks. To enter these psychic ‘spaces’ is to experience the limitless freedom that is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

As the film goes on, however, it becomes clear that Linklater’s creation has an explicit interest in the very tangible – and, by comparison, dangerous – idea of revolution, as stated by the Situationists. Young men march the streets, angry men shout through megaphones from moving cars, or set themselves alight in protest. Although the mind can create worlds in dream, fantasy or film, ‘the dreamer’ is finally left wanting to wake up. Only in the titular ‘waking life’ can he apply these powers to the social sphere. In this determination, how does Linklater’s film speak to me? As someone who grew up as a member of the LDS Church, I was taught to believe in visions: but not the visions of anchorites or hermits. Joseph Smith’s vision was recorded in its various forms as a justification for a bold, material enterprise that sought to change the world. The young boy’s dream was to bring the angels of the Bible into physical proximity (yes, spirit, we learn, is matter) to the people around him.

In this sense, Joseph Smith was a precursor to Linklater’s ‘dreamer’, for me. He’s a man who lived – as much as anyone else I can think of – the miracle of connection between the immaterial and the material. The revelations he received were always concerned with making the unseen, seen, and adding layers of spiritual significance to the landscape that surrounded him. If I can learn to do the same, I’ll have learned to bridge the gap that yearns from my genetics: the essence of my creative humanity.

Sounds like something worth trying? If you haven’t already, watch the film: it’s a trip.

For an extended analysis and breakdown of the 34 scenes, check out Doug Mann’s excellent online essay here.

NEXT WEEK: We’ll explore the radical cinematic method of the German-born auteur Werner Herzog, focussing on his equally profound and disturbing ‘Grizzly Man’ (2005). Please – rent a copy and take part in the discussion!