July 10, 2019KR BlogBlog

“Slightly Wavy Due to Being Out of Tune”: On Richard Linklater’s Waking Life

“Waking Life” (2001) was written and directed by Richard Linklater, who caught the eye of critics with his 1991 film, “Slacker.” The film’s title comes from the George Santayana maxim: “Sanity is a madness put to good use; waking life is a dream controlled.” The film’s mind-blowing aesthetic is achieved through digital rotoscoping and animation.

It was shot on digital film, and then drawn over by different animators, who each created their own section of the film’s protean dreamscape. Linklater’s experiment was a success, winning the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Experimental Film, the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Animated Film, and the Venice Film Festival CinemAvvenire award for Best Film.

At first glance, “Waking Life” can seem like just another pseudo-philosophical art film. The mention of the film often elicits groans of pain, but also looks of complicit awe. The first time I saw it, I could see that it was an astounding intellectual and creative achievement, but I couldn’t get past what I perceived to be its affectation.  However, upon second viewing, a strange thing occurred: I was lured into the film’s peculiar world.

The film is comprised of a series of surreal vignettes that are all part of its nameless protagonist’s dream journey.  The film opens on two children playing with an Origami fortune-teller that yields the phrase: “Dream is destiny.” The main character exists in a dream state from which he can’t seem to awaken. In dream travel, he understands things beyond his normal comprehension in waking life.  Like a visit to the underworld, he meets various explorers of the dream realm who share their wisdom; they impart the knowledge that many people think themselves awake while they are, in fact, sleepwalking through their waking life or wake-walking through their sleep.

While suspended in this liminal space, a series of intellectuals expound upon theories that are at once enlightening and befuddling. The philosophy appears daunting, but is actually quite accessible.  Enjoying the film is by no means dependent on understanding these lectures.  They are just one more layer of the film’s experience.

The film’s playfulness lessens the gravity of its scholarly rants. The speakers’ theories become animations that literally float and take form above their heads. Perhaps the greatest moment of comic self-awareness comes when a girl asks a furiously-writing boy what his story is about, and he responds: “There’s no story.  People, gestures, moments, bits of rapture, fleeting emotion, in short, the greatest story ever told,” and then emits a gross giggle.

There is a good deal of sweeping intellectual discursiveness, but there are also small, personal moments between friends, such as the scene in which two women discuss the belief they once had that everything would become certain in their lives. The conversation may be highbrow, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t overhear in a coffee shop. Enjoyment of the movie depends on whether you would want to be in that coffee shop.

The film offers a vibrant aesthetic experience with moments of breathtaking beauty. The animation of the women’s hair is particularly lovely: the colored streaks undulate like snakes, periodically escaping to drift around their faces. The affecting musical score (performed by Glover Hill and the Tosca Tango Orchestra) works perfectly with the film’s configuration.

In order to appreciate the film, we must enter its unique atmosphere; once inside, it is drugged-out and trip-heavy, a breathtakingly beautiful hallucination. Even the animated lines vacillate between varying degrees of realism, causing the viewer’s reality to feel similarly variable. When one of the dream characters points out that his guitar playing is “slightly wavy due to being out of tune,” he’s right, but therein lies the power of the film.

Constantly bombarded with stimulus yet always feeling isolated, the protagonist is a victim of the modern paradox. Flipping through television channels in the classic insomniac infomercial-cruise, he is bombarded by media culture, but still very much alone.  When he bumps into his love interest, she asks him, “Can we do that again? I don’t want to be an ant.” She craves the kind of real human moment that has become all too rare.

At the end of the film, a character (played by Linklater) claims that time is just God inviting people to be one with eternity; he says that the whole narration of a person’s life is moving from “no” to “yes” in reference to that invitation. As Linklater’s protagonist journeys through a host of dream modes as diverse as the ideas of its dream people, he has to face the difficult questions: Am I dreaming? Am I truly living? Am I dead?

What changed my mind about “Waking Life” was the realization that the film’s complexity is paradoxical.  It stretches the mind to the maximum degree of knowing, at which point it spills over into the realms of Zen-like emptiness. The film’s fundamental messages possess an enlightened simplicity, such as the concept that regardless of how we categorize our experience, (i.e. nihilism or dream) it is ours to create. Linklater’s vision is exceptional in that it weaves a complex framework of meaning just to alight on one sweet, human truth: that connecting with people, however fleetingly, is what people truly live for.