Approaching Waking Life
Dreaming isn’t dead, it’s been forgotten. No one teaches it, so no one knows it exists. Dreaming has been banished to obscurity.
The Wanderer, Waking Life
Waking Life is a feature film production created by independent filmmaker Richard Linklater in 2000. Live action footage was shot on inexpensive mini DV cameras, then rotoscoped – an almost century old process in which animators trace over the live action to create unusually lifelike motion, which becomes the basis for further creative enhancement.
It is a complex film. A single approach toward understanding the various layers of its message would not be adequate. Of the various paths of analysis we discussed in Art Silverblatt’s seminar Approaches To Media Literacy, three provide valuable keys to understanding the film – ideological, autobiographical, and analysis of production values. Their value is multiplied when combined for a broader analysis.
Interestingly, the ideological approach reveals that Waking Life does not present an ideology of its own; instead, it peels off the layers of our society’s beliefs about reality. It offers perspectives we may use to set our minds free (or, at least, freer) - to play with ideas and reassemble a worldview that works for us individually. Still, an understanding of the film through an ideological approach is useful, because it allows us to see how the film interacts with our most basic cultural assumptions about what is real and what is not.
Understanding Waking Life is impossible without close examination of its production techniques. They save it from succumbing to an insufferably long, rambling series of lectures. Animation over live action allows the images to serve up parallel, non-verbal story lines – creating a compelling tension that energizes the narrative tale.
The film offers rich possibilities as well for autobiographical approaches. We all share the experiences of dreams and waking life, which we, as viewers, may apply to our understanding of this strange film. In fact, the essentially disconnected structure and weak plot line of Waking Life encourages individuals to pick the elements most relevant to their own experiences and create their own world views.
Ideology. Production. Autobiography. Okay, let’s do some hopping around among these methodical approaches to see if we can understand how Waking Life works as a film.
About as much plot as your average dream
Actually, there’s only One Instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant, in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, “Do you wanna be one with eternity, do you want to be in heaven?” And we’re all saying, “Nooo, thank you, not just yet.” And so time is actually just this constant saying, “No” to God’s invitation.
Richard Linklater (as an animated character), Waking Life
There is some plot. It is an intentionally thin soup. We meet a character – a young man - who drifts through conversations, monologues, rantings and musings of more than fifty different characters – academics, scientists, street philosophers, people with unique views on life, characters on television, figures from dreams, a prisoner, a hobo, an alien, a chimp.
At several points throughout the film our character (who, we learn, doesn’t know his own name or address) seems to awaken, only to discover that he is about to enter yet another level of dreaming.
In time he wonders if he is trapped in a dream world. He grows afraid that his dreams are the consciousness of death. Viewers are introduced to the prospect that the lives we think we know are the neural firings of our minds in the minutes after our physical deaths.
As our protagonist shares his fears with dream companions, other questions arise, particularly about the nature of time. If time is different in dreams than in waking moments, is it possible that time does not exist as we assume? Or that it does not exist at all? Is it possible that there is only One Instant – a point in which everything exists? Is it possible that this Instant is an invitation from God to be a part of everything – to participate in eternity?
This is a lot for a cartoon.
A different world
The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Cuz if you can do that, then you can do anything.
Ukulele Player, Waking Life
If plot is an intentionally weak production element in Waking Life, it is the animation techniques that save the films from its own sins - the greatest being exposition, an avowed enemy of cinema.
Exposition is talking. It’s deadly, unless it is accompanied by action. And most of the talking in this feature doesn’t involve much action. It’s people in offices, bars, rooms, the street. Talking.
Animation here plays the same function as the stuff in Alice’s bottle when she tries to make sense of the world she discovers Behind the Looking Glass. If Waking Life is going to put us in a frame of mind that is responsive to an hour and a half of this much exposition (some of it almost incomprehensible by pretty smart people, even after multiple viewings), it has to jerk us out of the waking world we left before we entered the movie theater or put the DVD in the machine.
Animation does the trick.
The technique of rotoscoping retains the natural motion and rhythm of the everyday waking world, including the details of facial expressions and minute hand and body movements. By animating on top of live action, artists create a tension between real life (if life recorded on video can be called real) and art. In Waking Life, that tension creates a dreamlike effect. We recognize that these images resemble what we see in our dreams – real enough to confuse us just enough to let us imagine we are in the world of dreams.
Linklater employed over 30 animators, each with an individual style. He combined their renderings - even within scenes - so there is an artful confusion of visual depictions of reality. It communicates a sense of the nonsense we experience – and accept – in our dream states. Some of the animation closely resembles “real life” images. Others are more or less cartoon-like.
To further relieve the predictability of exposition, special animation effects enhance scenes. When a scientist talks about the random nature of submicroscopic particles, we see molecules behind him wearing tiny Moolah fezzes and driving little cars. A fish with legs walks around in an aquarium as a man discusses evolution. Two men attempting to have a “holy moment” of intense awareness turn into masses of clouds.
It is an environment represented as how it feels rather than how it actually looks. Objects float on different planes, as if there is no fixed connection between a table and the floor, the walls, and the people in a room. Eyes bulge, mouths float from their positions on faces. Shapes of faces change, as if they are water balloons. Hair has a life of its own, curling, twisting, and flowing. Jump cuts, suggesting lost frames or lost time, introduce an element of film that reminds us to assume nothing when it comes to reality.
There are usually no clear visual transitions from one scene to another. Sometimes the main character floats to a new location. Often, people and places simply appear, as they tend to do in dreams.
Between many of the scenes though there is a connective tissue of music provided by a piano, a string trio and an accordion. We actually see the animated players rehearsing at the beginning of the film and playing for dancers near the end. Usually they play a tango - a dance. Not inappropriate for a film in which reality and illusion do the tango.
All these elements combine to form the strange landscapes we recognize in our own dream worlds, allowing us to suspend disbelief long enough to be open to the random collection of ideas expressed by the characters.
To say yes to one instant is to say yes to all existence.
Professor, Waking Life
If Waking Life contains a point of view, it would lie deeply buried somewhere beneath its obvious lack of a point of view. By presenting such a rich smorgasbord of ideas, the overall message is, learn as much as you can and develop your own point of view. Some of the leading ideas of eastern and western thought (along with some charmingly off the chart amateur philosophies) are presented as if they are the contents of a tinker toy collection spilled out on the floor that we can use to build our own world. The main character himself exists in a dream world of his own creation.
The film avoids a stand on the ancient argument of free will. It renders it obsolete. Or irrelevant. Whether we have control over our destinies is not the right question. In the opening scene the main character, as a child, is informed that Dream Is Destiny. Throughout the rest of his life in the film he creates his own world through dream. But that is still not free will, since he is not free to awaken, not even free to know if he is alive or dead. He wonders if he can even escape what might be an eternity of his own dreams.
As his confusion over his condition grows, he receives messages even as he channel surfs. A woman from the land of cable asks if, since philosophers throughout the centuries have postulated the theory that life is wrapped in dreams…
…doesn’t it make sense that death too would be wrapped in dream, that after death your consciousness life would continue in what might be called a dream body? It would be the same dream body that you experience in your everyday dream life, except that in the post mortal state, you could never again wake up. Never again return to your physical body.
So, viewers are left with a sense that the boundaries between the waking world and the dream world are more permeable than we imagine. Also between life and death. After death, the consciousness mind might still be capable of creating an entire life through dream. Our lives might be dreams. We might be characters in other people’s dreams.
Throughout the film subtle visual elements lend non-verbal suggestions that the world of life, death and dreams are more parallel than we often think. Even before characters actually talk about death, animated symbols of death appear on the screen. Between the moment in the opening scene when the main character sees the words Dreams are Destiny and the moment that he floats into the sky to begin his journey, he watches with apprehension as a comet passes overhead. Trains, identified by Freud as a symbol of death, play a role in the film. In several transitional scenes the protagonist passively looks out a train window as he is transported from one illusion to another. Shortly before he is hit by a dream car, he rides through the streets of Austin in an odd combination of an automobile and a boat. On the bow of the vehicle flies a tattered Jolly Roger. In one of the last scenes, director Richard Linklater appears as an animated character, playing pinball and talking about dreams in which he visits the world of the dead.
The disconnected construction of the film also sets the stage for the investigation of the nature of time. Waking Life sets up viewers to question whether time and history are truly the forward-flowing, linear progression of events that we commonly believe them to be. Certain characters introduce the possibility that time only exists as an illusion and that perhaps there is only One Instant, in which the entire universe exists in eternity. To say yes or to accept that Instant is to become one with everything.
But does all this constitute an ideology? Probably not any more than a liberal arts education is an ideology. The question misses the point. If Waking Life were to advocate a worldview, an ideology or a philosophy, it would abandon its primary function of questioning the nature of reality to assume the role of setting up its own POV. At the end of this film we wonder. We’re confused. We think we’d like to see it again to pick up the parts we didn’t quite get the first time.
Woman: What is the story?
Writing Man: There is no story, just people, gestures, moments, bits of rapture, fleeting emotions. In short, the greatest stories ever told.
Woman: Are you in the story?
Writing Man: I don’t think so. I’m sort of reading it, then writing it.
What production could possibly lend itself more conveniently to an autobiographical approach than one inviting viewers to pick and choose among a huge variety of ideas and integrate them into their own understanding of consciousness?
Every viewer is likely to come away from Waking Life with a different understanding of the film. Every viewer approaches the film with a different set of experiences. And yet these highly personal experiences of consciousness are similar enough that we can all relate to some common themes.
We all dream. Our dreams tend to reveal themselves in non-rational environments, dreamscapes that refer to the waking world but are very different. Part of the human experience is to wonder when we dream if we are awake or asleep. Some dreams feel so real that we wonder if they truly are dreams, or if we have briefly passed though some membrane of awareness. Sometimes we wonder in our waking hours if we are dreaming. Some dreams become a part of our memories, and it’s hard to remember if they really occurred or if they were only dreams. It is not uncommon for people in their waking or dreaming states to believe that they have been visited by the dead.
So if a dream can be as real as an event in a waking moment, or a waking moment so strange that we wonder if we are dreaming, how do we determine that one is more real than the other, when after all is over and done both end up confined to the realm of memory?
Anyone who has experimented with a psychedelic drug will recognize in Waking Life the non-rational environment in which events occur spontaneously beyond any context and where people and objects vibrate as if they contain their own sources of energy. Certain moments are heavy with intensity. We accept the inexplicable and embrace the absurd.
Those who have no experience with hallucinations might relate to the film’s series of conversations by comparing them to the experience of the all night dorm room discussions about life, death, truth and illusion (usually during one’s first exposure to Philosophy 101).
Since there is an endless number of potential explorers, there are infinite possibilities of exploring the levels of meaning in Waking Life through the autobiographical approach – comparing one’s own experiences in wakefulness and sleep with the inherent messages contained in the film’s vignettes.
Waking Life is the product of a marriage of philosophy and technology. By combining a format of talking heads expounding upon ideas with a computer assisted, updated technique of rotoscoping, it gives viewers permission to leave their rational thought processes at the ticket window. This is a place where the questions of Zen masters begin to make sense, the intersection of The Instant and Nirvana.
The film is complex. More than one approach is necessary to understand it. An ideological approach is useful, even though the movie purports no single worldview. Analysis of production techniques offers clues as to how, on a non-verbal level, a parallel experience is created, which makes more than an hour and a half of philosophical exposition not just bearable but entertaining and enlightening. A world of possibilities is open to anyone who is willing to examine his or her own dreamscapes within the context of this film.
The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving. Saves on introductions and goodbyes. The ride does not require an explanation, just occupants.
Boat Man, Waking Life
Where is reality, when our minds interpret pre-recorded images, which are inked and painted over and played at 24 frames a second, representing a series of dreams in the mind of a character who is not certain whether he is awake, asleep, alive or dead?
Probably about as far away – or as close - as we will ever come to it.