Waking Life review: A walkabout set in one man's dreamscape

Last Updated: Tue, May 14, 2019 13:56 hrs

'Waking Life', a 2001 film by Richard Linklater, created by a synthesis of actors and animation and deals with existentialism, lucid dreaming, the nature of language, among other things. A review by Prathmesh Kher

"The worst mistake that you can make is to think you're alive when really you're asleep in life's waiting room," singer and songwriter Guy Forsyth says in Richard Linklater's ‘Waking Life’, an animated story about a man who finds himself trapped in a state of dreaming.

The movie’s protagonist – unnamed and credited only as ‘Main Character’ is played by Wiley Wiggins - first seen on a train. He calls a friend he was hoping would give him a ride, briefly makes eye contact with a woman who will pop up later, and then ends up getting a ride from a man driving a boat, who drops him off in a random location where he ends up being hit by a car. Or does he? How much of ‘Waking Life’ is a dreamworld is up for debate.

The nameless personage passes through a persistent lucid dream-like state which he initially observes and later participates in. It’s not really a concern as to which parts are realities and which are not. The point really is to immerse oneself into ideas and to revel in the experience (oh and there is a monkey handling a movie projector too!)

Linklater, know more for his intellectually romantic 'Before' trilogy (stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy make a cameo in this movie as well) and the intimately grand 'Boyhood', is at his most liberated in ‘Waking Life’. Subjects that form the conceptual fodder for his cinematic opus such as the nature of time and of identity, a striving for being, of dreams and their concomitant affect on one’s reality are all hashed out in ‘Waking Life’ in their most conversational form.

The various characters who talk to the Everyman protagonist tell him not to submit to dehumanisation, structural boredom, enslavements to corporate or states, fear, or revenge. Other players encourage him to cherish real dialogue with those around (“When we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion.”), to shun negativity (“The quest to be liberated from the negative, which is really our own will to nothingness.”), to celebrate the present (“The ongoing WOW! Is happening right now.”), and to always stay alert.

Waking Life is animated, but not in vein of a Disney or Pixar feature. Linklater employs rotoscoping, having shot the entire movie in live action, and then digitised the material, following which his animators went to work using the footage as reference.

Under Linklater’s direction the film witnesses a series of conversations, arguments, rants, soliloquies and suppositions, and then animated their film using to create a shimmering, pulsating life on the screen: This movie seems alive, seems vibrating with urgency and excitement.

The final result looks desultory and dreamy, with images veering from extremely detailed to impressively crude. Depending on the mental state of the protagonist, the backgrounds frequently waver.

The movie is like a shower of ideas and having seen it the audience will feel cleansed; ennui and indifference will seem washed away.

The movies conversation are passionate and just the sort you’d have had as students. But adulthood often brings with it a tyranny of the mundane. Questions like "What is life? What is my purpose?” mutate into questions like "How much do I make? How do I make more?" The latter are undoubtedly questions important for living, but the former are essential for life.

By the end, this perpetual dream begins to shift on the brink of a nightmare. An indication that one is dreaming, the protagonist is informed, is an inability to adjust light levels. "If the lights are on and you can't turn them off, then most likely you're dreaming." Upon exiting the room, the protagonist flicks the switch himself, just to be sure. And here is when the movie turns the conception on itself.

All of the existential crises, the film theory, and the genius of conversation are wasted if one cannot wake up to put it in practice. This dilemma is engaged with through a gang of intellectuals who roam the streets, spouting philosophical one-liners. They see an old man who was on a telephone pole for no apparent reason. One of the gang comments “he’s no worse than us; he’s all action and no theory, and we’re all theory and no action.”

Waking life is an indie movie for thoughtful individuals created by thoughtful individuals. And at its heart perhaps is a intellection encapsulated in this famed nursery rhyme.

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

This review is the first in a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.