Revisiting the trippy, mind-warping dreamscape and its reflections on the human experience
Blending existential philosophy with hallucinogenic visuals, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) is an immersive exploration of human consciousness, meshing dreams with reality and the cerebral with the absurd. Rejecting any coherent narrative, it curates a surrealist landscape where reality is constantly warped into psychedelic abstraction. In Linklater’s words, “a realistic film about an unreality”.
Thematically, Waking Life falls somewhere between Astra Taylor’s stroll through contemporary philosophy, Examined Life (2008) and Charlie Kaufman’s postmodern nightmare, Synecdoche, New York (2008) – intelligent cinema, daring to delve into the recesses of the human mind – sadly a much rarer sight post-economic crisis.
18 years on, we examine the avant-garde sensibility and mind-bending trip of Linklater’s seminal dreamscape, asking what lessons the film can still teach us in our own daunting era of reactionary politics and economic depression.
A HAZY NOSTALGIA
Conversations climax in self-immolation, philosophy professors gesticulate about free will and Friedrich Nietzsche, an eccentric scoots around in an amphibious boat, and far-right conspiracy theory nut Alex Jones – then a relative unknown – gains a demonic red hue as he rants through a loudspeaker on top of his car. We witness these isolated yet seemingly interconnected oddities through the bleary eyes of an unnamed protagonist, played by Wiley Wiggins (Mitch Kramer in 1993’s Dazed and Confused).
A classic Linklaterian antihero – long brown hair, baggy button-downs, aloof charm – his mind is curious and confused. He embodies a naive innocence I think we’re all nostalgic for, something lost in that weird gap between the end of adolescence and the harshness of adulthood. When life was still a dreamy stew of awkwardness, introspection and occasional awe – and we still all had the time to ponder it.
THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT WE ALL NEED
Following the successes of breakout hit Slacker (1990), cult classic Dazed and Confused, and the beautifully minimalist Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater eventually got to shoot the high-budget The Newton Boys (1998). It flopped.
What happened next was kind of miraculous. Art director Bob Sabiston and producer Tommy Pallotta, who worked on Slacker, had been developing a piece of “interpolated rotoscoping” software (basically meaning you could draw over the top of QuickTime files). This interested Linklater and subsequent conversations led to Waking Life – a film crystallised around their disillusionment with Hollywood, and the desire to create nuanced, experimental cinema: something that would come to define his oeuvre.
They quickly got to work, calling on old acquaintances and Austin locals. Pallotta, who earned his philosophy degree there, introduced Linklater to a number of the intellectuals who would serve as impromptu actors. Others he already knew, like philosophers Louis Mackey, who cameos in Slacker, and Robert Solomon, whose existentialism classes Linklater sat in on as a film student.
A local orchestra provides the brooding nuevo tango score, and Austinite favourite Ethan Hawke, along with Julie Delpy, reprise their characters from Before Sunrise – exchanging cute pillow talk about how we’re all living inside a hallucination following the surge of DMT molecules that are released immediately after we die. A one-way ticket to @beam_me_up_softboi these days.
Sabiston’s rotoscoping program was used by 30 Austin-based artists (not computer animators) to paint over the frames in their own style, creating the intense, organic visuals – and this was all done on a shoestring budget, with Apple Macs in Linklater’s office.
The film emerged from an inclusive DIY spirit that we should all draw inspiration from, especially as creative ventures seem harder than ever to realise. Between lazy strums of his ukulele, the musician Guy Forsyth reminds us, “The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because, if you can do that, you can do anything”.
IT ENCOURAGES US TO QUESTION OUR VALUE-SYSTEM
In the era of austerity and unemployment, what has now become important than ever (especially in the creative industries) is how you market yourself. Everything we do has to benefit our career or brand (yikes). But, you just can’t measure the monetary return on a philosophical or artistic education. You can’t quantify how “death is a dream-time that exists outside of life”, as one woman remarks through the crackle of an old television set. And you certainly can’t put that mind-blowing chat you had about the meaning of life – on the banks of the River Amstel, interrailing in 2016, with... Julia? – on your CV.
We’ve shifted our value-system towards instant return. And it’s no surprise that it’s making us unhappy. Speaking with Linklater – hunched over a whirring pinball machine – the protagonist asks how the hell he’s supposed to get out of this “infinite dream”. The director ponders for a moment, “If you can wake up, you should. Because, you know, someday you won’t be able to”. Perhaps what he’s getting at is that, in our normal, non-rotoscoped lives, there'll be a day when we simply stop dreaming. That we need to be careful not to let our busy lives completely engulf our fleeting existence. While we're still able to.
THERE ARE NO CLEAR ANSWERS, BUT THAT’S PROBABLY A GOOD THING
According to Wikipedia, the existentialist’s starting point is characterized by “a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world”. The philosopher Robert Solomon reminds us, during a wobbly walk through campus, “existentialism is often discussed as if it’s a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite… your life is yours to create”.
Through the film’s surreal unravelling and free-spirited production, we see the value in questioning official narratives and structures of belief, but also the inherent vulnerability. Alex Jones transitioned from Linklater’s kooky skeptic to hate-fuelled internet celebrity, on the back of fear and prejudice – something echoed in the Leave campaign and the Trump White House. While we need to question the nature of our lives, we must remain open and listen to the stories of others, from all walks of life – much like the dreamer, who barely speaks for the first half of the film. As Roger Ebert says, “he is overwhelmed until finally he is able to see that the answer is – curiosity itself”.
Honestly, there aren’t really x, y and z things that you can instantly take away from Waking Life. It’s a series of deep, complex, puzzling, conflicted moments, shared between human beings with nothing immediately in common, save for the fact that none of them have made up their mind – and there’s something very beautiful in that.