Drew lives in Washington, D.C. and works as an editor. He is a baseball fan (go Angels!) and likes to read, watch movies and run.
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The film opens with a young boy getting his fortune read by a girl: “Dream is destiny.” Richard Linklater’s 2001 film, Waking Life, which he wrote and directed, seeks to explore this possible connection over its 101-minute runtime, and suggests that to contemplate ideas greater than yourself — dreams, reality, your own purpose — you must suspend your beliefs for its duration and allow time for the film’s thoughts to develop. As in a real train of thought, ideas form, develop rapidly and suddenly collapse when thinking them through. A new thought takes its place; in a minute, it’s gone. This is the nature of leisurely thought, and with patience applied, it is the greatest fertilizer for creativity. Artists such as William Blake and Walt Whitman have put to paper their belief in the power of letting the mind wander, and Linklater here captures the nature of meandering introspection in a piece that deals directly with the human purpose, the nature and utility of dreams, and the quest for meaning.
Rotoscoping the whole film (as he would later do in his 2006 Philip K. Dick adaptation, A Scanner Darkly), Linklater’s intent here was to establish a surrealist environment in which the main character, an unnamed protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins, could float from dream to dream, none with a beginning nor end but feeling natural the whole time. Each sequence features a new character talking to Wiggins about some aspect of the nature of humanity, reality, purpose. In one piece, Wiggins is sitting at a cafe table, listening as an academic type says the distance of intelligence between Socrates and the modern man is greater than that between a modern man and an intelligent chimp. Each of these dream sequences bleeds easily into another, forming a receptive stream of ideas, much like a river flowing into an ocean.
Occasionally, we break from Wiggins into alternate possible dreams. A man, literally red, paces in his prison cell and rants about what he will do to the guards and warden when he’s released. Four college-aged men walk the streets, calling for action but mumbling their revolution to themselves. After seeing an old man sitting up on a pole, one of the four says, “He’s all action and no talk; we’re all talk and no action.” Perhaps this is the purpose of dreams: to explore the ideas we cannot act on in life.
But who are we to say that what happens in dreams is not real? The film doesn’t shy from raising the question of whether or not what we experience is, in fact, real. A man in a lounge informs Wiggins that the only ways to tell if you’re in a dream are that you can’t turn lights on or off and can’t read the numbers on a clock. Wiggins is told this when he believes himself awake, but when he goes to leave, he can’t turn off the overhead lamp.
Neither can he truly wake up. He opens his eyes in bed on multiple occasions, called “false awakenings,” but he can never read the clock. To make matters more uncertain, Linklater himself, near the end, tells Wiggins about an experience Philip K. Dick had when writing an essay detailing how he had lived out the events in the opening scenes of one of his novels. Afterward, Dick had gone to a priest about his experience and was told that these events had occurred in the Book of Acts. Dick, the priest’s reasoning went, had punctured through time and space to channel Acts. Could life itself be in a cycle of reincarnation? Does reality work in repeating cycles? These questions are likely impossible to answer but interesting to contemplate nonetheless.
For exploring such heady topics as the nature of reality, the film takes a fairly traditional approach to its biggest questions: How does one live a fulfilling life? What happens when we die? To the former, a woman in a coffee shop in one of the dream tangents says, “That’s what I love most: connecting with the people. Looking back, that’s all that really mattered.” And this is backed up by science. Humans are social creatures; when deprived of human interaction, we become reclusive, sullen, indifferent. To the latter, the answer is much more ambiguous. Linklater tells Wiggins a story about one of his own dreams, in which he encountered the Lady Gregory, who said, “There’s only one time, and it’s this moment, and it’s God posing a question: Do you want to be one with eternity?” Life, he then speculates, is your repeated “no” in response to that question until you finally say “yes.”
In an earlier scene, Ethan Hawke (appearing as himself) says the brain survives for six to eight minutes after death, but that each real-life minute can feel like hours. In that period, quite like purgatory, we enter a dream-like state. Even earlier, Wiggins is hit by a car in one of his dreams. Could this be a memory? Could Wiggins be living out his final minutes proceeding from dream to dream, grasping for some final meaning before slipping away? We can only wonder as, in the final scene, he begins to float up into the sky. But instead of holding on to a nearby car door handle to keep himself grounded, he floats up and up until he disappears.
We may never reach a conclusion about the meaning of life, or know the true nature of the afterlife. But by giving time for reincarnation, existentialism, Buddhism and many other metaphysical philosophies, Waking Life allows for a full exploration of life’s possibilities. A weakness of the film is its academic language, which many may find too weighty or confusing. The film is an art-house piece almost strictly in that sense. That there is virtually no plot may also be seen as a detriment, though a film of this nature can be told in almost no other way — at least not satisfactorily. It’s certainly worth a watch if you want to explore what else could be out there — other answers, other questions. Perhaps you’ll realize there’s more to your dreams than you thought.