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Waking Life and the Philosophy of Dreams and Film



Waking Life poster

“Dream is destiny,” says a little girl, in the opening scene of the groundbreaking and fascinating movie, Waking Life. Written and directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2001, this experimental movie is philosophical and surreal, as it dances from one scene to the next; one character to the next. Most of the characters don’t even have names, and the places are random and melt from one to another.

Even the main character (played by Wiley Wiggins from Dazed and Confused) lacks a name, though he is one of the few consistent characters throughout the movie, tying each disjointed scene together in his search to know whether he is dreaming, and how to wake up. He seems about the right age as to when most of us start exploring these existential ideas, somewhere between naive teenage years, and monotonous adulthood. The idea behind this unique and ambitious film was inspired by Linklater’s own experiences with lucid dreaming as a teenager, when he would confuse dreams and reality, thinking he’d woken up as he wandered around in another Inception-like layer of a dream.

When Linklater made this movie, he was in a career slump, and had very little available on a budget. In light of his situation, Linklater decided to do something that the movie itself talks about and go for his dream – that is, his ideal goal for a movie. He was oriented towards something different, experimental, and a far cry from the typical Hollywood plot formula. That ambition would later come to define his career with the movie Boyhood

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, which is now considered one of the greatest films ever made. During production of Waking Life, Linklater would get so wrapped up in the project that he began to lucid dream again, which aided his creativity. “I was living it twenty-four-seven,” he told Texas Monthly in an interview. “I’d be floating along, realize I was in a dream, then start to think, ‘What’s the right angle?’ I’d be taking down details to use in filming. Even some of the conversations in the movie grew out of my dreams.” Waking Life still has an impact on him to this day, influencing his subsequent movies, especially his most recent one, Apollo 10 1/2.

Waking Life itself feels like experiencing a dream, perhaps even Linklater’s own dream, since it features both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy seeming to reprise their roles from a previous Linklater film. It’s unclear if the actors throughout the movie are playing themselves, or characters, or a bit of both. The dream-like effect is communicated perfectly with the engaging use of rotoscope animation over-laid on top of real-life shots, varying in style and colors, accompanied by flighty, philosophical conversations about God, free will, and the nature of reality. The word “animate” even means to bring something to life, and that’s what Linklater does with these ideas. “I see this as a realistic film about an unreality,” Linklater said in an interview with Wired. “The gestures, the sound, the human expressions all seem real, but this reality is then re-interpreted artistically. It becomes a kind of moving painting.”

The film also has an odd feeling of disquiet that moves parallel to a reassuring optimism which Linklater adds to the film, as it builds towards its end, which is left open to the interpretation of the viewer. The points being made may sometimes feel as if they aren’t connected, but Linklater’s vision for the film was building in his mind for years, and has a beautiful consistency that points to a kind of motivating hope amid despair which invites us to bring ourselves back into the present moment, no matter where that may be or what it may look like, whether it’s a dream or not. Here are some of the themes running within the metaphysical journey through Waking Life.

Per the title itself, Waking Life explores the nature of dreaming – both the phenomenon most people experience during sleep, and the dreams and ambitions we carry throughout our lives. The film itself is an endless series of dreams that the main character, Wiley, is having, which he can’t wake up from. Many of the scene changes show him awakening, only to realize he is simply in another dream again. He grows increasingly anxious to wake up, and the metaphor seems pretty clear when a guy at a pinball machine, played by Linklater himself, appears in the film. After some conversation between them, during which Wiley recognizes Linklater from an earlier scene, he finally tells the pinball player that he has been stuck in these dreams for a while and asks, “How do you really wake up?” “I don’t know,” Linklater replies. “But… if you can wake up, you should, because you know someday… you won’t be able to.” He seems to be saying that if we don’t take the time to wake ourselves up in our lives, we may eventually become stuck in an incurable unawareness of what is going on around us.

The movie is also about the nature of dreams – as in, our goals, our aspirations, the things we daydream of, long for, or strive towards. This movie itself is a kind of dream project of Linklater’s; not just to work on movies, but to make the kind of introspective, unique, and compelling films that can have an impact on our lives. As one character puts it while strumming on a ukulele, “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.” And perhaps the only way we can do that is to wake up to our reality, instead of sleep-walking through our lives.