Revisited: Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’

Waking Life, Richard Linklater
American director Richard Linklater is riding a wave of critical praise after the release of his latest flick Boyhood, which follows a boy from childhood to adolescence filmed over 12 consecutive years. Here, Charmaine Li takes a look back at the dreamy cinescapes of “Waking Life” (2001) – another film lauded for its style and technique.
Directed by Richard Linklater, 101 minutes.

The opening shot in Waking Life, Linklater’s first animated drama film, is of a young girl holding out a haphazardly-made paper fortune teller. “Pick a colour,” she says to a boy curiously gazing at her. He chooses and the girl uncannily reveals his fortune: “Dream is destiny.”

Waking Life follows a peripatetic young man – played by Wiley Wiggins – as he floats through a number of random conversations, speculations and rants on freedom, dreams and death. This is a film more explicitly immersed in topics of intellectual discourse than your average film and each person attempting to explain their view is brimming with loquacity and energy – perhaps inebriated by their own ideas.

Linklater’s no stranger to pushing cinematic boundaries and Waking Life, at the time of release, was much-lauded for its technological coup. First filmed with flesh-and-blood actors, the American director then worked with a team of animation artists to stylize and enhance each sequence with a technique based on rotoscoping. The result is a wispy, impressionistic atmosphere, gently drifting and disorienting, clearly a mirror to the mind-set of the unnamed protagonist, who wanders from one person and state of consciousness to another.

The trick, and this goes for the audience as well as the protagonist, is to “combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams” or so our man is told by a ukulele player in denim overalls. “‘Cause if you can do that you can do anything.”


So it may be, but while the movie ebbs and flows from scene to scene, the audience gets the sense that the film’s hero is gleaning glimmers of insight from each encounter without ever arriving at any definitive understanding.

In this way, Waking Life is similar to Boyhood (2014) – in both films, Linklater focuses on elements of rapture, transient emotions and the ever-shifting dynamics between individuals rather than on any particular message.

Waking Life features a non-narrative structure complementing, on one hand, the nature of dreams and, on the other, the worldviews of several characters in the movie who are passionately opposed to submitting to social narratives.

Breaking up these encounters, we see the young man experience several false awakenings and an existential crisis. After continuously waking up into yet another dream, he becomes increasingly frustrated and begins to seek ways to escape this state by speaking openly about it to the dream characters. One of these characters, a man with scraggly hair donning a leather jacket, begins babbling to the protagonist about lucid dreaming – the phenomenon of being aware that you’re dreaming – and the ability to control the direction of dreams. This is the audience’s payoff –the structure makes more sense.


In another scene, the young man stumbles across a spirited young woman and asks her what it’s like to be in a dream. She doesn’t properly answer his question:

“We seem to think we’re so limited by the world and the confines, but we’re really just creating them. You keep trying to figure it out, but it seems like now that you know that what you’re doing is dreaming, you can do whatever you want to. You’re dreaming, but you’re awake. You have so many options, and that’s what life is about.”

“Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. It’s up to me. I’m the dreamer.”

In a section of “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1899), Freud talks about the relationship between dreams and waking life. He tells us that dreams borrow material from our waking experiences, which we often don’t recognize or take on board while we’re awake. This material, “composing the content of the dream, derives in some way from our experience, and so is reproduced, remembered, in the dream.” Tie this into Waking Life and we see something cyclical emerging, so that our protagonist’s dreams reflect the questions he has about life whilst awake – he just might not know about it.

At the end of the film, we see Linklater himself, intently playing a pinball machine. After listening to him recall a life-altering dream he once had, the protagonist –still trapped in the dream – probes this character (in reality the architect of all the dreams), on how to “really wake up”. The response? “…it’s easy, you know. Just, wake up.” And the protagonist does, for real this time, or so we think…

Waking Life leaves the audience in that uniquely morning kind of daze, questions about last night’s dreams resounding. In this case, the questions tackle free will, the meaning of life, language, dreaming – have we reversed Freud? Are the dreams we’ve seen informing our waking experiences? One answer we have is that, ultimately, Waking Life instils a suspended sense of wonderment at the vast intricacies of the human experience.

Charmaine Li
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