Waking Life

Gunning swears revenge

USA, 2001. Rated R. 99 minutes. Written and directed by Richard Linklater.

This analysis is divided into an introduction and four parts that may be read independently or sequentially.

  I. The Making of Waking Life
 II. The Play-by-Play
III. What It All Means
IV. Yeah, But Is It Any Good?

Parts II, III, and IV contain spoilers and are intended for people who have already seen the film.


Grade: C Analysis and commentary by Carlo Cavagna

Back to Introduction
Back to Part I

II.  The Play-by-Play: A Scene-by-Scene Walkthrough

The following is a scene-by-scene description of Waking Life. It is intended for use as a reference guide in conjunction with Part III, which analyzes the themes and ideas contained in the film, but may be read for its own sake.

1. A young man (Wiley Wiggins) asleep on a train dreams of a boy (is it him?) and a girl playing with a hand-held paper puzzle that opens to reveal the words, "Dream is destiny." Later, the boy observes a shooting star and floats off the ground, his hand resting for a moment on the door handle of a car.
2. The young man, our unnamed protagonist, arrives at a train station and leaves a message on a friend's answering machine while a mysterious woman watches. He hitches a ride in a car that looks like a boat, whose driver, dressed as a sea captain, tells him, "The ride doesn't require an explanation, only passengers." In the back seat, the other passenger remarks, "There's only one instant, and it's right now, and it's eternity." The young man has no destination in mind, so the other passenger instructs the driver where to drop him off. There, he finds a note in the middle of the street telling him to "look to the right." A vehicle speeds toward him from that direction, but the instant before he is struck, he awakens in bed.
3. After the protagonist has milk and cereal, Waking Life takes its first look at free will. The protagonist visits the University of Texas, where Professor Robert Solomon shows up to repeat something Linklater remembers him saying in a class he once audited. It's an argument that existentialism is not at all a fatalist and depressing philosophy, as it is so often characterized. Solomon notes that Jean Paul Sartre once said in an interview that he never felt a day of despair in his life. Instead Solomon argues that existentialism is hopeful and optimistic and even empowering--though it holds that the universe is absurd and meaningless--because it asserts that we have free will. "Your life is yours to create," says Solomon, criticizing "the postmodernists" for regarding people as purely social constructions. "What you do makes a difference… It's always our decision who we are."
4. Waking Life visits with a woman who discusses language, which she argues was born from our desire to connect meaningfully with one another. This "spiritual communion" is what we live for, but tricky because words mean different things to different people. If she says the word "love" (the word appears above her head) to another person, its meaning to that person is based on all his associations and experiences with love, not hers. "How do we know we're communicating," she asks. "Words are inert--they're dead, you know?"
5. An excited, fast-talking scientist--at least he seems like a scientist--makes a complicated argument that evolution is moving faster and faster, or "telescoping." First came biological evolution, then anthropological evolution. Now we are experiencing a new kind of evolution, which is proceeding on two levels--digital (artificial intelligence) and analog (biotechnology). This will lead to the development of a "neo-human" no longer restricted by time and space. According to him, evolution today has become an "individually centered process," and must feature a voluntary rejection of destructive impulses like violence and war.
6. The protagonist awakens in bed again, and finds that he cannot read his alarm clock. Thus clued in that he's still dreaming, he floats off the bed and finds himself walking down the street with a guy who launches into a speech about how, in the modern world, humans have become passive observers who are drawn to chaos and destruction. We must reclaim significance. Therefore, he says, "I feel that the time has come to project my own inadequacies and dissatisfactions into the sociopolitical and scientific schemes. Let my own lack of a voice be heard!" He achieves this by calmly pouring gasoline over his body and setting himself on fire.

Delpy and Hawke after sunriseWaking Life broaches the subject of dreams and the collective unconscious. The movie floats over to an apartment where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, reprising their characters from Linklater's Before Sunrise, talk in bed after sunrise. Delpy sometimes feels like she's observing her life from the perspective of an old woman--that her waking life is actually that woman's memories. Hawke brings up Timothy Leary, who noted that we continue to have brain activity for six to twelve minutes after death. If hours of dreams can take place between clicks of the snooze button, is it not possible that we could experience our whole lives in those six to twelve minutes? Could that dream be our afterlife, or maybe even our real life?

They discuss reincarnation. Rejecting it on mathematical grounds (if the world population has doubled in the last 40 years, then we cannot all have had past lives), they theorize, "Reincarnation is just a poetic expression of what collective memory really is."

As evidence of the existence of collective memory, Hawke and Delpy discuss how the same results in science and art seem to pop up independently and simultaneously across societies and cultures throughout history. Hawke brings up a study that compared a group's performance on brand-new New York Times crossword puzzles versus ones that were a day old. According to Hawke, people's scores went up dramatically (20%) on the day-old crossword puzzles, which suggests that once thousands of people have done a crossword puzzle, it becomes easier for others, because the knowledge is "out there" in humanity's collective mind.

8. Waking Life's most unsettling scene is that of an enraged prisoner (Charles Gunning, from Linklater's Slacker and The Newton Boys) swearing revenge on the "motherfuckers" who threw him in jail by putting cigars out in their eyes and pouring molten lead up their asses.
9. Here we meet a man who mentions St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In their day, people who doubted free will did so on the grounds that God knows everything in advance. Today, free will is similarly called into question by physical science. Our bodies are mostly water (he says, as the animation shows his body actually filling up with water), and our body's actions are controlled by electrical impulses. (He could also have added that brain chemistry affects our mental states and therefore our decision making.) Is everything we do, he wonders, governed by physical laws at the atomic and subatomic level? Quantum physics, which shows that events at the subatomic level are probabilistic but random, does not offer a solution because we cannot accept that everything we do and are is random any more than we can accept that it's all predetermined. We must find room for individuality, he says, because who we are must be a product of the free choices we make.
10. Next is a half-crazed conspiracy theorist (Alex Jones) in a car screaming about "freedom from systems of control" through a public address system mounted on the roof. Society is based on systems of control, which are all based on fear and dehumanization, and we must not submit to them. There is no difference between Democrats and Republicans, he yells, who lay out the same "buffet of lies."
11. An older man with a white beard argues that our quest is "to be liberated from the negative, which is really our own will to nothingness." He concludes, "To say yes to one instant is to say yes to all of existence."
12. Waking Life returns to the subject of dreams. The protagonist sits with a guy who talks excitedly about how liminal experiences are becoming more common; i.e., experiences that punch through the veil of ordinary perception to…Something (the collective unconscious, the Divine, Enlightenment, or whatever word you wish to use). We are in a radically subjective universe, he says, and each individual act leaves a mark on it.
13. In a café, two women talk about aging. One remarks that when she was younger, she had a desire for certainty in life, a desire to "get there." But the older she gets, the less in a hurry she feels: "While technically I'm closer to the end of my life than I've ever been, I actually feel more than ever that I have all the time in the world." They bring up Benedict Anderson's concept of "imagined communities." Showing a photo of herself as a baby, one woman remarks that we learn and grow over time, and our physical bodies regenerate fully every seven years. To connect herself to this baby, she needs to create a story. Their common identity is only imagined in her mind, and yet that imagined common identity is what has allowed her to remain essentially herself.
14. The next stop is a movie theater with a chimp projectionist. While Akira Kurosawa's Dreams plays on the screen, the chimp reads from some notes. "Our critique began with doubt… Our past appeared frozen in the distance… Art was not the goal but the method to locate our special rhythm…" He then eats the notes.
15. Louis Mackey declares that the gap between Plato and Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between the average human and a chimp. The Greeks were just as advanced as we are, he states, and asks why so many of us don't reach our potential. What is "the most universal human characteristic," he wonders. "Fear, or laziness?"
16. At a bar, a young couple sits at a table, and the man is writing a novel. In response to the woman's query about what he's writing, he says there is no story. There are just "people, gestures, moments, bits of rapture, fleeting emotions . . . In short, the greatest story ever told." He then observes that he's "reading it first," then writing the novel.
17. At the counter in the same bar, a man relates an anecdote to the bartender about how a gun once saved his life, and expresses gratitude for his Constitutional right to bear arms. Then they shoot each other.
18. After the bloodbath, the protagonist wakes up again, or thinks he wakes up. Wanting to tell someone about his strange dream, he calls his friend, who is still not home. Turning on the television, he channel surfs. In between white noise and idiotic drivel, a man peddles enlightenment. On another channel, Professor Mary McBay discusses lucid dreams and dream travel.

Waking Life explains more about lucid dreams. The protagonist finds himself in a large room, where several conversations take place. A woman observes that dreams are real only as long as they last--"couldn't you say the same thing about life?" We believe there is a difference between dreaming and waking states, but our neural activity makes no distinction between dreaming and waking perception. Thus, life is itself a form of dream travel.

A man in overalls strumming a ukulele picks up the train of thought. The worst mistake we can make is to think we are alive, he says, when really we're just asleep in "life's waiting room." The trick is to combine waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of dreams.

Finally, a hefty guy announces that his purpose is to help people become lucid, because "you can have so much damn fun in your dreams," and, of course, "Fun rules!" Everyone is sleepwalking through their waking states or wake-walking through their dreams. You have to realize you're dreaming in order to take control. One tipoff that you're dreaming, he reveals, is to try adjusting light levels, because (for some unknown reason) it is difficult to do in dreams. As he leaves the room, the protagonist flicks the light switch. Nothing happens. He's still dreaming, and floats off.


a holy momentThe protagonist visits another movie theater, where he watches two men discussing film theory onscreen. One of them is filmmaker Caveh Zahedi. He talks about film theorist and critic André Bazin, who believed that film is an inferior narrative medium. Instead, what film does best is capture and reproduce moments of reality. Because Bazin equated reality with God, capturing the reality of a moment means capturing God. Bazin called this a "holy moment." Zahedi also quotes François Truffaut, who commented that the best scripts don't make the best films because if the script is too good, the filmmaker ends up slavishly following it.

The conversation turns to real life, in which every moment is a "holy moment." But, Zahedi remarks, you can't walk around through life being completely open and in the moment all the time. We close ourselves off from the miracle of existence in order to function. In one of Waking Life's funnier moments, the two then decide to have a "holy moment." They stare at each other intently, comment that "everything is layers" (the moment, the awareness of having the moment, etc.), and turn into clouds.

21. Four youths (including Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt) march around the streets shouting things like, "Society is a fraud!" and, "Comfort will never be comfortable if what we seek is not on the market!" We must reject restraints and limitations because the consumer society oppresses more authentic desires, they say. But, after encountering an old guy stuck on top a telephone pole for no apparent reason, they conclude that they're just like him, "all theory and no action." The youths then encounter a "Mr. Debord," who quotes Robert Louis Stevenson: "Suicide carried off many. Drink and the devil took care of the rest."
22-23. As the protagonist walks by a train, a bearded guy jumps out of a box car and asks, "Are you a dreamer?" Though there are not many anymore, he says, he tries to dream every day. "Don't be bored," he advises, because the most exciting time to be alive is right now. Next the protagonist walks with a man who advocates exercising the mind as fully as possible, experiencing all your emotions and memories. But his final departure is scheduled, he says, as his body slowly loses form and disintegrates.
24. Descending into a subway station, the protagonist bumps into a woman. As they move around each other, she asks him to do it again. Comparing society to an ant colony, where the purpose of everything people do is to keep the world buzzing in an efficient manner, she says, "I want to see you and you to see me." The protagonist agrees that he doesn't want to be an ant, and compares their encounter to something D.H. Lawrence once wrote about two people on a road, who instead of just passing each other by, decide to open themselves "to the confrontation of their souls."

The confrontation between their souls occurs at a café. She describes an idea for a soap opera--she wants to do it in front of an audience that can participate and choose what it wants to see. The protagonist asks her what it's like to be a character in his dream. What's remarkable about this dream, he continues, is that he's being exposed to all sorts of information and ideas that he never came up with or read. They must be coming from somewhere external. Where are they coming from? She tells him that he's having a lucid dream, and that he can therefore do whatever he wants--just like in life. He observes that this dream is unlike any other dream. It feels like it's the dream, as if he's being prepared for something.

25. Whatever the protagonist being prepared for, it's probably not hyperactive Timothy "Speed" Levitch, the next stop on the tour. New York City guide Levitch, the subject of the 1998 documentary The Cruise, is still cruising the Brooklyn Bridge. He reiterates the same ideas about participating in life and free will raised by others, but in his own unique way. "The ongoing wow is happening right now!… We are the authors of ourselves… Life is a series of flabbergasting moments… Doubt is an exam for our vitality... Life understood is life lived." Though life is full of paradox, he loves the paradoxes, too. In fact, "on really romantic nights of self," he goes "salsa dancing with his confusion." Levitch also quotes Thomas Mann (who said he'd rather participate in life than write a hundred stories) and Federico García Lorca ("The iguana will bite those who do not dream.")
26-28. The vignettes are shorter and faster now. In a largely red canvas, the protagonist walks with a bald guy through a parking lot who tells him he has not yet met himself. "You only see an image, a mental model of yourself." Then he encounters the woman who watched him in the train station at the beginning of the movie. She leans forward as if to kiss him, and he wakes up in bed. Or not, because he still can't read his alarm clock, which means he's still dreaming. He turns on his television and channel surfs again. Professor Mary McBay talking about lucid dreams again, and eventually the surfing lands him on director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) recounting an anecdote about directors Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) and Louis Malle (Atlantic City, Au revoir les enfants) that makes fun of movies about dreams. According to the story, Wilder once asked Malle what his next movie, budgeted at two and a half million dollars, was about. Malle explained that it's sort of a dream within a dream. "You just lost two and a half million dollars," responded Wilder. Then a passing old man says to the protagonist, "As the pattern gets more intricate and subtle, being swept along is no longer enough."
29. The protagonist next visits the Circle A convenience store, featured in subUrbia. The cashier resembles the captain of the boat-car at the beginning of Waking Life, but he denies being the same guy. He relates an amusing anecdote about his previous customer, to whom he gave a lecture about punching holes in the plastic wrapping of a burrito before microwaving it, because he was tired of cleaning up all the "burrito doings."
30-32. Following the Circle A, the protagonist visits with a woman (Mona Lee, who played Wiggins' mother in Dazed and Confused) in a restaurant booth, who says, "Life was raging all around me and I loved every moment of it… Connecting with the people, that's all the really matters." Then an elderly woman in a garden (Edith Manniz, who is Sabiston and producer Tommy Pallotta's landlady) draws a portrait of the protagonist. Another passerby mutters that Kierkegaard's last words were, "Sweep me up."
33. Things slow down at a music club as Waking Life approaches its conclusion. The musicians from the beginning of the film, who have been playing the soundtrack, perform while couples dance round and round. On the second floor, the protagonist finds Linklater himself (who also plays a passenger in the boat-car in scene 2) at a pinball machine. He tells Linklater about his false awakenings, and with a note of desperation, he says he's starting to think he's dead, in the post-death dream state discussed by Delpy and Hawke. Linklater responds with a long story about noted science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, who once wrote things into a novel, believing them to be pure fiction, only to learn later that they actually happened.

According to Linklater, Dick theorized that time is an illusion and he had somehow seen through it. Being religious, Dick guessed that we are all actually existing in the past, and that someone has created time to distract us from the fact that God is imminent.

Linklater then recounts a life-changing dream of his own, in which he meets Lady Gregory, the patron of Irish poet William Butler Yeats. She tells him that Dick was right about time being an illusion, but wrong that we are existing in the past. Instead, there is only "this instant." In this instant, God extends an invitation to us, an invitation to join him. Time is created by us postponing the invitation, saying "No, thank you; no, thank you." Lady Gregory concludes, "Life is the journey from the no to the yes." Then Linklater realizes that everyone in his dream is dead, and that he's actually visiting the land of the dead.

At the end of their conversation, the protagonist asks Linklater how you wake up--how you really wake up. "It's easy," says Linklater. "Just…wake up!"

34. The protagonist awakens in bed. Outside, he walks down the street on a beautiful fall day. Soon he begins to float again, his hand resting for a moment on the door handle of a car, just like the boy in the beginning of the movie.

Continue to Part III
Jump to Part IV

Analysis and commentary © January 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Fox and its related entities. All Rights Reserved.

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